April issue 2010

By | News & Politics | Published 14 years ago

In Balochistan, hope is like water, marked only by its absence in some places and abundance in others. In some places, as in the vast sandy stretches of the Chagi desert, water is so far away that it cannot be found even 800 kilometres down — and then too bitter and unhealthy. But, in other areas, as in Barabcha, it flows at one-sixth of a fathom. You can literally reach it by scooping the earth with bare hands.

It is a telling comment on the failure of the government and the military establishment that they have allowed the hopeful prospects in this half of Pakistan to become scarce, overtaken by gloomy forecasts of secession and separation. That is why now different groups operating in the name of Baloch rights seem to have seized the initiative. They are running an expanding campaign whose political and sabotage strategies co-terminate at the goal of opting out of the federation.

The surest indication of the confidence and zeal with which the insurgents are operating lies in the regime of fear they have been able to create in different districts of the province. Additional checkposts on the roads have not stopped hit-men from taking out targets in broad daylight. With a perfection that would shame assassins in Hollywood movies, they have killed hundreds of settlers who came here decades ago from non-Baloch areas, primarily from the Punjab. The statistics are staggering. In just under a year, over 350 roadside bombings, grenade attacks and point blank killings. Many deaths are not even reported. Security agencies hide them for fear of demoralising the rank and file; ordinary citizens are quick to avoid more retribution and retaliation.

Emboldened by their successes, these groups now openly claim responsibility for these actions. With brazen pride and heartfelt joy, messages emanating from local mobile numbers justify the sorry end of the victims either in the name of revenge for “oppression of the Baloch” or “for the rightful struggle of liberation in an occupied land.” Even the Baloch are being downed. The rationale for killing their own kind is that they, the victims, betrayed their brothers either because they were not supportive enough of the “cause of liberation” or were suspected of spying for the intelligence agencies. This killing spree has also started to engulf members of the Pashtun community. Police officials admit that the trend in the killings in Balochistan has acquired a new and threatening dimension. “The Pashtuns are very well organised. They have the manpower and gunpowder to retaliate against those Baloch tribe members who are seen to be sanctioning these actions,” says a local police officer who wanted his name and area of deployment to remain anonymous. These killings take place primarily in Turbat, Khuzdar, Awaran, Pasni, Panjgore — the Makran Belt, with some parts falling in the Jhalawan Belt.

So far there has not been any ethnically-driven retaliation. It may not remain so for long. Fears are widespread that one of these days a big incident could spark off a deadly feud between the Baloch and Pashtun communities. “Insurgents have a tendency to overplay their hands. One day a riot will break out. We are in touch with the Pashtun and Baloch political leaders on this count and hope that they will play their part in keeping the slowly rising tensions down,” says a top-ranking security officer in the province.

However, it is open to question how much clout members of Baloch political parties have left in this province. The legend lurking on the streets of Quetta these days is, that Nawab Khair Baksh Marri, currently residing in Karachi, had recently sent a coffin to Chief Minister Muhammad Aslam Raisani, indicating that his days were numbered. But instead of returning the coffin in the typical Baloch tradition of fighting fire with fire, he wilted and dispatched boxes full of protection money to the old man. Of course, such stories are hard to verify, but their currency testifies to the public perception that the political leadership in the province has a pistol to its head and the trigger is controlled by the insurgent.

This perception is reinforced by the conduct of the elected members, who, it seems, have all cut separate deals with the gun-toting militias. Deep background interviews with at least a dozen of them drawn from different regions indicate that they are all in mortal fear of being killed or have the sense that they are on their own. Some supported the Baloch taking up arms. Others laid blame at the doorstep of the federal government which, they said, was staging high profile political dramas such as the Balochistan package, but had delivered precious little. “All the applications for the jobs announced for the Baloch are being processed at a snail’s pace. How do we pacify them?” asks one member of the out-sized provincial cabinet.

This partially explains a string of intelligence reports Newsline was able to access that speak of the link between provincial politics and violent groups’ expanding operations. The interior ministry is in receipt of dozens of cables from Balochistan indicative of this dangerous trend. One report makes the astounding claim that nearly 90% of the sitting ministers are in touch with the insurgents, and a vast majority of them actually shelter the gun-wielders. Anecdotes abound that point to such possibilities. On March 17, a daylight hand-grenade attack on a vehicle of the Frontier Corps resulted in an hour-long gun battle. Four law enforcement members were injured and one attacker was killed. Majid Lango was a proclaimed offender wanted, as far as police records are concerned, for serious charges including murder. The Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) (see Separatist Sketches) praised him as a valiant soldier of the resistance movement. The Balochistan Assembly passed a resolution condemning his killing as extra-judicial and held a special prayer for the departed soul.

