The question of Balochistan

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The question of Balochistan

Post  Bolan on Tue Jul 05, 2011 12:21 pm

By Urooj Zia

If you see the flag of Pakistan in Balochistan, you are either on the Balochistan University campus in Quetta or at the provincial assembly – or, more alarmingly, within metres of a checkpost manned by the Frontier Corps (FC), the paramilitary force that controls the province. Nowhere else in this, the country’s largest province by area, will you see the national flag. On the contrary, flags of Azad Balochistan are a dime a dozen, adorning shops, houses, streetlights and random poles. Schools in the province – even those administered by the government – start their day not with ‘Pak ser zameen’ (the national anthem), but with ‘Ma chukki Balochani’, the anthem of Azad Balochistan. Here, the Pakistani state, army and paramilitary forces are figures of hate, while the sarmachar (Baloch ‘freedom fighters’) are considered heroes.

To get to such a point, the relationship between the Baloch and the state has been mouldering since Independence. The manner in which, for instance, the province was used for the nuclear tests of 1998, and then left to deal with the fallout, is perhaps indicative of the way the Baloch have been treated by the state for the past 63 years. The nuclear tests of 28 May 1998 hold a special place in both the state’s narrative of victory and in the minds of many Pakistani citizens. While the latter are generally aware that the tests were conducted in the mountains of Chaghai District of Balochistan, very few know about the aftermath of these blasts for the residents of Chaghai, where nuclear fallout has since contaminated groundwater and wreaked havoc on agriculture. This has given rise to a host of diseases and deformed births – phenomena that are often referred to simply as ‘mysterious illnesses of Balochistan’ and brushed under the carpet.
When the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) swept into power in 2008, after almost a decade of military rule, many saw it as the harbinger of a new era of reconciliation. This optimism was bolstered when President Asif Ali Zardari took the unprecedented step of apologising to the Baloch nation for the decades of deprivation and oppression. The president’s apology brought a wave of goodwill towards the Baloch, particularly from the intelligentsia, which had, in the past, attempted to brush aside Baloch nationalist sentiments as criminal or ‘anti-state’ activities. The official apology also brought hope for betterment in state policy for the province. Since then, however, Islamabad has shown little sincerity in understanding or improving the lot of Balochistan, where the civilian government is struggling to deal with increasing militarisation. The latter has also served to alienate and radicalise the population in general.

Alienation of a nation
For outsiders, Balochistan is largely marked by glorious sunsets, stark desert scenery and majestic rocky mountains; life on the ground, however, is in striking contrast to such beauty. The rule of law holds little meaning in a situation where the people are often seen by the state as a violent ‘other’ who must be quelled for the security of the ‘nation’. This narrative is held in place by a systematic, brutal campaign aimed at silencing all voices of dissent – and keeping alternative perspectives from finding their way out. Reading the morning papers or watching the evening news elsewhere in Pakistan, one could conveniently forget that the country’s largest province is – and has been for the past several decades – at war with the state. Since information coming out of Balochistan is subjected to strict state control, few outside the province are aware of the increasing, and increasingly brutal, role of the FC. Nor do most Pakistanis elsewhere understand the exact extent of the indigenous independence movement, the opposition to ‘development’ around the new Gwadar port, the annexation of land by the armed forces, the widespread sale of agricultural lands to outsiders, or the number of people who have been ‘disappeared’ by the intelligence agencies.

Ironically, state security goes silent when it comes to the issue of Taliban infiltration in this primarily secular province. Nonetheless, several parts of the capital, Quetta, are now largely controlled by various sections of the Afghan Taliban; and Afghan refugees have been allowed to start businesses and buy property, even while the indigenous Baloch are forced into menial jobs. Some suggest that this could be an unofficial tactic to quell the Baloch population, perhaps on the assumption that those who are busy trying to make ends meet will have less time to think about, say, independence. Quetta is dotted with FC checkposts almost every kilometre, with security personnel standing behind sandbag bunkers, machine guns at the ready. People are randomly stopped, checked, questioned and made to sit near the bunker for as long as the FC-wallahs wish. Resisting or trying to prove one’s innocence is futile, as this generally lands one in even more trouble; so, most victims just wait quietly until allowed to leave. No one wants to end up on the list of ‘missing persons’ – those who have allegedly been picked up for ‘questioning’ by the security agencies. In December 2009, the Provincial Ministry of Interior and Tribal Affairs said that 992 persons were missing in Balochistan, including political workers, children as well as 150 women. Those numbers, however, merely constitute the registered cases. Activists, meanwhile, argue that over 4000 Balochs have gone missing since 2001.

