By releasing Sardar Akhtar Mengal, the former chief minister of Balochistan and head of his own faction of Balochistan National Party (BNP), the government has taken an important step towards reconciliation in Balochistan. Sardar Mengal and his bodyguards were arrested on flimsy grounds by the previous regime. He was charged with sedition and was being tried by an Anti-Terrorist Court (ATC). The federal government has withdrawn all cases against him and set him free. Mengal's release took place within a fortnight of the decision by the co-chairperson of Pakistan People's Party (PPP), Senator Asif Ali Zardari to set-up a committee to convene an All Parties Conference (APC) on Balochistan for addressing the grievances of the people of the province and bringing them into the national mainstream. Earlier the government met a longstanding demand of the people of Balochistan by replacing the personnel of Frontier Corps (FC) with the police to manage checkposts in Quetta and Gwadar. In order to provide substance to the form of the reconciliation process, the government has also set-up two sub-committees and tasked them with tracing the missing persons and suggesting concrete measures for expanding the parameters of provincial autonomy. The fact that Zardari himself heads the committee on Balochistan and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has taken immediate step issuing directions on tracing the missing persons shows the seriousness and sincerity of the government to resolve the problems relating to Balochistan. This sharply contrasts with the earlier moves initiated by the previous government for addressing the grievances of the people of the province that failed to bear any fruit. A bi-partisan parliamentary committee was set-up on the suggestion of the then prime minister, Ch Shujaat Hussain, in September 2004. The parliamentary committee formed two sub-committees, one headed by Senator Mushahid Hussain, and the other by Senator Wasim Sajjad tasked with suggesting measures to address the grievances of the people of the province and preparing a constitutional reform package on re-fixing parameters of provincial autonomy, respectively. But only the sub-committee headed by Syed was able to finalise its recommendations, which numbered about 35.The government claimed that it had implemented 30 of them. The representatives of the nationalist parties, however, stated that most of the recommendations were related to only trifles while the real issues were ignored. Since work on the implementation of the recommendations was very slow, the nationalists announced the boycott of the proceedings of the committee and accused the government of adopting a non-serious attitude. The last caretaker provincial government of Sardar Mohammad Saleh Bhootani had also made an attempt at reconciliation and had expressed a desire to hold talks with "recognised" tribal and political leaders of the province" for the removal of the grievances of the Baloch people." The trouble with that effort like many other previous efforts was that although all of them recognised that the people of Balochistan had legitimate problems, none of them led to concrete steps for removing the grievances of the Baloch people. Sardar Bhootani expressed inability to release Mengal and Shujaat complained of "invisible" hands that restrained him from going ahead to resolve the issue between the government and the slain Baloch leader Akbar Bugti. It has now become clear beyond any shadow of doubt that unless the government addresses real issues involved in the Balochistan conflict neither dialogue with the militants can take place nor peace in the province would be restored. The major issues identified by the nationalist parties are an end to the military operation, the release of all political activists arrested during the operation in Dera Bugti and Kohlu area, especially the recovery of hundreds of missing persons, the halt on the works of constructing new cantonments in the province, the acceptance of the right of ownership over natural resources, the handing over of Gwadar port to the provincial government and a participatory approach to the development projects, including mega projects. Although the government denied that any military operation was going on in Balochistan, there were reports of many a bloody clash between the security forces and the armed tribesmen whom the government called miscreants. There were not only casualties on both sides, the use of heavy weapons including artillery and helicopter gun ships has led to the migration of a large number of people from the conflict zones. The Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) are mostly women and children, who are faced with serious problems of malnutrition, shelter and health. The government has repeatedly claimed that the law and order and security situation has considerably improved in the province, but the blowing of gas pipelines, explosion of rail tracks and armed attacks on security forces have continued to take place in different parts of the province. The intensity of conflict in Balochistan may have become low, the fact remains that the situation in the province is far from normal. The assassination of Nawab Akbar Bugti and Sardar Balach Marri have further fuelled the resentment among the Baloch people and it is now widely acknowledged that they, particularly the youth have developed a deep sense of alienation because of what they allege repressive policies of the government. One manifestation of this alienation was the decision by the mainstream nationalist parties of the province, both Baloch and Pushtun, not to participate in the February 18 parliamentary elections. The most deplorable aspect of the policy of the previous government was that where as it was prepared to strike peace deals with Taliban in South Waziristan, release their compatriots from jail, pay them heavy amounts as compensation for the loss of life and property during military operations and even return their weapons, it was not ready to hold talks with Baloch nationalists and take certain confidence building measures by releasing political activists and paying compensation to the people affected by indiscriminate firing. As a result, various parts of the province continues to be rocked with explosions, bomb blasts, damaging vital national installations and causing loss of life and property. This makes all the more important to initiate and push forward the process of reconciliation in the province to establish pace and bring into the mainstream of national politics those elements who have picked up the gun for defending their rights. It is heartening to note that PPP, which emerged as the single largest seat holder in National Assembly was quick to respond to this urgent national imperative. In less than a week after the elections the PPP Parliamentary Party Balochistan in a meeting chaired by Zardari in Islamabad on February 24 passed a resolution tendering apology to the people of Balochistan for the excesses and atrocities committed against the people of Balochistan during seventies. The resolution also pledged to stop military operation immediately and free all political prisoners, including Sardar Akhtar Mengal. In the resolution the PPP also promised that the decision of the previous government to replace levies with the police force in the province would be reversed. The resolution also said that the PPP would give maximum provincial autonomy to the province within the framework of the 1973 constitution. The formation of parliamentary committee to work for the removal of the grievances of the Baloch people, the establishment of the contacts with the nationalist parties, move for the recovery of the missing persons and the release of Sardar Akhtar Mengal are, therefore, a part of those pledges aimed at reconciliation in Balochistan. This reconciliation effort has better prospects of achieving success in view of the following three factors, which were absent in the case of previous efforts: Firstly, the initiative has come from a democratically elected and genuinely representative coalition government, which has adopted a consensus approach as a principal line of its national policy. Secondly, the provincial government has been taken on board and it is fully supportive of initiative launched by the federal government. Thirdly, the government has taken much needed confidence building measures, like the release of Sardar Mengal and withdrawal of FC personnel from check posts in Quetta and Gwadar. But much more is needed to be done to reduce the trust deficit between the government and the people of Balochistan. Mere replacement of FC personnel with police in the two cities of Quetta and Gwadar is not enough. There are reportedly 586 check posts set-up in whole of Balochistan manned by about 3000 personnel. The problem is that out of them only 300 are local people. The problem of Balochistan would not be resolved unless the 1973 constitution is restored and amended to expand the limited scope of provincial autonomy.