After national elections in February 2008, optimism in Pakistan was brimming over. Perhaps nowhere did the elections have a more immediate impact than in Balochistan, the province that has been attempting to break away from Islamabad’s control for decades. The first positive signs from the national capital came after Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Chairman (and now President) Asif Ali Zardari formally apologised to the people of Balochistan for the excesses committed against them in the past. He also announced that the new PPP-led government would call an all-parties conference to address the province’s long-entrenched problems, while also promising to form a truth commission to investigate the abuses. Such pledges, rarely if ever heard before, created a sudden blossoming of hope in the province. The three leading armed militant groups – the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), the Baloch Republican Army (BRA) and the Baloch Liberation Front (BLF) – even announced a joint unilateral ceasefire.
In the face of such optimism, the democratic government could have done much to capitalise on the hope and goodwill of the Baloch people. Unfortunately, more than a year after these promises were made, President Zardari has convened neither of the promised bodies. Why, exactly, is a matter of speculation. According to many observers, the inaction on Balochistan is due to the ongoing struggle for power within the government itself. Meanwhile, a lobby within the PPP is rumoured to be working to maintain Balochistan policies passed during Pervez Musharraf’s administration. Many point to the fact that Musharraf himself is still living in Army House, in Rawalpindi, where only the family of the serving chief of the army staff is supposed to be accommodated (and rumoured to be the safest place in Pakistan). Many feel that it is due specifically to the machinations of this lobby that, despite the government announcement, neither body has yet been convened.
Little of this current context matters on the ground. To the people of Balochistan, Islamabad’s unwillingness to end the costly conflict today appears to be a clear extension of the undemocratic approaches that have traditionally been deployed towards the province. In the face of the intransigence emanating from Islamabad, it was only a matter of time before Balochistan reacted to the inaction. So it was that, on 6 January, after four months of maintaining their voluntary ceasefire, the same three armed militant groups withdrew it. By 28 February, more than 50 people had lost their lives in numerous shootings and bomb blasts, as attacks by militant organisations were stepped up. At this point, around 40,000 army troops have been deployed to Balochistan, in addition to more than 100,000 paramilitary Frontier Corps personnel.
Meanwhile, many locals have expressed to this writer that they have reached something of a point of no return, alluding to a clear sense of disillusionment regarding the possibility of any political solution. “After the sacrifices of 60 years, what has Pakistan given us?” asked Kamran Mari, a social worker in Quetta. “Nothing but destruction.” He believes that the Baloch militants are fighting a war of independence, and supports their attempt to make Balochistan into a separate nation state. Likewise, Madni Baloch, in the town of Sibbi, is angry about the unfulfilled promises that have been made repeatedly by Islamabad. “That’s why today we have become allergic to all political parties,” he said. “We don’t know exactly what to think about the militant groups. But I can say that when they announced the end of the ceasefire, we felt very happy that now they can go against the army and the Frontier Corps.”
Six decades of discontent
The complaints in Balochistan date back to the beginning of Pakistan itself. After Partition, the newly formed state signed an agreement with the princely state of Kalat, which comprises modern-day Balochistan, allowing it autonomy until further negotiation. But the very next year, the government annexed the area, under threat to its ruler, Ahmad Yar Khan. Since then, the province has remained home to a number of armed separatist movements. Just as the make-up of these groups varies, so too do their demands, ranging from an independent Greater Balochistan, which would cover parts of modern-day Afghanistan and Iran; an independent country within the current provincial borders; and greater autonomy from Islamabad within existing Pakistan. Even amongst these differing aims, however, there are potent similarities between these groups: bitterness with the Pakistani state government for having been taken for granted, hunger and everyday frustration.
A significant part – though not all – of the problem boils down to the fact that the relationship between Islamabad and Balochistan has always been uncomfortably colonial. To begin with, the province hands over more than USD 1 billion to Islamabad yearly, though receiving only USD 116 million for development funds in return from the Centre. Considering that Balochistan is the second-largest producer of gas in Pakistan (though, again, consuming only a quarter of national output), its potential for income generation is clearly significant. In the current context, the province, which shares a highly porous border with Afghanistan, must be a central part of any discussion on the crossborder aspect of the ongoing insurgency in the western part of the region. Yet despite its importance in Southasian geopolitics, Balochistan is today a scarred province, populated by people convinced that they are caught in a thoroughly unequal and oppressive relationship with Pakistani lawmakers, and neglected in important decisions in which they have a role.
Although the separatist movement has been alive as long as Balochistan has been a part of Pakistan, it has taken deeper root since 2006. It was in August of that year that Nawab Akbar Shahbaz Khan Bugti – a former governor of Balochistan, cabinet-level minister and an outspoken critic of the government – was killed by a Pakistan Army missile. He was alleged to have been the head of the BLA. Since 2006, more than 80,000 families have been displaced from Balochistan, most of which are now living under extremely harsh conditions in Sindh and Punjab. According to the local people of Dera Bugti, Sui and Kohilloo, after the killing of Nawab Akbar, the administration imposed a draconian curfew in these areas, forcing many to flee.
But life is not much better for those who remain in the province. Arbitrary arrests, disappearances, blockades and restrictions on movement have not ceased. Although Islamabad remains silent on the matter of troops on the ground, according to many Baloch politicians Pakistani troops remain active in the province, and their intelligence networks are still very much operational. All the while, the resources-rich area suffers under increasing poverty and soaring unemployment. And even as government spending on law and order has increased in recent years, economic growth and investment levels remain dismal.