On 8 April 2009, the mutilated bodies of Baloch National Movement (BNM) President Ghulam Mohammed Baloch, his deputy Lala Munir Baloch and Baloch Republican Party (BRP) Secretary-General Sher Mohammed Baloch were found near Turbat District. The three leaders had been missing for a while, and had allegedly been picked up by intelligence agencies and tortured to death, before their bodies were dumped near their hometown. In other instances, bodies of young sarmachars have turned up in their districts, with Pakistan Zindabad carved on their abdomens. The local media of Balochistan, meanwhile, is forced to stay mum on many such issues, while those who dare speak out have met with dire consequences. A case in point is that of the Quetta-based daily Asaap, an Urdu paper that had a clear leaning towards the sarmachars. In June last year, Asaap’s owner and publisher, Jan Muhammad Dashti, was repeatedly told to close down operations. When he refused, the following month FC personnel were posted on the street outside the newspaper’s offices. ‘They stood on the roof of the building across the street and pointed their guns at our reception desk,’ the editor, Abid Mir, said. ‘Eventually, our receptionist refused to stay at his post.’ When Asaap did not shut down, FC personnel moved in right outside the door.

In August, two weeks after the FC began the siege of the newspaper’s offices, Jan Muhammad Dashti, owner and editor-in-chief of Asaap, was shot and seriously injured on 23 February. A bullet pierced his skull and, though it did not kill him, his attackers left him for dead. Gravely injured, he crawled away and called up Mir and other friends for help; he is now recuperating in London. Asaap gave up the battle, however, and shut down publication. Many other publications have suffered a similar fate, and the kidnapping and torture of journalists by the FC and intelligence agencies is now a norm in the province, especially in districts farther from Quetta.

Accession or annexation?
As detailed in Taj Mohammed Breseeg’s Baloch Nationalism: Its Origin and Development, the grievances of the Baloch go back to 1948, when the khanate of Kalat, a sovereign state linked to the British Raj by a treaty, was forcefully annexed by Pakistan. In 1947, the Muslim League and the departing British initially seemed ready to allow independence for Kalat. Keeping this in mind, the then khan of Kalat, Ahmad Yar Khan, declared the independence of his country on 15 August 1947. An assembly was formed, elections were held and, much to the surprise of the sardars (tribal chieftains), they were routed by the then-illegal National Party, whose members, as independent candidates, won 39 seats out 52. Khan then turned for help to his legal advisor, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who, in turn, showed no interest either in supporting Khan’s position or in democracy for the Baloch. Once this became clear, Khan and the National Party joined hands to insist on an independent, sovereign Balochistan. Jinnah, on the other hand, demanded formal accession of the Kalat territory to Pakistan.

In accordance with the Indian Independence Act of 1947, Khan referred the matter to the khanate’s elected diwan, which promptly refused accession and demanded dialogue. But, eight months later, in March 1948, Khan was forced to accept the incorporation of his state into Pakistan (see Himal May 2007, ‘Between tribe and country’). Even then, however, the ‘Instrument of Accession’ of Kalat with Pakistan, while signed against the wishes of the majority of the Baloch people, clearly stated that, among other things, the constitutional structures of Pakistan would not be implemented in Balochistan without the consent of Khan and his people. In effect, it mandated self-rule for Balochistan. Nonetheless, Khan was jailed soon after signing the document. His headstrong brother, Prince Agha Abdul Karim, took to the mountains in rebellion, and Jinnah angrily ordered troops to invade Kalat. He eventually relented, but Abdul Karim was brought back and jailed for several years. In 1958, Pakistani troops formally moved into the area, the flag of Kalat was replaced with that of Pakistan, and the state of Kalat collapsed in the face of Pakistan’s civil and military might.

