June issue 2009

By | News & Politics | Opinion | Published 15 years ago

The Baloch resistance to the unwarranted and unjust military operations — after the illegal and unfair dismissal of Sardar Ataullah Mengal’s government in February 1973, only 10 months after being sworn in — was the most protracted, pervasive and forceful struggle in the province’s history.

The Mengal government was sworn in on May 1, 1972, amid high hopes and expectations but from the first day encountered hurdles in its path. The federal government created upheaval in Lasbela by encouraging supporters of Jam Ghulam Qadir, the last ruler of the former state, to take up arms against the provincial government alleging persecution. The Mengal government had to raise a Levies force to quell the trouble as the federal government refused to send help. Jam Ghulam Qadir, the Jam of Lasbela, later became the chief minister following the dismissal of Mengal’s government.

At a public meeting in Lahore in 1973 ,Nawab Akbar Bugti claimed that a plan for a ‘Greater Balochistan’ had been hatched, which envisaged independence of Baloch majority areas in Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan through military means. The issue of sending Punjabi officers to serve in Balochistan also became a sore point, though later, it emerged that Ghulam Mustafa Khar, then governor of Punjab, had encouraged the officers to return. Iran, too, was insecure about the Baloch being granted minimal autonomy, fearing a resistance movement within its own borders.

The final straw in the charade was the discovery of arms (300 AK-47 rifles and 48,000 rounds) on February 10, 1973, at the residence of Nasir Al-Saud, the military attaché of the Iraqi Embassy in Islamabad. Apparently, the arms had been transported from Karachi to Islamabad. Interestingly, Al-Saud had disappeared from Pakistan three days before the weapons were found. Incidentally, the military attaché was found to be a Savak agent who was later killed by Saddam Hussein.

The Mengal government was dismissed on February 13 and in its wake, the Mufti Mahmood government in the NWFP also resigned in protest, as JUI members were part of the Mengal government. Nawab Akbar Bugti was made the governor and held office for nearly a year.

My paternal uncle, Mir Rasul Baksh Talpur, then governor of Sindh, also resigned because his elder brother Mir Ali Ahmed Talpur, my father, was accused of involvement in the Iraq Embassy arms affair. He was accused because by now it was known that I was in the Marri area. This information was disclosed to the press, thanks to Akbar Bugti.

The dismissal of a democratically elected government was enough to make the Baloch rise to defend their rights and fight against the injustices perpetrated upon them.

At its helm were Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo, Sardar Ataullah Khan Mengal, Mir Gul Khan Naseer, Khair Bakhsh Khan Marri, who headed the National Awami Party (NAP) and others who had suffered imprisonment and restrictions on their movement since 1947 for articulating their views on the plight of the Baloch.

While Sher Mohammad Marri was arrested in March 1973, the above-mentioned leaders were arrested on August 15 soon after the promulgation of the 1973 constitution. Nawab Khair Bakhsh and Mir Ali Ahmed Talpur refused to ratify the constitution on the grounds that it failed to provide sufficient guarantees for provincial autonomy.

The revolt was around the corner. While the Baloch people waited in vain for a resolution of the dispute, the government was busy blockading the Marri and Mengal areas, the hot spots of the previous resistance in the ’60s. They slowly tightened the noose, to the extent that people living in the Marri area faced extreme hardships just to procure basic rations.

Once our small group had to survive for a few days on flour, which had become quite inedible. Our group consisted of three Marri tribesmen, an urban activist, who wishes to remain anonymous, and myself. We were a support group, and carried medicine and some extra rations on two or three donkeys and two goats which we kept for milk. I knew a little about treating diseases, something that I had learnt while living in Sindh.

On May 18, 1973 an eight-man patrol of Sibi Scouts was ambushed and killed near Tandoori. No one knows who was responsible but within three days, a military operation was launched with helicopters ferrying troops to Mawand, a small town in the Marri area. A fortnight later, a pre-dawn capture of Kahan ensued in a similar manner. I remember the day well. We had woken up and were having tea when the ominous sound of helicopters surprised us because it was not yet light. We saw some 15 helicopters flying towards Kahan. A large-scale offensive had started within our midst.

The resistance to the army began almost immediately and, contrary to the accusations that the Baloch struggle was foreign-funded, this struggle was the result of the blatant violation of Baloch rights. The arms used by the Baloch fighters were either .303 rifles, old Lee Enfield single-shot rifles or hunting rifles. The only automatic — if it could be given that lofty status — was a 9mm sten gun, which often jammed after a few shots.

The one advantage that the Marri fighters enjoyed was their intimate knowledge of the terrain; they knew where the watering holes were and where the caves and gorges were. They carried flour in their pushti, a bed-sheet sized cloth, and water in a khalli, a small goat-skin bag, and survived on meagre rations. This, combined with their determination, made the Marris a potent force. They would fight, disappear and later regroup at another place.

The Marri area is small — it is only 3,300 square miles and relatively easy to control — so it was to the credit of the Marri fighters that most of the action during this struggle took place in that area. According to journalist Selig Harrison, at one time 80,000 troops were deployed in the province.

