While the menacing spectre of militancy bedevils the entire country, the unfolding events in Balochistan reflect a hardening of the nationalist upsurge that may cast a defining spell on the future of the federation. Already there are reports emanating that the playing of the national anthem is now fraught with grave danger and slogans for an independent Balochistan are being freely raised throughout the province. In fact, those segments of the society that represent the ultra-nationalist movement in the province, and they seem to be in dominant numbers, make this a pre-requisite for the convening of any public function. The movement seems to be attracting converts in hordes as our leaders, like the proverbial ostrich, take to hiding their faces in the sand. In this backdrop, I was amazed to receive a string of e-mails dealing with the manner of the death of Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti. It was insinuated in the communications that the Nawab was not a victim of target killing. Instead, he fell prey to his own 'misfire'. In addition to it being a grave distortion of facts, it is patently cruel to delve into the manner of the elimination of Nawab Bugti more than three years after the tragedy. An effort to absolve General Musharraf's dictatorship from the responsibility of his death is like providing a dose of legitimacy to his illegal, immoral and unconstitutional rule stretching to almost nine years which witnessed the breakdown of all state institutions and a personalised manner of governance the likes of which are not found anywhere even in the most backward alleys of the world. What happened on the day Nawab Bugti was murdered by the henchmen of a dictator is of enormous significance in the context of the current tide of events in the province. The manner and utter brutality of the murder provided a graphic demonstration that the government was not willing to administer the healing touch to the grievances of a province. Instead, its perpetrators were determined to quell all opposition to its handling of the seething unrest by employing the oft tried and tested dictatorial methods that have failed whenever and wherever they have been used in the past. 'East Pakistan', now Bangladesh, is a glaring example of the graveyards that this horde of self-serving individuals is so distinctly qualified to digging. A few days ago, I was sitting with a group of people from Balochistan, some of them being the leading political lights who had contributed in no small measure to the Pakistan movement. According to them, at this point in time, there are three groups of people in the province: the nationalists, the ultra-nationalists and the federalists. Of the three, the last segment represents the fastest diminishing species while the ultra-nationalist group is the one that is growing at an alarming pace and seems to be taking over the nature and direction of the developments in the province. There seems no ambiguity in their perception of what they need to be doing in the immediate and distant future, the state of Pakistan having become inconsequential in their thought process. They look at Balochistan as an independent country and their movement in that direction is being aided and abetted on two counts. Principally, their impetus comes from the myopic, decadent and self-stuck policies of the government and the intelligence agencies that are not willing to look for a pragmatic and out-of-box solution to the upsurge that is gaining ground with every passing day. Secondly, the movement seems to have the backing of countries that may be inimical to Pakistan's interests. The second factor, in all probability, is an offshoot of the first one as, if succeeding governments had adopted credible policies in the province and had made an attempt to heal the lacerating wounds of its people, no outside provocation would have succeeded in mobilising them to fight for an independent Balochistan. It is only because of their repeatedly frustrated hopes that they have risen against the authority of the federal government and don't seem to be willing any longer to go for a negotiated settlement as all such efforts in the past have not addressed the gnawing gap that separates the federal government's perception from that of the people of the restive province. The recent sequence of killings and kidnappings, a sickening tool in the hands of those who lord over the fate of the province and the country, has further aggravated the crisis that now seems beyond the reckoning of a solution within the established contours of the federation of Pakistan. Is there still a way that the tide for independence could be arrested? Is there still hope that the leaders in Islamabad and Rawalpindi would grasp the immediacy of the crisis and get down to addressing it in haste and with sagacity and wisdom instead of going the way of repression and murder? Are there still people around in the corridors of power who would not like to see a repeat of 'East Pakistan' and, instead, would move in haste to address the genuine grievances of the people of the estranged province? Going by the tide of events, there seems little hope for this optimism as the province takes an irretrievable plunge into a domain where the writ of the state would be consigned to the barbed interiors of a gravely demented mindset that still thinks of using the tools of suppression to force the province along. Let it be known that we are well past the stage and the drift is picking up speed at a pace that our political leadership lacks the ability to fathom. A sensible option to slow the surge, even stall it in the long run, would be to engage the so-called 'separatists' (a self-serving term in any case) in a proactive effort and induct them into the domain of running the province, (hopefully) within the parameters of the constitution of the country. Together with that, their traditional grievances with regard to the denial of their basic rights should be addressed immediately to win their confidence, the kidnapped people should be released and no recourse to repressive and coercive measures should be contemplated to subdue the province. Army should be withdrawn forthwith and civilian rule established with no interference from the centre except in areas where such intervention is duly sanctioned by the constitution and the rule of law. It is no longer a case of arresting human 'bodies' and forcing them to do the bidding of the federation. It is a case of winning over hearts and minds of a people who have been repeatedly wronged over sixty one years of misrule. It is a case of dealing with a growing number of people who have lost hope and are teetering at the verge of falling prey to the dream of an independent Balochistan. Is there still time? The writer is an independent political analyst based in Islamabad E-mail: raoofhasan@hotmail.com