In February 1948 Jinnah went so far as to advocate a dictatorial, rather than democratic, form of government in Balochistan, and proposed to govern Balochistan with the help of a nominated advisory council. In an interview the following day, Jinnah tried to qualify his statement, claiming that he had not meant to proffer the ‘dictatorship solution’ for the rest of Pakistan – only for Balochistan, because it was ‘very undeveloped’. This grand annexation of a largely underdeveloped territory also set the stage for the manner in which subsequent governments would deal with the province. Between 1958 and 1970, the army regularly carried out operations in Balochistan, including a long stretch from 1962 to 1968 when the Baloch fought against President Ayub Khan’s ‘one unit’ formula, under which the area was ruled by a governor in Lahore. The territory was finally accorded the status of province in 1970.

On 12 February 1973, the democratically elected, progressive National Awami Party (NAP) government in the province was dismissed by the PPP’s founder Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, provoking a guerrilla war that lasted four years. In 1977, Bhutto’s government was toppled by General Zia ul-Haq, who later declared a ceasefire and amnesty for most leaders of the independence movement. However, little changed on the ground and, exhausted by the long battle, by the early 1980s the movement had lost much of its fervour. After several unsuccessful meetings in 1977 and 1978 with Gen Zia, two major heads of the movement, Sardar Ataullah Mengal and Nawab Khair Bakhsh Marri, went into self-imposed exile. The central government had, it seemed, succeeded in snuffing out the Baloch struggle through overwhelming military force.

Long-standing tribal rivalries were also to blame for this deflation of the movement. The Bugtis and some other tribes had not cooperated with the nationalist forces in the 1973-77 uprising, siding with Islamabad instead, mostly in return for protection and positions within the provincial government. The August 2006 murder of Nawab Akbar Bugti at the hands of the Pakistan Army, however, gave a renewed focus to the Baloch movement. Rather than supporting pan-Baloch causes, Akbar Bugti’s primarily allegiance had been to his particular sub-tribe. On account of his role in the rebellions of 1973, where he had openly supported the state against the Baloch fighters, Bugti had been unable to reconcile himself with the Marri and the Mengal, the two other major tribes in the area. Moreover, since the murder of his son, Salal, in June 1992, Akbar Bugti had focused his wrath on the Kalpar and Masuri sub-clans, exiling them from their traditional homeland of Dera Bugti. This gave the General Pervez Musharraf-led military establishment an excellent opportunity to divide one of the three major tribes of Balochistan.

In January 2006, the military began facilitating the exiled tribes’ return to Dera Bugti, undermining Akbar Bugti’s writ as the resettled sub-tribes openly turned against the patriarch and supported Gen Musharraf. Bugti and his supporters, meanwhile, turned against the state. The battle escalated, until Bugti was brutally murdered in August that year (see Himal, May 2007, ‘A death foretold’). His death, as Sardar Akhtar Mengal put it, ‘drew a line between Balochistan and Pakistan’. While the depth of this chasm is not immediately evident, the Baloch movement underwent a noticeable transformation in the aftermath of Bugti’s murder. Many tribal rivalries were set aside in favour of a relatively more cohesive, pan-Baloch struggle. The Marri, who had primarily focused on guerrilla warfare since the 1970s, realised that they were not strong enough, on their own, to counter the might of the state; while the Mengal, who through the Baloch National Party (BNP) had historically taken the parliamentary route, also became disenfranchised. Bugti’s murder also angered the Baloch nation as a whole, and many young men and women from the middle and lower-middle class rose to support the movement – which had, up to that point, primarily been the domain of the sardars. The effect of all of this together was greater state paranoia, evidenced in increased policing and enhanced oppression in the province.

