January Issue 2007

By | News & Politics | Published 17 years ago

Balochistan today is a good example of a number of things. It is a good example of the consequences of gnawing gaps in a cooperative federalism and of what happens when issues such as underdevelopment and seething frustration over a dire poverty of opportunities are not addressed and they snowball.

Balochistan is also a good example of the adverse consequences of using superficial measures, like entering into deals with political tribal leaders, giving them a share of the power pie and then, when they become troublesome, disposing of them and consequently turning them into heroes.

It is a good example of a non-functioning federation with very little political autonomy. Balochistan is also a good example of the dangerous consequences of easy access to weapons and land mines. The going rate for landmines in Balochistan ranges from 400 rupees to 1,800 rupees, courtesy the Afghanistan situation.

Balochistan is also a good example of the consequences of intelligence agencies’ activities, ranging from the ‘disappearance’ of citizens without any charges being brought against them or trials, to making deals with criminal tribal leaders in Dera Bugti after the killing of Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti.

Balochistan is also an example of too little, too late. “The federal government is offering us clerical jobs while we want rights over our own resources, such as Gwadar and Saindak,” declares Dr. Ishaque Baloch, a member of the National Party.

It is an example of a failure of political communication à la Mushahid and Waseem Sajjad committee. After three campaigns for provincial autonomy, (this being the fourth), the people are now calling for a thorough reexamination of the situation. “When even the brothers of parliamentarians like Senator Sanaullah Baloch are labeled as having “disappeared” for so many months, Sanaullah has been compelled to leave the country, Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti has been killed, and countless Baloch are missing, is there any room left for political dialogue? I recently joined the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) and I am proud of it,” says a young man on condition of anonymity.

Just in the city of Quetta, there are serious questions to grapple with. There exists a sense of artificial calm in the city. Quetta is normal on the surface. Shops are open. Traffic plies on the roads as usual. Men sit along the shops’ pavements on the main Jinnah Road in the evening as per routine. In short, life is moving on, at least in Quetta, which admittedly is not representative of the whole province, but certainly reflects a segment of it.

However, as talks with senior journalists revealed, the province is simmering. People are on edge, lines have been drawn and people have withdrawn to their respective ethnic corners. There are the Baloch who feel slighted, angry and hurt. Not every Baloch loved and admired Bugti. There were those who thought that he was actually part of the infamous establishment himself. There were those Baloch who thought that the Nawab was cruel and despotic. But none of that matters now. Loved him or hated him, for the Baloch, Bugti was one of their own. As one Baloch leader said, “If one of us had killed him, that would have been a separate story. The government had no right to do what it did.”

The Pathans are also concerned. Although there is no love lost between the Pushtoon leadership and the Baloch, the former feel that via Bugti’s killing, a message has been sent out by the government: “This is what will happen if you talk about provincial autonomy.”

balochistan-2-jan07And so, people are scared. As they go on with their daily life, they have the gnawing thought: ‘If this could happen to a man of the stature of Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, what will happen to me if I protest?’ This feeling has best been articulated in the report by National Party leader, Dr Abdul Hayee Baloch. Dr. Baloch is quoted as having said, “We have been devastated by the magnitude of the crime the government has committed. If this is what they could do to him, just imagine what they are doing to ordinary Baloch men, women and children every day.”

This thought particularly haunts the families of the more than 3,000 who have been ‘missing’ for several months. It’s frightening. It’s unsettling. It’s very real and the uncertainty is pervasive. No one knows where the people are, what crime they have committed and when they will be freed — if at all. This is what makes people angry. Almost daily, the relatives of the missing gather in front of the Quetta Press Club trying to keep their plight in focus through the media.

The Baloch and Pushtoons are both thinking about strategies they could adopt to deal with the situation, pondering over what their responses should be. However, the community that is presently bearing the brunt of the situation are the so called ‘settlers.’ These are overwhelmingly Punjabis, who migrated to Balochistan decades ago. They have married there, worked there, have businesses and have largely coexisted with their Pushtoon and Baloch neighbours peacefully.

However, lately they have systema-tically become the target of threatening notes, sent anonymously, asking them to leave the province. Lately, bombs have even been lobbed inside their houses. The local media, perhaps out of fear, or complicity, has taken to self-censorship, and seems to be consciously refraining from actively identifying such cases, even though they are increasingly on the rise. The fact is that the settlers are as much the sons of Balochistan as the Pushtoons and Baloch. They declare that their forefathers have been buried in the province, they have local linkages and such is their influence that both the Pushtoon and the Baloch leadership in Quetta count on their support to get elected. However, they are being targeted now that anti-Punjabi sentiment is high. The Pushtoons and Baloch demand that the settlers take out processions condemning the Bugti murder, whereas the settlers submit that they are not permitted to do so. Who does not permit them is a question no one wants to either openly ask, nor answer.

All this leads to a situation that requires careful handling. It is certainly not a situation that can be resolved through hastily called sarkari tribal jirgas, which are actually just a show of strength. In response to the Khan of Kalat’s jirga, for example, the government announced that it would call its own jirga either in Islamabad or Quetta. This tug of jirgas led one senior local analyst to remark, “Little known sardars who were not even acknowledged before are now being wined and dined by the government. These are good days for those small-timers who will be making hay while the sun shines.”

Amid all this making of hay, tragically, the Balochistan question is being further confused. As another analyst declared, “This is not a question of three or 73 sardars. It is a question of all the people of Balochistan, which includes Pushtoons, Baloch, Punjabis and Hazaras.”

