June issue 2009

By | News & Politics | Published 15 years ago

If there is one thing common between the military dispensation and the present civilian democracy, it is that both started on the right track in Balochistan.

Soon after taking over, General Musharraf promised to alleviate the growing sense of deprivation among the smaller provinces and he even offered an apology to the people of Balochistan for “past mistakes.” Similarly, President Asif Ali Zardari started off with a public apology to Balochistan and promised to reverse the wrongs of the past, adding that his Baloch roots would reinforce his commitment to that goal. But today, the situation in Balochistan is worse than before and the Baloch insurgency is a throwback to their armed struggle in the 1970s, during Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s tenure.

These recurring problems, during different governments, point to a deep-seated mindset which is a major impediment to granting the Baloch their legitimate rights under the 1973 Constitution as equal partners of the federation. The widening credibility gap between Quetta and Islamabad has spawned cynicism and pessimism among the Baloch leadership, who seem to be losing hope in Islamabad’s capacity to deliver on their promises.

The track record of the federal government in dealing with Balochistan is truly abysmal, irrespective of whether the ruler was in khaki or in mufti. There is a long trail of missed opportunities, broken promises and outright deception in dealing with a proud people who rightly feel they have neither received the respect they deserve nor been treated with dignity by the central authorities, who have a propensity to use force to impose their diktat.

A cursory look at the official track record in this regard bears testimony to this painful reality.

In 1960, Sardar Mir Nouroz Khan was duped into giving up his arms and surrendering to the government on the promise of amnesty. When he did that, he was promptly tried and sentenced to death (which was not carried out due to his old age), but his son and six other comrades were hanged.

In 1973, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto promised provincial autonomy in return for support for a constitution by consensus, but after he got the Baloch leaders’ assent to the 1973 Constitution, the opposition government of Sardar Ataullah Mengal in Balochistan was dismissed and military action followed a move that eventually unravelled the Bhutto government.

In 2000, negotiations began with Harbiyar Marri in London through his relatives who were close to the military government. He reluctantly agreed to engage in a dialogue provided the government fulfilled his demands, which were initially discussed but later dismissed.

In 2001, a special emissary of General Musharraf went to see Nawab Akbar Bugti in Dera Bugti with an invitation to the Nawab to fly over for a meeting with General Musharraf in Islamabad, which he accepted. Even a plane was flown out from Islamabad to fetch Nawab Akbar Bugti. However, at the last minute, General Musharraf developed cold feet and he abruptly cancelled the meeting just minutes before Nawab Akbar Bugti was to step out from his house to take the plane to Islamabad.

In 2005, the first-ever Parliamentary Committee on Balochistan prepared a report, drafted with complete unanimity by three members from the then ruling party and three from the opposition comprising the MMA, Baloch nationalists and the Pashtun nationalists. But, again, despite repeated pleas, the report was put in cold storage and never fully implemented. Then American Ambassador Ryan Crocker told me: “Senator, had your report been implemented, the situation in Balochistan would have been restored to normalcy.”

It is thus not surprising that when I went to see Nawab Akbar Bugti in his isolated retreat in Dera Bugti in October 2004, he was quite cynical about any initiative from Islamabad and suspicious about the federal government’s motive regarding  Balochistan. He said to me jokingly, “Why have you come to us when your government considers us traitors?” I retorted with a straight face, “Sir, you have been declared a patriot till further orders!” And he simply burst out laughing. Then, he made me read a rather interesting speech of a Native American chief before the American president during their meeting at the White House in 1854, where the chief complained to the American president of shabby treatment by the white men against the indigenous population of North America. Nawab Akbar Bugti was drawing an analogy between the treatment meted out to the indigenous population of North America and Islamabad’s handling of the Balochistan issue. When, in March 2005, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and I set out to negotiate with Nawab Akbar Bugti, there was a complete deadlock between him and the government, particularly the military. Clashes between the Bugti tribesmen and the Frontier Corps (FC) para-military forces had resulted in a heavy loss of lives to the Bugti tribe and Nawab Bugti was certainly in no mood to meet any government representative, let alone negotiate deals. The road from the Sui gas field to Dera Bugti was closed off; there were armed pickets facing each other, eyeball to eyeball, and both sides were just waiting for the first opportunity to pounce on each other. But three things made Nawab Bugti amenable to compromise.

First, in our maiden meeting, we chose not to discuss any details regarding contentious issues and simply told Nawab Bugti that we had come to express our condolences over the loss of lives that his people had suffered and to express our sorrow and regret. And when at the end of the meeting in our talk to the press, we condemned the killings and condoled with him publicly, he seemed pleasantly surprised.

During our second meeting, we were having lunch with him when he got word that an army convoy was moving on the Sui road to Dera Bugti and he told us that if the army continued moving forward, he would order his men to fire and it would turn into a full-fledged fight.

