The return of former Chief Minister of Balochistan and head of the Balochistan National Party (BNP), Sardar Akhtar Mengal, to Pakistan after ending his self-exile and his decision to participate in the ensuing elections is a significant and welcome development that might prove a harbinger to the much-needed reconciliation in the troubled province. Equally encouraging and appreciable is his call to the Baloch insurgents to come down from the mountains and the observation that problems cannot be resolved with guns.

Mengal is absolutely right: political issues can only be resolved through political channels and processes that ensure uninhibited participation of all stakeholders in the efforts designed to bring about reconciliation. Guns are killing machines without brains and thus cannot comprehend the pain they inflict; besides, the scars of hatred that they etch on the hearts of the people. He is, indeed, better equipped to understand the currents and crosscurrents that have shaped the flow of events in the province and the emerging realities.

There is no doubt about the fact that Balochistan has been subjected to a step-motherly treatment by successive regimes. Military interventions have further aggravated the situation by depriving the political parties in the province to manage its affairs through their representatives. It is true that conditions can only be improved by ensuring their participation in mainstream politics.

One example of the injudicious treatment to Balochistan is the non-payment of gas development surcharge by the federal government to it from 1954 to 1991 amounting to Rs 120 billion. Denying the Balochis to join in the exploitation of their natural resources and manage mega projects initiated in the province is another injustice of monstrous proportions. Add to this is Islamabad’s apathy in providing to the Baloch youth jobs in the federal government in accordance with the determined quota. The interim government, however, has now done well to order the filling of more than 3,000 posts of Balochistan’s quota lying vacant.

To be honest, the outgoing PPP-led coalition government and the army had taken some good initiatives in the province during the last five years. It announced a package that was a mix of political, administrative and developmental initiatives.

In response to the demands of Baloch leaders, it agreed to halt the building of military cantonments; withdrawing the army and Frontier Corps; freeing detained activists; holding probes into political murders; more control of Balochistan over its resources; creation of jobs for the youth; increased share in the Saindak Project and transfer of its ownership to the province; initiation of future mega projects in consultation with the provincial government; allowing ownership in oil and gas companies and, above all, the decision to pay the arrears of gas development surcharge from 1954 to 1991over a period of 12 years.

About 5,000 youth were provided jobs by the federal government. An IT and Business Management University is expected to be set up in Quetta at a cost of Rs 46 million with campuses at Zhob, Kalat, Nushki, Pishin, Qilla Abdullah and Gwadar districts. Balochistan has also greatly benefited from the provincial autonomy granted to it under the 18th Amendment. In the 7th NFC Award, its share has been increased from 5.1 percent to 9.09 percent.

The army too has recruited 5,000 Baloch youth in its ranks. The educational institutions established by it are imparting education to more than 4,000 students.

Needless to say, the rejection of these measures by some nationalist elements and estranged Baloch leaders is quite understandable. It is a reaction characterised by frustration and anger nourished by a blazing trail of betrayals and injustices of the past. The decades old mistrust cannot be wiped out within days. Truly, there is a dire need of political reconciliation in the province. So the 2013 elections provide an excellent opportunity to the Baloch nationalist leaders to assume the stewardship of the province, have their grievances redressed and work for its future development and prosperity. They must grab this chance by showing political maturity and acumen.

Mengal has expressed some apprehensions about the holding of free and fair elections. Going by the past experience, the expression of such reservations cannot be dismissed. But there are encouraging signs that elections this time will be held sans the usual forces playing their hand. The Supreme Court has repeatedly reiterated its resolve to ensure impartial polls in the country. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and the interim governments as well seem determined to change the course of history.

The Mengals have a pivotal position in the political landscape of the province and Akhtar Mengal can certainly persuade the militants to give up weapons and join the reconciliation process. That is the only way they can have their grievances redressed and the sense of deprivation can be dissipated.

Balochistan needs peace and amity among all sections of the population; the Punjabi settlers, Hazaras, Pashtuns and members of other communities that have been living there for decades. Their target killing deserve to be condemned in strong terms. It must stop forthwith if the process of reconciliation is to succeed. One would have welcomed if Mengal had condemned the murder of settlers at the hands of Baloch insurgents, when he was castigating the agencies for being responsible for the disappearance and assassination of Baloch activists.

To make a new beginning, bitterness of the past and the blood-letting that has gone on for years will have to be stopped. The future of Balochistan in particular and Pakistan in general is inextricably linked to each other; those thinking otherwise must revisit their skewed notions.

 The writer is a freelance columnist.    Email: