Thursday, December 30, 2004

Challenges to Baloch Resistance

By Dr. Ashok K Behuria

Charles Napiere called Balochistan the place where Allah had dumped “all the rubbish of this earth“. British military intelligence called the Baloch “thieves by tradition and descent“after they found it difficult to tame them.
With the discovery of oil and gas in north eastern Balochistan over the period since the 1960s, Napiere’s dictum does not quite hold any more. The spirit of Balochi resistance about which the British forces insinuated in their writings, however, continues till today. The strategic lure of Balochi terrain has invited steady incursion and invasion from outside-it was under British administration before 1947 it has been part of the Pakistani state ever since.

The Balochis resisted the might of Pakistan during the accession, which every Baloch believes was done through force and fraud, and also during the 1970s, when prime Minster Bhutto sent in General Tikka Khan, the butcher of East Pakistan and Balochistan, who infamously declared: “we need the territory, not the people of Balochistan.“ The rebel leaders were either allowed to flee or made to change their orientation during army rule under General Zia-ul-Haq, and consequently the movement was deemed to have kept silence waiting for another day.

But, enter the new millennium, and the clouds of a fresh insurgency have started building up. This has come out into open since the beginning of the year and even warranted army action since July since when encounters between the army and insurgents have resulted in quite a few casualties. Keeping in mind recent events in Balochistan — the killing of some off-duty army-men, an attack on the Balochi Chief Minister and subsequent arrest warrants against veteran Balochi leaders such as Khair Baksh Marri and Mr. Akhtar Mengal and their followers — suggests that Balochi unrest may again pose internal security problems for Pakistan. It is useful to analyse the phenomenon from a strategic perspective.

The current Balochi resistance drive has been building up for quite some time, especially since the federal authorities in Pakistan started developing Gwadar port with road and rail links to it as part of an ambitious project to provide a surface trade link with central Asia through Chaman, Kandahar and across Afghanistan into central Asia via the Silk Route. This was a fashionable idea during Nawaz Sharif’s time, the late 1990s. Chinese patronage of the idea gave it a further boost and it continued after General Musharraf’s takeover of the Pakistan government.
Resistance from the Balochi side to such efforts by the federal government efforts were initially limited to the nationalist fringe that came out with the traditional interpretation that even if it brought development to Balochistan, the development would ultimately favour the Punjabis. But the Balochi resistance was submerged in the Islamist fervour that surfaced in the wake of post-9/11 war on terror in the neighborhood.

Pakistani Interior Minister Faisal Salah Hayat held a press conference as Balochi soldiers’ burn confiscated drugs. Pakistan has stepped up its crackdown on Balochi rebels, including raids throughout the province

This was made apparent by way the nationalist parties suffered severe reverses in the elections of 2002, even if they did not quite concede the areas where the traditional nationalism held sway, in Khuzdar, Kohlu, Dera Bugti, and Awaran.

But the sense of Balochi disaffection grew in the aftermath of the attack on the Taliban in Afghanistan and the establishment of US bases in Pasni, Gwadar, Dalbandin and Jacobabad in Sindh. This was not so much because of the US military presence but because of the decision of the Musharraf administration to establish some army cantonments in Balochistan, under the pretext of contributing to the war on terror. This was part of a larger plan to consolidate the army’s position in the border provinces.

The army, as well as the MMA-led government in Balochistan, could not effectively counter the Balochi nationalist argument, which was put forward through the Pakistan Oppressed Nations’ Movement, that the building up of cantonments will help the Punjabis in strengthening their controls over the Balochis and their territory. The imperiousness with which the federal administration dealt with the legitimate demands of the Balochis, that they should be given preferential treatment in recruitment for so-called developmental activities, hardened their sentiments further. In a way, General Musharraf obliged Balochi nationalists with a cause they were desperately in need of, to resuscitate nationalist resistance.

While all this was happening it was interesting to see a younger generation of Balochi leadership taking on the mantle of the resistance movement. This new leadership is removed from the old in terms of its bases of influence, its outlook, its power of articulation and its ability to look at the Balochi problem in an unemotional way. Young leaders like Sanaullah Baloch (at present a Senator and associated with the Baloch Nationalist Party), and Hameed Baloch, Amaullah Baloch, who are associated with the Baloch Students Organisation (BSO, which has become BSO-United), which provided the sparks during the resistance of the 1970s, do not look towards the old traditional Sardari based system of loyalty and privilege for a guaranteed support base. Through their appeal and persuasion they have managed to assemble a group which is modern in its outlook and has the capacity to sustain the Balochi nationalist struggle for a longer period.

