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Only through dialogue

VISIT: I had the privilege of meeting Akbar Khan Bugti, the slain Baloch leader, after the birth of Bangladesh and before the Shimla conference. My main purpose of visit to Pakistan was to interview Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, then the country's President.

I flew from Islamabad to Quetta at the request of Ghous Bux Bazenjo, then a prominent Baloch leader, to meet Bugti at tea. He had so much to say that the tea appointment stretched to coffee after dinner. I was with him for nearly five hours.

What he said then - I have consulted my notes - was not substantively different from what was his current demand for autonomy. The only difference is that then he repeatedly gave me the example of Bangladesh.

Some provinces, he said, could go the same way if Islamabad did not realise that they had their own identity and aspirations which could not be suppressed either by using force or invoking the name of Islam. He wanted more powers and more royalty for the natural gas in Balochistan. But he never used the word "separation."

Bugti said that India should learn a lesson from Pakistan and analyse why Bangladesh became an independent country. Unless New Delhi gave full autonomy to the states, he said, it might endanger its integrity. He suggested that the centre should have only foreign affairs, defence and communications and transfer all other subjects to the states.

I found Bugti a proud Pakistani and at the same time a proud Balochi.

There was no contradiction between the two. He was a less hardliner than Khan Bux Marri and Abdullah Mengel. I was sorry to read words like "miscreant" used by some Pakistani newspapers for Bugti. But then we in the subcontinent use the worst type of language for our opponents. "Miscreant" is comparatively mild.

Bugti expected India to be generous in the post-Bangladesh agreement. He criticised Bhutto for not letting others have their say. When I told Bhutto what Bugti had said, his remark was: "Bugti could have no complaint because he talked to you for nearly five hours, mostly against me, and all that is on tape."

I believe the misgivings expressed by Bugti and some others made Bhutto incorporate the concept of provincial autonomy in Pakistan's 1973 constitution.

However, the late Wali Khan of the NWFP told me a few years ago that Bhutto did not implement the undertakings he gave. In this respect, the record of New Delhi is also not too happy.

It is yet to implement the main recommendations of the Sarkaria Commission on centre-state relations.

The centre has, in fact, become stronger after the recent Supreme Court judgment that the Rajya Sabha (council of states) does not have to have a member residing in the state whose assembly elects him.Coming back to Bugti's killing, Islamabad has not handled the situation properly. Which of Pakistan's neighbouring country is not facing an insurgency?

India has been in the midst of military operation in the northeast for several decades. It too has tried to sort out political questions with the military action but has failed miserably. After burning its fingers, New Delhi has initiated talks with the ULFA in Assam.

It has been negotiating with the Nagas for some years now. Unlike Bugti's Jamhoori Watan party which wants autonomy within Pakistan, the demand of ULFA and the Nagas is for an independent state.

Take Sri Lanka. It has been facing the LTTE's rebellion for many years. Despite the military action against the LTTE, Colombo has approached New Delhi to put pressure on the LTTE to return to the negotiating table.

Nepal, even after suffering at the hands of the monarch, is divided over continuing monarchy and converting the country into a republic. Talks are going on.

Pakistan itself did not reject the option for talks with Sheikh Mujib-ur Rahman, father of Bangladesh. Islamabad held parleys with him for months and even when he was arrested before the military operation he was imprisoned, not killed. (General Yahya Khan, then the martial law administrator, sentenced the Sheikh to death but Bhutto, who took over the reins from Yahya Khan, did not allow the sentence to be carried out.) The common factor in all the situations is a dialogue.

Why was Bugti refused talks when he pleaded that Islamabad could converse with the Al-Qaida but not with him? Former Pakistan chief justice Sujjat Ali Shah warned the rulers of Pakistan a few days before the killing of Bugti that the situation in Balochistan was "getting out of hand and needs a political, not a military solution."

Maybe, a military-led government hates a dialogue with its dissidents. It is afraid of sliding into a situation where the give-and-take becomes necessary and a political solution inevitable.

Islamabad must realise that about five million people of Baloch ethnic origin are located at three places, primarily in Balochistan in southwestern Pakistan, and in southeastern Iran and in the southern tip of Afghanistan.

They are generally too disturbed at present. Whether sardari system which Bugti was following is anachronistic is not the point at issue.

If feudalism and landlordism can stay as an integral part of the Pakistan society, so can the sardari system. The country's first priority should be how to return to democracy. The abolition of sardari system and feudalism can follow. Still, most important is Pakistan's unity and integrity.

This cannot be protected by guns, something which has to be driven home in all the countries in South Asia. They have to realise that force does not solve any problem. There is no option to a dialogue or "an argument" as Nobel laureate Amartiya Sen puts in his book, The Argumentative India.

The adverse fallout of happenings in Balochistan is the heightening of rhetoric between Delhi and Islamabad. I cannot understand how the sophisticated foreign office on both sides can use the type of language they are doing to express their indignation.

This is an expression of frustration in reaching nowhere during the unending talks.

True, it is none of India's business to interfere in the internal matters of Pakistan. Still the outrage against human rights violations cannot be confined to the borders of the country which commits them. In this case, it is the killing of a leader who was known even during the freedom struggle against the British.

Indian foreign office's statement condemning Bugti's killing is in order. But I have not been able to understand what point it was trying to score by making Balochistan and Pakistan as two separate entities.

Both Delhi and Islamabad can abuse each other to their hearts' content as long as they allow people on both sides to meet freely. If ever the two countries bury the hatchet, it would be through people-to-people contact.

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