This incident shows the untenable situation where the lawmakers themselves are not sure about the status of the lawbreakers, nor indeed are they confident as to which side of the divide are they on. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that they are not even sure where the dividing line is actually drawn. This affords a formidable advantage to the insurgent groups. They can pursue hard core retaliatory and sabotage activity in the guise of justified reaction to the law-enforcement agencies’ high-handedness, and know that they also have political backing born of either compulsion or conviction.

The insurgents have used this space for a successful ideological blitz, targeting most schools and colleges. Under the name of Sarmichar News — in Balochi Sarmichar means ‘those who lay down their lives for the right cause’ — a robust media campaign is run by Salam Sabir Baloch. The messages that emanate from this service go across to thousands of people. From carrying abuses (‘all Pakistanis are bastards’) to glorifying those who are killed in encounters or are missing (‘they are our real heroes’), the SMS service is meant to create awe and fear. Among impressionable minds it conjures up the picture that Balochistan’s independence is around the corner and the valiant fighters shall soon defeat the “occupiers (Punjabi army).” The disenchanted Baloch youth lap up these one-liners. For them, this and other propaganda that is spread through pamphlets and secret group meetings is revolutionary stuff, both cathartic and cataclysmic, carrying the tidings of a better tomorrow.

This explains the social profile of the Baloch insurgency, which is shaped by recruits from professional groups. While intelligence and army officials privately refer to them as social outcasts who have a grudge, a gun and have taken to the mountains, the fact of the matter is that insurgents are found among teachers, students, lawyers, and perfectly reasonable and educated persons. “They can have a light and enlightened discussion with you during the day, and at night plan a grenade attack that they would happily carry out themselves,” says a mid-ranking army officer. “They are very few in number by the way,” he hastens to add. “Very, very few.”

This qualification of “very few” holds good in conversations but in practical, day-to-day handling of the threat from the brazen attacker, it blurs the lines between the innocent and the accused. The same officer admitted that the insurgents have been able to create a tough situation where everyone with a Baloch identity has to be watched carefully and that plays to the advantage of those who are already crying hoarse over discrimination on the basis of ethnicity.

The case of Hasan Janan, a teacher of Balochi at the Balochistan University, is instructive in this regard. His supporters say that the accusation against him of hurling a grenade at the city police station was false. “Why did he have an honourable acquittal from the court?” one of Hassan’s students asks, now that his teacher is back at his teaching job. The police say that a year-long trial saw all of the eyewitnesses, including those who had grabbed him in the act, decide against testifying in court. “No eyewitness, no prosecution, no punishment. The man walks free and is hailed a hero,” says the police officer who eyeballed this trial helplessly. This state of affairs has proven to be devastating for the Punjabi settlers, who are migrating in huge numbers. There are thousands of applications in various government departments seeking immediate transfers. The worst sufferers are teachers, followed by doctors. Government officials of non-Baloch origin are scared to death. Even police officials live in secure compounds away from the reach of those who lie in wait.

Photo: AFP

Photo: AFP

On a flight back from Quetta, this scribe was approached by at least six persons who had just got themselves transferred out of Balochistan. “We are sitting ducks being taken out. Nobody talks about these killings because everyone is sensitive to the needs of the Baloch. In effect, the whole nation has sanctioned the killing of its non-Baloch citizens. The whole nation, including the media, has innocent blood on its hands,” exploded a young teacher who had lost his first cousin to a target killing only a month ago.

This migration has worsened already pathetic governance levels. As experts in their fields leave the area for dear life, service delivery is suffering severely. Moreover, Pashtuns, with their money and a nose for business opportunities, have stepped in to buy lands in Baloch areas vacated by the settlers. Ironically, the so-called struggle for the independence of Baloch land is resulting in shrinking Baloch areas and the growing presence of Pashtun communities in the Baloch heartland. However, the biggest tragedy is that for all the high talk of Balochistan being the first priority, there seems no strategic or even operational strategy in place to handle a continuously deteriorating situation. The PPP government’s split-second attention span on pressing national issues has proven particularly ruinous for this part of the country.

Balochistan is crying out for constant constructive engagement and, above all, a vision to integrate alienated youth and speedy, high-impact public utility projects that showcase the federation’s real concern about the future of the province. None of this is happening. Between ham-fisted law-enforcement agencies, ruthless separatists, and starkly incompetent provincial and national politicians, this magnificent land of lovely people is being deprived of the glory and prosperity that is its due, but which for now is as distant on the horizon as hope is from the hearts of its dwellers and water is from its wells.

Related article: Separatist Sketches

The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV hosting a prime time current affairs program.