The only way forward

The killing of Nawab Akbar Bugti should be enough to tell the rest of Southasia and the world how Islamabad’s military rulers intend to maintain their grip on the resource-rich and long-suffering province of Balochistan.

Three days prior to the birth of Pakistan, its founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah told his Constituent Assembly members, "The first observation that I would like to make is this: you will no doubt agree with me that the first duty of a government is to maintain law and order, so that the life, property and religious beliefs of its subjects are fully protected by the state.

Unfortunately, since its inception Pakistan has been victim to the whims of the feudal elite and its army. The entire mechanism of rule of law has been hijacked by this elite, at times directly and at times with military assistance. Since the Supreme Court decided in 1952 that the principle of necessity was acceptable justification for the violation of constitutional norms, the basic tenets of governance as described by Jinnah have been sidelined. Pakistan's judiciary has become a tool for the ruling clique, while the army has learned the game only well enough to take over the country multiple times.

Three short spells of democracy could not curtail the military's power, neither in political nor in economic sectors. The military is the biggest of all economic players in Pakistan today, with investments secure in such organisations as Pakistan Railways, the Water and Power Development Authority, and the National Logistics Cell; recently, it has even begun oil and gas exploration. For the army, this is good business: it has the capital, an abundance of free labour, and the ability to use the entire state structure to ensure the safety of its investments.

Once it had attained the status of a political group with arms on the side, the military proceeded to destroy the national political discourse, as well as the checks and balances necessary for a lawful and equitable democracy. This process not only destroyed the rule of law and national institutions, but generated strong feelings of injustice in many layers. Citizens felt there was unfairness in many spheres on the part of Islamabad, one of them being the denial of equal status to smaller provinces in the face of a Punjab-dominated military elite.

Due to the presence of this uniformed clique – bolstered by an endless line of civilian opportunists – Pakistan has failed to perform as a federal state, to adhere to its responsibilities towards its provinces, and to keep its promises of power-sharing and regional autonomy. Smaller provinces, particularly Balochistan, have subsequently worked with increasing fervour in recent decades to demand their rights. While such calls quickly gain momentum among the masses, they are just as quickly denounced and crushed by the military elite, which labels them as separatist or 'anti-Pakistan'. In addition, the ghost of East Pakistan's 'equal access' demands in the early 1970s continues to loom large in the psyche of the state establishment. It was only two years after the 1971 war that the cry went up for an independent Baloch state.

Economic martyr

Since the early 1950s, struggles for autonomy on the part of Sindh and the Northwest Frontier Province have regularly turned into pointless exercises in political negotiation. Due to the heavy presence of natural resources – particularly petroleum – in Balochistan, however, that province has long faced significantly greater levels of military high-handedness. Although several national bodies have been established to give the appearance that Islamabad is open to discussion on equitable resource-sharing, the production of official recommendations is celebrated by the regime as an achievement in and of itself. The recommendations, such as they are, have never been implemented.

In Balochistan, the Pakistani military sees an opportunity to secure a stable income, one that can ensure the maintenance of its domination for years to come. General Pervez Musharraf's decision to crush the ongoing political struggle in the province can be seen as an attempt to nurture the political and economic wings of the army. At the same time, not once has the government been able to ensure that the real issues facing the province were dealt with properly.

When the state failed to maintain its offices and administration in Balochistan's districts, President Musharraf in 2003 ordered the army to take over and build new cantonments, ratcheting up fears already rampant in the province. The purpose of the government's move was multifold: to use the show of force as a tactic to carry out systematic evictions of owners of land rich in natural resources; to ensure that jirgas and tribal leaders were bullied into stepping in line; and most importantly, to create enough space for the army and its economic enterprise to prove itself to be an 'economical ally' of the US, after having been a failed ally in the 'war on terror'. For the last few years, the Baloch have been pushed into corners to let the army's economic wing gain more and freer access to their natural resources. For this same reason, when former Balochistan governor and militant leader Nawab Akbar Bugti did not cooperate with President Musharraf, he was killed.

As much as Bugti's 26 August death at the hands of the Pakistan Air Force may appear business as usual, the act will have long-term consequences for both Pakistan and its military regime. With Bugti dead and hundreds having been arrested in recent weeks – not to mention the many more who have been disappeared over the past seven months – Islamabad has apparently closed itself down for any further dialogue or negotiation on issues of crucial importance to Balochistan.

President Musharraf is now trying to portray Bugti's death as an instance of his government's successful management of the Balochistan issue – an example of Islamabad's 'proactive' reaction to long-term injustices. But after years of game-playing, the general-president has made a critical error in resorting to excessive use of force, and eliminating the space that existed for dealing with Balochistan's issues. The fear now widespread in the province and the sudden evident absence of options will inevitably push more Baloch, young and old alike, towards violence and defiance of the law – if for no other reason than to mark their opposition to Islamabad's policies with regards to them.

International intervention

Islamabad's current strategy has in fact increased the risk of creating a civil conflict that will stretch into the indefinite future. It has also given the current fighting a nasty touch, with the neighbouring Pashtun currently being set up to fight against the Baloch. Pakistan's army, which is now so active and comfortable on the economic and political fronts, has lost much of its own fighting 'spirit'. As such, the top brass is likely to bring in another armed group to deal with the Baloch resistance.

Due to longstanding arrogance and the realisation of its physical power, Pakistan's military regime is incapable as well as unwilling to understand the current problem in Balochistan. Furthermore, it would be unable to fulfil the first prerequisite to engaging in dialogue with the Baloch: considering them as first-class citizens of Pakistan. As such, in a situation in which the presence of the state is limited to district and provincial headquarters, the regime will continue with oppressive tactics in order to stifle dissent.

Given this situation, it will fall to the international community to stop the heavy hand of the Islamabad military coming down on Balochistan's people, in particular those tribes that sit on resource-rich lands. The Pakistani system of government has proven itself incapable of dealing with even mundane issues, let alone those as complex as resource- and power-sharing. These questions require a strong state structure subservient to democratic principles and committed to human-rights norms – something that the current structure is not. An outside intervention is needed to solve the Pakistani state's deeply entrenched problems, but who in the international community could play such a role?

One approach would be for donor countries and other interested players to pressure Islamabad to allow an international commission to study Bugti's death, as well as other pending Baloch issues, which would naturally also bring in the matter of resource-sharing between the Centre and the province. While the process would thus begin as a reaction to the killing of the tribal leader, it would evolve into a proactive move to stop all-too-likely attacks on vulnerable tribes. At the very outset, the United Nations must send a Special Rapporteur to Balochistan, and demand information on all who have been 'disappeared' or detained in army camps, in or out of Balochistan. Islamabad must be forced to realise that loss of civilian lives and gross human-rights violations do matter to the rest of the world.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian