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Poll fever missing in Baluchistan

BHAWALPUR: Imran Khan's 'Naya Pakistan' resonated in many parts of the country though not in the unhappy province of Baluchistan, where firing, rockets and intimidation kept people away from the polling stations.

Until Friday, the fact that Baluchistan's nationalist parties had chosen to compete in the elections was seen as a breakthrough in the tensions between the centre and the province. Nationalists had decided to boycott elections in 2008 and their participation was seen as an effort to resolve the long-standing Baluchistan dispute.

"The most positive thing," said Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch, "is that Baluchistan's national parties have decided to take part in the elections for a share in governance."

On Saturday that fact didn't matter. With Baluchistan Nationalist Party leaders held hostage by threats, attacks and intimidation, it was the voice of the younger generation of politicized Baluch students that established its voice.

In Turbat, the Baloch National Front, an alliance of eight parties that are against participation in the parliamentary process, organized a successful strike.

On a 'Baloch Liberation' Facebook page, an announcement popped up an hour before polling stations closed.

"Congratulations to the Baloch people," it said. "GEO News has just announced that voter turnout from all across Balochistan was just 3%!"

Another poster announced, "Why am I a slave on my own lands? Vote or Love Baluchistan. Death is better than servitude."

Baluchistan is Pakistan's largest province, absorbing almost 45% of the country's landmass. Home to an estimated 10 million people, it is a desert region rich in gas and minerals that has been discriminated against since the country was born in 1947. While officials and tribal leaders have become rich through royalties earned from the resources, development has not reached the people.

For decades now a separatist movement has been underway attacking schools, teachers and government officials seen as instruments of the state.

Baloch people have legitimate grouses. A constructive relationship never emerged between the state and its people. Visitors to Baluchistan are surprised how poor and underdeveloped it is, despite being Pakistan's gas reservoir feeding the country since the 1950s.

Baluchistan has a mixed ethnic composition with most of the urban centres being Pushtun cities. Baloch only make up 50% of the population with Punjabi and Urdu speaking people from other parts of the country having made Quetta their home post the 1930 earthquake.

Given this diversity, even if people went to the polls, the Baloch nationalists would only have won 5 out of 14 seats allotted to Baluchistan in the National Assembly based on the province's population.

The main problem here is the level of state-based atrocities committed against those who have spoken against Pakistan. Rights groups and the people blame the country's security agencies for leading death squads to weed out their activists. Some 300 people have been abducted, killed or gone missing since 2010, and despite a Supreme Court order to investigate their disappearances, no developments have been made.

The military says it has no special involvement in Baluchistan. No one believes that.