We immediately called the FC inspector general (who was away for a meeting in GHQ). We got through to the second-in-command, Brigadier Salim Nawaz, who is currently IG of the FC. He immediately understood the implications of a military move. We urged him to move back his troops and he duly ordered his troops to withdraw. Nawab Akbar Bugti seemed surprised that a senior military man could acquiesce to a politician’s request, at his behest.

What followed was a first in Pakistan’s political history when negotiations were conducted indirectly between a private army and the Pakistan Army. The issue of clearing the road, removal of pickets from either side and the establishment of a military cantonment in Dera Bugti were all sorted out without firing a single shot. During the negotiations, on one occasion, his son Jamil Bugti was present but clearly, his most trusted and close companion was his favourite grandson, Brahamdagh Bugti, exuding a handsome, quiet and dignified persona. The key was gaining the trust and confidence of Nawab Akbar Bugti. For instance, the deal rested on one sticking point, namely a picket which was to the north of Nawab Bugti’s house in Dera Bugti, and which directly overlooked his private compound. This picket could be used to hit at his home. Nawab Bugti insisted that unless and until it was removed, he would not budge.

A local military commander, a major general, was extremely upset and told us, “This picket will be removed only over my dead body and if you try to remove this picket, I will resign.” We had no option but to take the case to General Musharraf directly, since only he had the authority to overrule his generals.

Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, myself, Mr Tariq Aziz and General Hamid Javed had a meeting with the president where I was asked to give a presentation. I explained to the president the outlines of this proposed deal and the impediments that had been put by the military. “Mushahid, how can we trust Bugti since we are not sure of his intentions?” General Musharraf asked me. My reply was, “It is not a question of intentions or trust; after all, you are negotiating with the Indians, although you do not trust them. The issue is, what is in the interest of the federation.” I said that this rigid stance on one picket, as if it is a make-or-break issue, reminds me of Sheikh Mujib’s case in East Pakistan, when five points had already been accepted but one was used as a sticking point to destroy the entire dialogue. We got the point across and General Musharraf agreed with us, overruled his generals and ordered the picket to be removed immediately.

We explained to Nawab Akbar Bugti that there were two core interests on both sides and that both these interests needed to be protected. On the one hand, there were the core interests of the state to protect the natural gas assets at Sui to ensure its production and distribution. On the other hand, there was the core interest to preserve and protect the interests of Nawab Akbar Bugti in his own domain (preserving his fiefdom was his paramount concern), which included his personal security and the security of his property and his tribe. I added that both should be treated with equal importance and we should try to reach an understanding based on attaining both these goals concurrently.

He agreed, even nominating me as his representative on a three-member committee comprising the military, the civilian government and Nawab Akbar Bugti. By May 2005, we had worked out a peaceful settlement that provided respite for both the military and Nawab Akbar Bugti, as well as obtained his concurrence for building a cantonment in Sui. However, the hawks in the establishment, having ‘lost’ the first round, were waiting to strike back — which they did a year later with the operation against Nawab Bugti that eventually ended his life in August 2006.

However, here is where the problem really comes in. There is a mindset in both the civil and military establishment in Pakistan which is unwilling and unable to concede the legitimate demands of Balochistan. It is this mindset that egged on successive rulers like Bhutto and Musharraf to commit monumental mistakes in Balochistan, including the tragic killing of the sons of Sardar Ataullah Mengal in 1975 and Nawab Akbar Bugti in 2006.

That mindset is not only colonial, callous and bureaucratic, but it is also outmoded, refusing to reason with those who dare to challenge the status quo.

What Balochistan needs today, above all, is a healing touch and a serious effort to bid goodbye to the old mindset that has resulted in such tragic suffering to the people of Balochistan over the past decades. Take the example of neighboring India and its handling of contentious issues like provincial autonomy. In 1964, the DMK emerged as a secessionist party in Madras, determined to seek a separate Tamil state. Instead of using force, the Indian state allowed the DMK to participate as a democratic force and as a consequence, 40 years later, it is part of the ruling coalition.

Has the Rubicon been crossed in Balochistan? Not yet, although there is a strong sense of alienation among the youth, intelligentsia and the political activists. The government is talking of an All-Parties Conference (APC), but before it organises such an APC on Balochistan, as a prerequisite, the government must take five measures which can be termed as a sort of pre-APC confidence-building measures (CBMs) to allay the grievances of the Baloch. These include:

  • Withdrawal of all politically-motivated cases against political workers, activists and critics in Balochistan;
  • Release of political prisoners as well as full accounting for the missing persons;
  • General amnesty for all Baloch who have taken up arms or who have sought refuge or exile, whether they are in Kabul, Dubai, London or anywhere outside Pakistan;
  • Immediate implementation of the report of the Parliamentary Committee on Balochistan in letter and spirit;

Announcing implementation of all provisions pertaining to provincial autonomy enshrined in the 1973 Constitution, particularly natural resources, plus special laws ensuring that Gwadar’s demography cannot be altered.

There is a yawning chasm between the regime’s rhetoric and the ground reality in Balochistan, and unless and until that gap is quickly bridged, the prospects for a prosperous, peaceful and stable Balochistan will remain bleak.