Ties of culture and subjugation
In countering the Pakistani state’s use of Islam as a cohesive force to keep disparate groups together, the Baloch national struggle has relied primarily on ethno-nationalism as its catalyst. Problems arise, however, when loyalties are primarily affiliated with tribal affiliations, rather than ideologies; and identities change, depending on circumstance. At any one moment, for instance, an individual could assume any one of identities from the hierarchy – Baloch, Marri identity, or merely that of the Bijarani clan. In using ethno-nationalism, therefore, Baloch nationalists need to either overcome these fissures, or redefine the Baloch identity under civic-territorial nationalism.

Things become problematic, however, in conflicts with other regional nationalities. In this, the most significant bone of contention is that of the concept of ‘Greater Balochistan’, which essentially puts the Baloch in Pakistan at war simultaneously with Iran, Afghanistan, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh. The idea of Greater Balochistan was initially advocated by nationalists at the beginning of the 20th century. They envisaged, under single rule, an area that comprised, among others, the 15th-century Rind-Lashari tribal confederacy and the latter-day khanate of Kalat. The predominantly mountainous terrain of the area associated with Greater Balochistan has indeed helped a sense of Baloch separateness from their neighbours. Other more concrete factors also support their territorial claims, such as the strong presence of Baloch communities outside Balochistan proper. The proportion of the Baloch population in Sindh, for instance, is said to be as high as 50 percent, with a majority of it concentrated in Jacobabad District bordering Balochistan. In Punjab as well, the Baloch are said to dominate the tribal belt around Dera Ghazi Khan.

There are significant cultural similarities between these areas. Nationalism and love for the mulk balochi (the Baloch country) play a dominant role in Baloch culture and literature, while the sarmachar are portrayed as heroes. Take the myth of Nauroz Khan, who led a failed rebellion against the Pakistani state in 1959 and has since fed into Baloch nationalism. Breseeg’s Baloch Nationalism quotes Baloch leader Sherbaz Khan Mazari’s description of the modern legend that has evolved around an episode in which the authorities forced Nauroz Khan to identify the bodies of his slain supporters.

‘Is this one your son,’ an army officer cold-heartedly asked Nauroz Khan as he pointed to the body of the elderly warrior’s son.
Khan stared at the soldier for a moment then replied quietly, ‘All these brave young men are my sons.’
Then looking at the faces of his dead supporters, he noticed that the moustache of one of them had drooped in death. He went over to the body and tenderly curled the moustache upwards while gently admonishing, ‘Even in death, my son, one should not allow the enemy to think, even for one moment, that you have despaired.’

Those killed during the 1970s, when conflict between the Baloch and the Pakistani state was at its peak, have now acquired the status of martyrs and national heroes. The pantheon of such figures includes Mir Luang Khan, the elder brother of the revolutionary poet Gul Khan Nasir, who refused to submit to a body search and so instead took up arms against the army.

At the same time, a sense of ongoing oppression cannot be underestimated as constituting a potent pan-Baloch connection. Josef Stalin’s doctrine of oppressor and oppressed nationalities became immensely influential, and was adopted by leftists and Baloch nationalists during the 1960s and 1970s as the basis upon which to ground their understanding of the ‘national question’ in Pakistan. One of the main contributing elements to Baloch nationalism has been the reference to Punjabi domination, or ‘Punjabi imperialism’, as the nationalists in Balochistan and Sindh call it. Such analysis has led to a blanket hatred of Punjabis and Urdu-speaking people, who are referred to derogatorily as ‘settlers’ in Balochistan, despite the fact that many Punjabi and Urdu-speaking families have lived in the region for at least two centuries. This loathing remains despite the fact that the ‘London Group’, which comprised mostly of young men who were brought up in Punjab and had gone to London for higher education, was prominent within the Baloch national struggle during the 1970s. Anti-settler sentiment gained currency especially in the aftermath of the murder of Nawab Akbar Bugti, and the targeted killing of ‘settlers,’ mostly Punjabi teachers and barbers, is now considered an accepted form of revenge among the sarmachar.