However, as stated earlier, ethnic lines have been drawn. These lines are also being reinforced by the agencies, particularly between the Pushtoon-Baloch on one side, and ‘settlers’ on the other. People reported how ‘settlers’ are being called in and told that the power of the army is on their side, so they need not fear. The problem, as one settler remarked, is that, “We are being assured of our safety by a colonel who has been posted to Quetta for a maximum of three years. Three generations of our families have lived here and will continue to live here. We do not need their protection.”

balochistan-3-jan07The government, of course, contends that they have assured the settlers of their support and are trying to calm them down. But the settlers declare that this situation has been created by the government itself. One settler remarked, “Musharraf says that the writ of the government will be established. Yes, it has been — at the cost of the writ of the people.”

According to the International Crisis Group (ICG)’s recent report on Balochistan, “The Musharraf government is in a bind.” The report rightly captures the genuine public sentiment behind the struggle in Balochistan as a struggle for rights. It is a struggle for provincial autonomy. It is a struggle for control over local resources. These issues crop up in a number of federations, Pakistan being no exception. However, the question of provincial autonomy and that of resource-sharing and distribution no longer remain questions. They have become struggles. Struggles that claim lives. Struggles that are waged by various groups decade after decade. This is what needs to be taken seriously as it can have a spillover effect in the other provinces too. Thus, the ICG is correct in pointing out that presently the people of Balochistan feel that Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti was killed because he had raised his voice for Balochistan’s rights.

And so Bugti’s death is also significant because the manner in which he was killed has made him a symbol.

The government, of course, claims that there is no such public sentiment and some sardars are manipulating the situation at the cost to ordinary citizens. Conspiracy theories declaring that the nationalists are supported by the Iranians or the Indians have been articulated. The ICG report correctly points out that “even if India were conceivably cultivating Baloch dissidents, the extent of such support would likely be limited. After all, a Balochistan that spins out of control would not serve India’s interests. It would destabilise Afghanistan and undermine India’s prospect of gaining access to the energy resources of Iran and Central Asia through pipelines that would traverse Balochistan.”

In Pakistan’s history, whosoever has called out for provincial autonomy has been labelled anti-Pakistan. They have been labelled ‘communists,’ ‘RAW agents,’ etc, as these have become the most convenient labels to discredit someone. Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti’s death may have been another trigger for the Balochistan issue, but it never was, is, or will be about just one or two individuals. Balochistan’s call for rights within a functioning federation of Pakistan is a larger issue and one that plagues the mind of every inhabitant of that land.

It is not the first time that we are seeing an armed conflict raging in the province. In fact, it is the fourth time that this is happening. But we do see how democracy can provide space for a peaceful negotiation of rights. The three sardars, i.e. Bugti, Mengal and Marri, who formed Musharraf’s version of the “axis of evil” have all been part of the political process. The ICG report correctly draws our attention to the fact that, “Baloch politics, within the province and at the national level, focused on demands for regional autonomy — political, administrative, economic and social. Yet, differences with central governments led by Benazir Bhutto or Nawaz Sharif over issues such as royalties and employment did not degenerate into conflict in the 1990s, even after the Prime Ministers reneged on pledges of provincial autonomy and dissolved nationalist-led provincial governments. It was with the military rule’s return that ethnic competition and bargaining in Balochistan transformed into conflict.”

The Benazir and Nawaz regimes may have been riddled with many problems. However, all said and done, one has to admit that the political leaders of Balochistan opted to use political means to articulate their demands during their tenures. When the current military operation started, however, they were left with no choice. As one young activist quoted in the report declared, “When nobody wants to hear our voice, we’re forced to make them hear it through violence… the young have taken up arms. They are fighting for their rights. They think they can’t get them through a political struggle. These are not things that a good citizen says. But we are now tired. This is our last struggle.”

The ICG report presents some recommendations to the government, the National Assembly, the judiciary and the international community. The recommendations to the government essentially ask for a political solution rather than a military one, respecting democratic freedoms by immediately producing all detainees before the courts, releasing political prisoners, as well as ending the political role of intelligence agencies, military and civil,and barring them from detaining prisoners; withdrawing travel restrictions, internal and external, on Baloch opposition leaders and activists, and ending intimidation, torture, arbitrary arrests, disappearances and extra-judicial killings.

Balochistan is a province which is no stranger to arguments and differences with the centre. Students of political history will recall that armed struggles by the people against the centre have been waged in the past too. Provincial governments have been dismissed, some tribal chiefs have had to leave the province and live in self-exile in Afghanistan and London. Even during times of relative calm, there was always the grievance that Balochistan remained the neglected province. A visitor to the province often heard statements like, “We are the poor relation of the poorest country.” This, in spite of the fact that the province is rich in natural resources. However, according to the people of Balochistan, these resources are exploited for others’ benefit. Thus, this has been a continuing argument that one has heard.

Whether one speaks to a member of the BLA, nationalist parties’ leaders, the government, journalists or casts an eye at independent analysts reports like those of the International Crisis Group and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, one learns that no one is against development or peace. All of them are concerned about two things: firstly, the lack of involvement of locals in the process of development in a federation where provinces do not enjoy provincial autonomy, and the exploitation of local resources, the benefits of which do not reach the locals. This is the core grievance behind Gwadar, Saindak and other projects.

Whether it is the nationalists, the BLA or even just the man on the street, all are demanding a functioning federalism in this sixtieth year of Pakistan’s existence.