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Balochistan - Blacked Out

By Priya Ravichandran

A province bracketed by natural and man made disasters is being slowly erased off the map by Pakistan
- Reuters

Balochistan in the South west region of Pakistan, has been at the center of one the worst humanitarian crisis of the decade. This province, the largest in Pakistan has seen a string of natural and manmade disasters which has kept it at a continuous state of national emergency for the past decade. There has been a deafening silence in the media – both Indian and international. This is especially horrific given the barbaric treatment that is being meted out to the Baloch people. Balochistan lying at the border of Iran, Afghanistan and the Arabian Sea is of immense strategic importance to the Indian subcontinent. (China, incidentally, has been handed over the strategic Gwadar port by Pakistan, without the acquiescence of the Baloch people). India needs to push for a resolution of the crisis not just to avoid a destabilised Pakistan on its border, but also to check the increasing inhumane treatment and the genocide that seeks to wipe out an entire population.

In late September and early October three massive earthquakes shook Balochistan and destroyed close to 90% of homes in parts of the province killing more than 400 people and upwards of 300,000 people in over six districts were affected. The earthquake, coming on the back of a devastating flood that left 30,000 people homeless will add to the increase in the number of Internally Displaced People (IDPs) already at around 200,000 and add to the woes of a people trapped in a cycle of extreme poverty, hunger, unemployment, malnourishment and state sponsored violence.

Despite inadequate hospitals, few doctors, inhospitable terrain and lack of proper facilities in most of the villages, the Government of Pakistan has refused all international aid to this region. All efforts by the provincial government, UN agencies, Doctors without borders and a few Baloch nationalist parties to call for a neutral aid agency to step in has been met with a stoic silence by the center. By insisting that Pakistan's National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA) and the army handle all relief operations, the Sharif government continues to isolate and prolong the crises within the province. 84 doctors have gone on strike this past fortnight protesting the kidnapping of 26 doctors and the murder of 18. They have called for more protection and better resources. This media and aid blackout stands in stark contrast with the almost $5.9 billion in International aid that Pakistan received after the 2005 Earth Quake in Kashmir. Disallowing aid and turning away the organizations offering aid to its poorest province will only work in exasperating the horrific conditions imposed upon these people by man and nature. For a province struggling under decades of brutal discrimination, the response to the earthquake has become just another sign of how much control the establishment seeks to have over the Baloch people.

The history of Balochistan has been peppered with unimaginable violence and depravation by the federal government since the birth of Pakistan. The resource rich province, one of the largest in the country has been starved of its riches and subjected to violent crackdowns by the army and religious militant groups alike. The people have been at the receiving end of Islamization movements and a genocide that seeks to eradicate the Shiite population. The federal government in Pakistan under various prime ministers, have repeatedly pushed across a narrative of conciliation in public while approving the use of excessive force to crack down on separatist movements and have blindly supported the perpetuation of atrocities that fly in the face of every humanitarian law. More than 18,000 Balochs have gone missing these past decade and more have turned up tortured, maimed, and killed around the province. The International Voice for Baloch Missing People (IVBMP) has been protesting for the past 1300 days in various cities in Pakistan. Repeated directives by the Supreme Court to file criminal charges against law enforcement officials continue to be ignored.

For all its riches, Balochistan repeatedly falls in worst of Human Development Index categories and at the bottom in surveys done on malnourishment, infant deaths, education, and poverty. The abysmal level of development and unemployment has been exacerbated by repeated natural disasters over the last few years. The election of Abdul Baloch earlier this year held out some hope, but lead nowhere. His close relationship with the centre and his inability to form a cohesive government until recently has not helped his reputation in the province.

The rise in separatist movements within Balochistan calling for autonomy or Independence has taken a violent streak these past few months. The government has responded by increasing the police power in the state and giving the army more power to quell the decade long unrest. The Frontier Corps (FC) with more arms and equipment continue to have the full support of the federal government to crackdown on separatist movements within the province. That this support has resulted in widespread abductions, kill and dump policies, torture, religious persecution, extra judicial killings and recently a selective delivery of aid to victims has been whitewashed. Reports have also suggested that the army uses aid as a blackmail to get information out of the earthquake victims.

Repeated narratives have sought to bunch the separatists fighting for Independence with the Taliban who are intent on creating an Islamic State. The result is an increasing animosity directed against the Balochs by the rest of the country and a deep distrust of the government, the army and the rest of country by the Balochs. The federal government and the military establishment have succeeded in blacking out any kind of news from the province, so much so that even Pakistanis are unaware of the extent of humanitarian crises there. Any news is met by a string of defensive stance and retaliatory news that seeks to assign blame for the crisis in the province.

To have a crisis of this magnitude in its backyard and to not do anything about it is unpardonable. India needs to raise its voice against the genocide and the appalling treatment of the victims. This willful ignorance in the face of a genocide does not do justice to the values India uphold. India needs to raise the issue in international forums over and again. The US has recently approved another $1.6b in aid to Pakistan. India needs to push the US, EU to direct the some portion of the aid to Balochistan directly and to hold Pakistan accountable improving the lives and livelihoods of those affected by the earthquake. The World Bank and the IMF have to be pushed to pay heed to human rights issues within countries while giving aid. Pakistan, excluding Balochistan benefits tremendously from various international aids and there has to be some degree of liability for the money received. Indian media can do a whole lot by talking more and bringing more attention to Balochistan. To have a genocide in its backyard and to not pay attention to it would be unconscionable

Global attention is turning towards the many natural disasters in Asia in the past couple of months. With attention will come relief and perhaps a hope that the human rights violations will be recognized and raised in the international forums. Balochistan might have a chance for peace. The sooner it happens the better it is for the people with no food, medical help or shelter. With winter fast approaching help and hope are both much needed and needed soon.

(Priya Ravichandran is the programme manager for Takshashila's Graduate Certificate course and blogs on Identity and Equality issues)