For their part, the nationalists complain that too much attention is paid by the media and the intelligentsia to these ‘isolated incidents’, even while the larger issues of the Baloch people are ignored. In fact, these killings are not isolated, and often involve innocent victims. The sarmachar though, are right when they say that since its annexation, Balochistan has remained extremely deprived. The Baloch continued to be further marginalised, with the Pashtun taking control of commercial life in Balochistan (this was, in any case never in Baloch hands, having been controlled earlier by Sindhi Hindus who left the area after Partition). In Baloch Nationalism, Breseeg also describes how Punjabis moved in and bought some of the best arable land in the area; the military and bureaucrats from outside Balochistan, in particular, acquired huge chunks of such land under President Ayub Khan. According to Breseeg, the provincial administration came to be dominated by Punjabis, ‘with just a few higher-level Baloch civil servants’. This process also took place in the industrial arena, except for a few activities like marble-quarrying and shipbreaking, of which the control remained in Baloch hands.

Balochistan’s growth indicators have also been far worse than those of the rest of the country, despite the province’s rich mineral and maritime resources. Natural gas, for instance, is taken from Balochistan and piped to the rest of the country, leaving the Baloch to burn wood trucked in from Sindh. The bitterness over this is encapsulated in the Balochistan People’s Liberation Front (BPLF) allegation, in 1977, that the Pakistani establishment considered the Baloch country ‘a vast estate for plunder; an arid desert floating in oil and minerals’. Such claims are bolstered by a particular mindset in much of the rest of Pakistan, particularly Punjab, which subtly denies the Baloch ownership over their land’s resources. Abid Mir, the Quetta editor, narrated one such episode. He had written an article titled, ‘Balochistan k sona ugaltey pahaad’ (The valuable mountains of Balochistan), and sent it to a Lahore-based newspaper for publication. The editors at the publication changed his proposed title to ‘Balochistan mein sona ugaltey pahaad’ (The valuable mountains in Balochistan). ‘You see the difference in terminology,’ Mir noted. ‘My title suggested our ownership over our resources. Their title said that while the mountains in question are in Balochistan – the Baloch don’t own them.’

This argument over ownership of resources has been made since the early days of Pakistan’s statehood. In 1947, National Party leader Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo pointed out that when Balochistan had minerals, petroleum and ports, using lack of economic viability as a pretext to demand accession was unreasonable. Today, publisher Janmahmad Dashti argues, ‘If it were to have at its disposal its entire resources, the per capita income of Balochistan would be one of the highest in the world.’

Empty development
With a laundry list of grievances going back decades, it now seems difficult to appease the Baloch. Steps such as the Aghaz-e-Huqooq-e-Balochistan (‘initiation of the rights of Balochistan’) package, also known as the Balochistan development package, released in November 2009, either mean nothing to the beleaguered Baloch nation or are considered to be too little too late. The eight-page development document contained 39 recommendations covering constitutional, political, administrative and economic issues in Balochistan. Furious, however, at not being included during the discussion phase of the development package, which was conducted solely at the level of provincial ministers, the nationalists in Balochistan immediately rejected the exercise as a farce. Indeed, while the federal government acknowledged that mistakes had been made in the manner Balochistan had been governed, the language of the package’s text abounded in empty promises. The preamble stated, for instance, that the current federal government had ‘withdrawn cases, released political workers and helped in identifying the places of detention and release of some missing persons’. On the ground, however, cases have not been withdrawn, nor have all political workers been released. The issue of the missing persons, meanwhile, has not moved.

The text also contained little in the way of concrete steps. Statements declaring that the federal government was ‘determined to correct the wrongs of history by conferring political, economic and cultural rights of the provinces, so that the federation may blossom’ are irrelevant as long as the government does not outline how these rights will be ‘conferred’. The package contained promises of facilitating Baloch who were in political exile, ‘except those involved in acts of terrorism’. In reality, a majority of the exiles, including some grandsons of Nawab Akbar Bugti, have been implicated in allegedly false cases of ‘terrorism’. Similarly, promises to stop operations of ‘federal agencies’ that ‘are not related to the pursuit of fighting terrorism’ mean little, as all of them claim, at least on paper, to be fighting ‘terrorism’. Further, anyone can be labelled a ‘terrorist’.

