Balochistan: The Next Domino?
Time is running out for the government to wake up and grapple with the situation in Balochistan in right earnest.
The old saying “Once bitten is twice shy,” does not seem to apply to Pakistan’s leadership -- civil and military alike. Others try a new strategy when the first fails. But Pakistan’s leaders cling to a recipe they have patented and stick to it with almost religious zeal.
That recipe is to brand all who demand their political rights as traitors, instigated by a third force –and the third force is always India -- and then “kill, maim, or disappear” the person in question. Though it failed in East Pakistan with tragic consequences, it is being followed with full vigor in Balochistan.
The story of Balochistan, too, is a saga of deprivation of the people and exploitation of their resources, without recompense. Since 1948, the province has witnessed five uprisings. The first, in April 1948, was led by Prince Abdul Karim Khan of Kalat; the second (1958–59), by Nawab Nowroz Khan; the third (1963–69) by Sher Muhammad Bijrani Marri. Nawab Khair Baksh Marri led the fourth (1973-77). Yet, instead of addressing their grievances, successive governments always responded to the Baluchis agitation with the use of brute force.
Religious and political leaders and even the mainstream media treated the Balochistan problem with disdain. Because there was nobody to champion their cause, the frustrated Baloch people turned into insurgents, seeking independence and formed groups such as the Balochistan Students Organization (BSO), Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) and Balochistan National Army (BLA) et al.
The ongoing uprising, which started in 2004, is the fifth. It is also more violent and enduring. Its leaders Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti and Mir Balach Marri have been killed. But instead of putting an end to the insurgency, their murder gave it further boost. “The brutal and senseless murder of Nawab Bugti and the deliberate insult to his corpse by President Pervez Musharraf acted as a catalyst in Balochistan,” writes Akbar S. Ahmad. “It gave the Baloch independence movement a much needed second wind - the Baloch now had a legitimate martyr for their cause.”
Security agencies are following a “kill and dump” policy. As in East Pakistan, Bengalis were humiliated by being asked to strip in order to prove they were Muslim. Likewise in Balochistan, security personnel, who are invariably non-baloch, insult the Baloch at checkpoints “by cutting off the shalwar.” Furthermore, Baloch intellectual and professional elite are being systematically eliminated. Bodies of those who have mysteriously disappeared are routinely found mutilated and desecrated. One chilling message engraved with a knife on the chest of a corpse said, “Eid gift for Baloch.”
Most recently, the wife and daughter of Mir Bakhtiar Domki were killed. Because Domki’s wife was the sister of Akbar Bugti’s grandson, Brahmdagh who is currently a fugitive, the incident is interpreted as a signal that security agencies have extended their operation to Baloch women as well.
But the insurgency, instead of shrinking, is spreading even to stable, non-tribal parts of the province that were so long beyond the traditional stronghold of the rebels, such as Khuzdar and Turbat. Moreover, the induction of educated, middle-class and non-tribal segments of Baloch society, such as Allahnazar Baloch (leader of Balochistan Liberation Front), has provided fresh boost to the insurgency. Ominously, the situation has since turned into an ethnic conflict, with the insurgents targeting Punjabi and Urdu-speaking civilians engaged in various trades.
Except for the occasional statements by MQM Chief, Altaf Hussain, no other political or religious leader worth the name ever raised his voice in support of Baloch rights. Even Mian Nawaz Sharif, who did nothing for
them during his two stints as prime minister has, now, in a recent visit to Quetta, promised to take up their cause, “if’ he came to power again.
Only the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, by taking suo moto notice of the disappearances and calling the security agencies to account, has given some relief to the beleaguered Baloch people. But it is the government and not the Supreme Court that holds the key to the Baloch problem.
Last year the government declared a package of reforms for Balochistan with much fanfare. But the title of the package: Aghaz-e-huqooqe-balochistan, (beginning of the rights of Balochistan) itself is an admission that only now, after sixty-four years of neglect, the government has “begun” to recognize the rights of the Baloch people. However, no concrete step has yet been taken to implement the package.
Meanwhile, Republican Congressman, Dana Rohrabacher, a strong advocate of an independent Balochistan, recently organized and chaired a hearing by the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, on human rights violations in Balochistan.
Witnesses, including Amnesty International’s Advocacy Director, T. Kumar and Ali Dayan Hasan, Director for Human Rights Watch in Pakistan, gave details of human rights abuses. According to the statistics submitted, “approximately 6,000 people were displaced and scores were killed in 2005 around Dera Bugti district alone,” while estimates of the “total number of people displaced from all districts range from tens to hundreds of thousands.” In his testimony, Ali Dayan Hasan blamed the security forces and its intelligence agencies for the disappearance of Baloch nationalists.
In Pakistan, the event was condemned as an attack on the country’s fragile sovereignty and interference in Pakistan’s internal affairs. But the foreign office was satisfied with the report that the US State Department had distanced itself from the event.
Though the hearing may not influence the US government’s policy towards Pakistan per se, there is no question that it has catapulted Balochistan into the international limelight. It has also highlighted the level of US interest in Balochistan and its support for the nationalist movement. Besides, Rohrabacher declared that the hearing was no stunt and that the participants wanted to start a national dialogue on what US policy should be in that part of the world.
Rohrabacher, it may be noted, is one of the most anti-pakistan US lawmakers. He has already tabled a bill seeking US citizenship for Dr. Shakil Afridi to reward him for his assistance in tracing Osama bin Laden. If, therefore, he acts on his word the issue would receive further momentum in the coming weeks and months.
It is also noteworthy that though the White House does not share Rohrabacher’s views, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland expressed “deep concern” over the ongoing violence in Balochistan, “especially targeted killings, disappearances and human rights violations” in a press briefing as recently as January.
What form Rohrabacher’s campaign might eventually take cannot be predicted at the moment. But it may be recalled that during military action in East Pakistan, even though the White House did not support an independent Bangladesh, the US Longshoremen’s Association refused to load cargo on Pakistani vessels.
Pakistan’s leaders should therefore, treat the event as a warning of the approaching tsunami. Dismissing it with contempt or protesting against it would be naïve. Balochistan should be re-studied to realize that its vast natural resources, hundreds of miles of seacoast, deep sea port and common border with Iran, make it a key geopolitical area. An independent Balochistan allied with the bond of gratitude, would be too invaluable a prize for America to abandon.
Sincere efforts to reclaim the estranged Baloch people therefore need to be put into full gear before it is too late, because, as Akbar S. Ahmad recently observed, “while Balochistan can survive without Pakistan, it is Pakistan that simply cannot survive without Balochistan.”