February Issue 2005

By | News & Politics | Published 19 years ago

Nawab Akbar Bugti — guardian angel for his tribesmen, or a symbol of the region’s oppressive sardari system, fiercely protecting his stranglehold on the rich natural gas reserves in the land under his sway?

Opinions about this controversial politician and tribal chief from Balochistan, who has been a player in Pakistan’s political arena for more than 50 years, are deeply divided. During his more than half-a-century-long involvement in active politics, Bugti has been the mainstay of the Pakistani establishment at several crucial junctures — including the 1970s Baloch insurgency.

The fact that successive governments have gone the extra mile to appease Bugti, giving him not just a free hand to rule as he will in his backward area, but also showering him with assorted perks and privileges, is clearly the payback for his cooperation.

Since none of the country’s rulers have ever tried to dismantle the tribal system or even weaken Bugti’s power base despite their love-hate relations with him and his clan, the tribal system flourishes in its full glory in his area. And since the establishment has pursued the policy of wooing the tribal chiefs to control the area, instead of bringing education and development to the area, it remains one of the most backward regions in the country. All of which suits Akbar Bugti well. He has been allowed to remain virtual fief of his people, to brutally crush any dissent within his tribe, to operate private jails, and even to personally keep the lion’s share of the revenue generated by the natural gas in his area. According to military and government officials, through an official deal, Akbar Bugti gets around 120 million rupees annually as rent for the land used by Pakistan Petroleum Ltd for natural gas extraction and operations. Recently Bugti has been demanding an increase in this rent, saying that the area used by the PPL is actually much greater than estimates.

The authorities also pay a monthly amount of around two million rupees to Akbar Bugti for providing security to the PPL operations and pipelines. PPL officials disclose that Bugti and his associates also have the exclusive right to rent vehicles to the PPL through which they rake in around approximately a million rupees monthly.

“While the tribesmen remain in primitive conditions, Bugti and his family enjoy scores of other perks and privileges,” said a senior provincial government official. “Given the circumstances, the tribal chief is reluctant to allow any move or development, which bypasses or undermines his authority and hold on the area,” he said. In fact, so wide ranging are Bugti’s powers in the area, that the PPL needs his consent for every appointment in Sui. Even when Bugti has had estranged relations with the government in Islamabad, his domain and perks have remained untouched. And from time to time Bugti has his tribals apply strong-arm tactics which often result in standoffs with the centre, to extract more money, perks and a bigger say in the Sui operations from the government.

Thus, the centre’s shortsightedness in regard to the province — ie cutting deals with the local chieftains at the expense of the people in return for being allowed to exploit the mineral wealth of the region — has created a precarious situation in the province, which is manifest in sporadic violence, rocket attacks and bombings.

The latest crisis in the province should also be seen in this context. The deplorable rape of a female doctor working in the PPL hospital, allegedly by members of paramilitary personnel — although there is much controversy on this score with conspiracy theories abounding — resulted in a tribal uprising which went from bad to worse, and in the course of which major installations at the gas fields and electric lines were blown up and several lives lost, thanks to the clumsy handling of the incident by those in power.

And even if the ruling Pakistan Muslim League Chief Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain’s diplomacy or the now beefed-up security arrangements in the province manage to defuse the situation in Sui, it is likely to be just another interlude before trouble erupts again — inevitable given the grossly unjust and primitive tribal system that continues to thrive in Pakistan well into the 21st century.

The establishment stands even more guilty than the tribal sardars for this situation because it has strengthened the system for its own vested interests.