This is not to deny that the veterans of the resistance movement in the 1950s and 1970s, the “famous four”— Ghaus Bux Bizenzo, Khair Bux Marri, Mr. Akbar Bugti and Ataullah Mengal — have lost their appeal. The younger Balochi leadership, as was perceptible in the submission by Senator Sanaullah Baloch in Delhi, a few months ago, has enough respect for them and in fact jealously covers up the weakness of some of them like N.A. Bugti for hobnobbing with the federal administration in Islamabad.

It needs further mention here that the spark of the ongoing Balochi upsurge started from the areas still under the control of some of these veteran families. It built up around the terrain rich in gas resources (estimated total reserve of around 25.9 trillion cubic metres) and under the control of the Mengals, Marris and the Bugtis in the districts of northern Khuzdar, Kohlu and Dera bugti respectively. The tribe Marri has kept the flag of resistance alive in Kohlu, while Mr. Akbar Bugti’s successors have jealously guarded their influence in the Bugti region. Since October 2003, the Kohlu and Bugti areas have witnessed sporadic attacks on outposts of the Frontier Constabulary and the Levies. They have also reacted strongly to the idea of building up a cantonment in Kohlu, for which the federal government has asked the oil companies to contribute (Rs. 600 million over two years) since it is in their interest.

These growing attacks on the army in northern-central Balochistan (in Kohlu and Dera Bugti) perhaps encouraged the Balochi nationalists of the south around Kech (Turbat) and Gwadar and later Khuzdar to resist the idea of a stronger and larger army presence in Gwadar. In fact, since June the nationalists have even rejected the Mirani dam project close to Turbat and fired several rockets at the project site, damaging some parts of it.
The encounters between the army and the Balochi nationalists have become regular and more intense since early July 2004 when, in response to the rising tide of terrorist attacks in Karachi, Musharraf directed the Gwadar Port Implementation Authority (GPIA) to shift to Gwadar and instructed the army to provide them with tight security in view of the earlier attack on the Chinese engineers in April. With the introduction of regular army into the fight with the Balochi nationalists, the struggle has intensified and the attacks on the MMA Chief Minister and army men (who were only going on leave), the insurgency seems to be gathering momentum.

The problems the resistance movement may encounter in the coming weeks could, however, come from within the movement. For it will be really difficult to sustain the tenuous pan-Balochi unity, cutting across divisions on the lines of tribes, clans and even ethnicity (Baloch-Brahui). At another level, the Islamist enthusiasm of the majority Pushtuns of the northern Balochistan, which seems to have infected many Balochis in the Balochi-dominated corners in the western, central and southern Balochistan, is also diluting the nationalist position and making the army intrusion in the name of anti-terrorist operation, look more legitimate and creating more enemies than friends for the movement outside. Henry Kissinger said in 1962 that he would not recognize the Balochi problem even if it hit him in the face, and one believes the response of his successor in the US State Department would not be any different at present. It will thus require exemplary leadership, long-term strategy and resources to keep the movement alive.

In the Pakistani media, the insurgency in Balochistan is not given the attention it deserves. But still there is a suspicion in Pakistan, according to Pakistani sources, that the army is deliberately provoking the Balochis, fully aware of their sense of disaffection, to prepare the case for the ouster of the MMA government in the province. And with the introduction of sophisticated defence equipment for tackling the insurgency as well as assured American sympathy with its command, the army will never allow the insurgency to build up beyond a point. However, it would be naïve on the part of Pakistani administration to equate Wana with Balochistan, as Balach Khan Marri would argue, in one of his recent articles in Urdu. The present state of Balochi resistance is more explosive and cohesive, he would say.

It has been a constant refrain of many analysts close to the Pakistani establishment to try and drag India into the internal troubles in Pakistan and invent an Indian hand even behind the sectarian killings on the occasion of Muharram in Quetta. Such inventions have hardly helped to bring down the temperature in Balochistan. The authorities in Pakistan will have to be sensitive to the genuine demands placed on the federal government by the Balochis, rather than seeking to quell any show of resistance through force alone. History is witness to the fact that suppression is the fertilizer that nourishes such movements. If Balochistan burns today can Searikistan, Balwaristan and Pakhtunistan be far behind?

Dr. Ashok K Behuria is a New Delhi-based commentator on Pakistani society and politics


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