The nationalists claim, meanwhile, that the Baloch issue does not revolve around grants and packages, but rather is a matter of ownership over the province’s natural resources. As such, the development package, which aimed to ‘heal the wounds of the Baloch’, has made little difference. Similarly, official apologies, such as that issued by President Zardari soon after he took over in 2008, mean little as long as the situation on the ground does not change – and it has not. If anything, the FC is gaining more power with each passing day, having been given a largely free hand in the province, as Islamabad’s anxiety over the nationalists increases.

In a country that is beset with conspiracy theories and has been ruled more by military dictators than democratically elected governments, the current PPP government has its own demons to fight. It certainly does not help, however, when Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani uses technicalities to declare, as he did in November, that there was ‘no military operation in Balochistan’. Indeed there is not, of course, as the FC is a paramilitary force; but this does not make ground realities any different for the Baloch. In early May, the prime minister met Baloch National Party (BNP) leader Ataullah Mengal in the latter’s Karachi residence, and promised to ‘do something’ about the issue of missing persons. While Gillani later dubbed the meeting successful, Mengal was far from satisfied, saying the whole thing had been a waste of time. It is unclear as to how the prime minister plans to do anything about an issue that is connected directly with the country’s powerful intelligence agencies – groups that are not even under his direct control.

Back to humanism
The Baloch, meanwhile, need to differentiate friend from foe. Not every ‘settler’ is out to jeopardise their cause, nor do targeted killings of random teachers and lay people on the pretext of revenge or doing away with informants and traitors have much of an effect on the Pakistani state. If anything, these killings can be and are used as an excuse to further paint the Baloch movement as a senseless, violent monster that must be quelled by force. The movement itself, meanwhile, is currently fragmented and on autopilot, without a sound strategy or goal and seemingly forgetting the central need for humanism in revolt – altogether, a sad evolution from the unity and ideological and moral high ground of the 1970s. More than 150,000 ‘settlers’, many of them teachers, have fled Balochistan in the past few years, a truly worrying trend in a land with literacy rates of approximately 20 percent for women and 37 percent for men.

The politics of boycott, which the nationalists had opted for during Gen Musharraf’s regime, are also proving to be counterproductive. Not only has it completely sidelined the nationalists politically, it has also deprived them of whatever little say they had in matters concerning their province – and the more alienated a movement, many warn, the more prone it is to wanton violence. For their part, the nationalists claim that they never had much say in the Islamabad-centric political process anyway, and to participate in elections would entail the validation of an assembly in a federation that they do not agree with in the first place. Barring the parliamentary route, however, the only option that they have left is that of armed resistance – a path that they have tested, with only limited success, for the past few decades. Today, the Baloch need to find a middle ground for the redress of their valid grievances: they need the support of allies on the outside, and also to realise that states in a modern society find it far easier to suppress violent movements than non-violent ones.

As for those in other areas of Pakistan and the region, to some extent it can be said that they have no means of knowing most of the brutalities faced by the Baloch. Equally strong, however, is the argument that suggests that most do not want to know. In this, uncomfortable parallels can be drawn with the post-1971 reaction of many regarding the atrocities unleashed in East Pakistan by the Pakistan Army, with the public going into shock when news began to trickle in of the army’s defeat. At that point, however, such disbelief could perhaps be justified, as until the last moment the state-controlled media had been publishing accounts of imagined victories against the Bengali fighters. Today, things have clearly changed. Information now travels very quickly, in multiple directions; the wrongs are obvious, and turning a blind eye can only invite disaster. The Pakistani intelligentsia needs to get its priorities straight: support for an oppressed people is more important than perceived concepts of patriotism and love for artificial lines on maps. Silence or neutrality in the face of oppression is also part of the support for oppression; and in the era of the internet and new media resources, I didn’t know cannot be the answer to the question of Balochistan.

Urooj Zia is a Karachi-based journalist.

(Courtesy: Himal South Asian Magazine)

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