The political movement has likewise stepped up apace. Since the killing of Nawab Akbar Khan, his grandson, Nawab Brahamdagh Khan Bugti, has become the acknowledged leader of Baloch politics through the Jamhoori Watan Party (JWP). Founded and run during his lifetime by Nawab Akbar, the JWP was constant in its support of parliamentary politics and a political solution to the problem in Balochistan. After his grandfather’s assassination, Brahamdagh took over, changed the party’s name to the Balochistan Republican Party (BRP), and also changed the party’s focus to be part of the movement for a separate Balochistan. (Many nationalist politicians claim that Brahamdagh Bugti is currently headquartered in the village of Spin Baldak, across the border in Afghanistan.) Soon after, however, Nawab Akbar’s son, Nawab Talal Bugti, uncle of Brahamdagh announced that he would re-start the JWP, which would continue to work in accordance with its original vision of a moderate search for a political solution.
A broad spectrum of people in Balochistan today seems to support the BRP, particularly amongst the youth and the middle class. The massive popular backing for Brahamdagh himself is palpable on the ground. “Brahamdagh Khan Bugti wants to award us our independence. He is our national hero and we believe in his struggle,” said Rahim Yar Khan Bugti, a student, while sitting at a tea shop in Dera Bugti. “The time has passed since we Baloch believed that a democratic government” – in either Islamabad or Quetta – “could heal our wounds, and bring an end to our misery.” Many young Balochs share similar views, supporting Brahamdagh’s emphasis on rejecting all government offers for negotiation and reconciliation. Importantly, they claim that his struggle is not for provincial autonomy or ownership of Baloch resources, as prioritised by other nationalist leaders. Rather, his self-proclaimed ultimate goal is ‘national liberation’, meaning complete independence. Amidst the adulation that Brahamdagh is attracting, his uncle Talal has failed to gain traction, though Islamabad hopes to push the moderate vision in the province.
Desperate times seem to have led to increasingly desperate measures, including actions to catch the international attention. As the situation in Balochistan intensified recently, John Solecki, a US citizen and the Balochistan representative for the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, was kidnapped in Quetta on 2 February. After a week and a half, a new militant group, the Balochistan Liberation United Front (BLUF), contacted the Quetta-based news agency Online and claimed responsibility. Irfan Saeed, the Quetta bureau chief for Online, told this writer that a man identifying himself only as the BLUF spokesperson called the office and said that a parcel was waiting in the post box. Upon opening the package, Online staff found a list of 1109 missing men, another list of 141 missing women, and a video of Solecki. The group was demanding the release of the missing persons contained in the lists, as well as independence for Balochistan.
Though Solecki’s kidnapping is seen as a serious setback for Islamabad, many in Balochistan do not appear to be unhappy that it happened. Many Baloch with whom this writer spoke are of the view that the internationalisation of the Balochistan issue – including UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s visit to Pakistan, which took place in the immediate aftermath of the abduction – can only be good for the province in the long run. Nawab Talal Bugti, chairman of the second faction of the JWP, maintains that while he is not affiliated with the BLUF, he believes that the international attention generated by the kidnapping will help the province. “My father, Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, served Pakistan as patriot and a citizen, and his only reward was to be killed in an army operation,” he said recently in his Quetta office. He added, “But despite of all of these injustices, I opposed my nephew Nawab Brahamdagh Bugti’s independence movement. I prefer to keep the party as an icon of federalism in Balochistan.”
Soon after the kidnapping, a senior UN Development Programme (UNDP) delegation met with prominent Baloch nationalist Khair Bux Khan Mari in Karachi, asking for his help in securing Solecki’s release. After much international pressure, on 5 March it was announced that the Islamabad government had decided to accept the BLUF demands regarding the releasing of missing persons, who turned out to be in its custody. Subsequently, a committee headed by Aslam Raisani, chief minister of Balochistan, was formed to handle the demands, and many Baloch leaders are now saying that Solecki will be released shortly. The committee has begun work, liaising with law-enforcement agencies and other official organisations in order to trace the missing persons. They will ultimately prepare a report for the president and prime minister, though there is no specific timeframe for this.
These moves notwithstanding, even as the situation in Balochistan reaches what some are seeing as a breaking point, there is surprisingly little sense of public urgency in Islamabad. Speaking with this writer, Farhatullah Babar, the spokesperson for President Zardari, said that the government is working seriously to address all the pending issues in Balochistan. He maintained that healing the wounds of Balochistan had been a dream of Benazir Bhutto, one of the main reasons why President Zardari was so quick to apologise to the people of the province for past injustices after the PPP victory. Babar also noted that President Zardari has repeatedly asked Baloch MPs to pass an accord emphasising that the province’s problems be resolved through a legal process. Unfortunately, Baloch MPs too have turned a blind eye to their province, reinforcing the views that they are simply stooges of Islamabad. Babar would say little more on the matter. Indeed, every member of the federal government is currently avoiding the media on the Balochistan issue, and Babar himself refused to discuss either the truth commission or the APC for this article.
A great deal of mistrust exists between the Baloch people and Islamabad. Most Balochs feel pained, and increasingly frustrated, that after 60 years of giving Islamabad a chance to address the issues, there has been essentially no progress – the tantalising promises of the Zardari government notwithstanding. Instead, their homes have been showered with bombs and bullets, contributing to the further ruin of the political, economic and social situation in the province. Considering the intensity and extent of anti-Islamabad sentiment in Balochistan today, Pakistani national-level policymakers must rethink their current strategies and demonstrate their willingness to grant substantive political and economic autonomy to the people. This will bring its own challenges vis-à-vis the relationship between the Centre and the other provinces of Sindh, NWFP and Punjab. But as the province that feels the most alienated, the Balochistan spark could well engulf all of Pakistan if the warning signs are not heeded.
~ Yasir Babbar is an Islamabad-based journalist working at The Frontier Post and the Pakistan Press International.