The operations were relentless and caused immense disruption in the social and economic life of the inhabitants. They shifted to other towns and cities in Balochistan and Sindh. Eventually, many had to migrate to Afghanistan. Those who migrated in winter suffered the loss of the young and old alike due to exposure to extreme cold and frostbite. Their migration, however didn’t make life any easier.

In September 1974, an army operation took place in Chamalang where 15,000 Marris, including families, had gathered because traditionally Marri tribesmen take their flocks to graze in that area. Besides using artillery, the army employed Mirage and F-86 fighters, along with Huey Cobra helicopters manned by Iranian pilots, against the local Marris. They claimed that 125 guerrillas were killed and 900 captured. However, the Baloch maintained that these were inflated figures and that they had killed 446 soldiers. Livestock numbering over 50,000 heads and 550 camels were taken away and sold in the Punjab. The army claimed that the operation was a great success but, in fact, it proved to be just a temporary setback to the Marris because they persisted in their fight.

We moved in small groups to avoid detection. It was Eid day in January 1974 and we were moving from Tadri to escape the army operation. A few days earlier, the army had attacked a house where Tangav Ramkani, a Marri tribesman of Mir Hazar Khan Ramkani’s clan, and his nephews Jalamb and Karam, were killed. Mir Hazar Khan was the leader of the insurgency in the Marri area. We had slept the night in the open as we always did and moved at dawn, hoping to see some Marri household where we would bake bread with our flour rations. As we turned a mountain corner, we saw smoke which we thought was coming from a household. Apparently, the people living there had seen us from a distance and since we carried rifles, mistook us to be the army and had deserted their shelter. When we reached there, not a soul was present. Some people in the hills nearby, upon realising that we were not from the army, called out to us and asked us to stay for food. But not wanting to embarrass them, we moved on.

The missing person’s problem was as widespread then as it is now. People were picked up on the slightest suspicion or were handed over to the army by some undercover agents who had infiltrated the Baloch ranks. Many disappeared without a trace; among them was Asadullah Mengal, son of Sardar Ataullah Khan Mengal, and Ahmed Shah Kurd, an intrepid activist. They were picked up in Karachi and never heard of again. Dulip (Johnny) Dass was abducted along with Sher Ali Ramkani Marri near Belpat, given away by an undercover agent and both suffered the same fate. Shafi Mohammad Badani, Bahar Lalwani, Ali Dost Durkani and many others also disappeared.

Activists were picked up and tortured, as were many tribesmen. Some of them were later released, disabled on account of torture. It was during this period that the first ever jail break from Quetta Jail occurred. Fed up with the torture, four young activists made plans to escape and enlisted the support of some other prisoners who, although not willing to go through the risky exercise, promised that at the arranged time they would all turn on the electric heaters to reduce the current passing through the wires on the wall. So, according to the plan, one prisoner climbed up the wall, put a quilt on the wires and crossed over, the other two did the same but the fourth one gave up after injuring his leg. Minutes after the prisoners had climbed over the wall, the alarm went off but they managed to escape.

Activists from other provinces who were involved in the struggle included Najam Sethi, Ahmed Rashid, Rashid Rahman, Asad Rahman, Dulip (Johnny) Dass, Mohammad Bhaba and myself. Most of these men were studying in London before they joined the Baloch national struggle and were also known as the “London Group.” They were mainly involved in political work, which included the printing and distribution of a clandestine newsletter named Jabal. They were also involved in educating people and in providing basic medical aid. Those urban activists who escaped to the mountains to avoid the army operation, lived in the same conditions as the common tribesmen.

There are conflicting claims regarding the casualties from the contending sides and though no confirmed figures exist, it is believed that some 3,000 soldiers and 5,000 Baloch died during the conflict. But no attempt has been made by either side to collate the actual numbers. Some of the prominent Baloch figures who were killed in action were Safar Khan Zarakzai in Jhalawan, Mir Laung Khan, a septuagenarian, the elder brother of Mir Gul Khan Naseer who died defending his village Mali, and Jalat Khan Durkani. When Zia-ul-Haq took over, some 6,000 Baloch who were being held in different prisons were released.

After Bhutto was ousted by Zia, the army activity virtually ground to a halt, even though minor clashes continued. Zia’s release of the Baloch leaders, his dismissal of the Hyderabad tribunal and his declaration of amnesty for all, took the steam out of the struggle. More importantly, a difference of opinion regarding the continuation of the struggle emerged, not only between the Pashtun and Baloch leadership of the now defunct NAP, but among the Baloch leaders themselves. Most of the Baloch leaders who were living in exile in Kabul opted to return and only the Marris chose to remain behind. They returned only after the fall of Najibullah’s government in Afghanistan in 1992, as the fundamentalist leadership which replaced him appeared to be highly indebted to Pakistan for its support and refused to host the Marris.

It’s been 36 years since that Baloch uprising against the army operation in Balochistan during Z.A. Bhutto’s tenure. But the province is hotting up once again. The assassination of Nawab Akbar Bugti and his followers in an army encounter during Musharraf’s regime and the murder of three Baloch nationalists in Turbat recently has set off a wave of anger among the Baloch.

If the province’s grievances are not redressed soon, Balochistan may see yet another uprising — and this time round, the consequences could prove to be grave.