Between tribe and country: The crisis of Balochistan

Between tribe and country: The crisis of Balochistan

Caption: Baloch bandolier and jutis.
Image: Massoud Ansari

For the past two years, the eerie silences in the rugged expanses of Balochistan have been shattered by the screams and thuds of mortars. When the first rocket attack struck Quetta back in 1998, it was considered an aberration. According to official estimates, militants have fired over 30,000 mortars in the province since the insurgency picked up steam in 2005. During that year alone, nearly 1570 attacks were carried out, and they were not confined to tribal areas. Instead, insurgents belonging to the outlawed Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) and fighters of the Marri and Bugti tribes have targeted the Pakistani armed forces and foreign workers. There have been pitched battles between the paramilitary Frontier Corps and the insurgents.

Recently, tensions have risen to near breaking point. "I won't say it is the beginning of the end, but it certainly is not an easy task by any means to completely quell these insurgents, who are thriving on the very genuine grievances of the people," says Nawab Haji Lashkari, a chieftain of Raisani tribe.

The Raisanis form one of Balochistan's main tribes, mostly found in the province's Dadhar and Sibi districts, where vast archaeological ruins have been recently discovered that indicate continuous habitation from around 7000 BC to 2000 BC. This place of antiquity is today mired in the tensions of a modern-day tussle for power between a national capital and a province. "No one can reverse the course of history," says Lashkari. "But they have to make a tenfold greater effort now to make people feel a part of the system, instead of trying to silence them with the barrel of a gun." By 'they' Lashkari means the Islamabad administration.

Lashkari himself lives in a fortified house in Quetta, where heavily armed tribesmen keep constant vigil over the movement on the roads and trails. Such precaution is understandable, given the host of tribal enmities in which his kinsmen are involved. Lashkari's father, Sardar Ghous Bakhsh Raisani, a former governor of Balochistan, is thought to have been killed by Rind tribesmen during the 1980s over a local dispute. Since then, several dozen men from the Rind and Raisani tribes have been killed in a rivalry that is yet to be settled. The heads of both tribes now live in fortified compounds similar to Lashkari's, and move only under heavy guard.

Balochistan today is a hornet's nest marked by feuds amongst its tribes leavened with disgruntlement and anger targeted at the federal government. The province's total population is around seven million, and is divided into several tribes – the Raisani, Zehri, Bugti, Marri, Rind and Mengal, to name the most prominent. Even though they mainly speak either Balochi (a tongue with origins in present-day northwestern Iran) or Brahui (a Dravidian language), each tribe has its own chieftain and insists on asserting a separate identity. These groups have long fought each other, and the feuds tend to be longstanding.

In recent months, Baloch leaders have tried to buck the trend of historical rivalry in order to target Islamabad as the common enemy. Angry youths from different tribes have come together to take up the gauntlet against the capital. Although not every Baloch is a part of the armed struggle, everyone is seething with anger against what is widely referred to as the "Punjab-dominated" federal government.

The current armed struggle in Balochistan is hardly a new phenomenon. As a result of the colonial 'Great Game' during the 19th century, the people of what could be loosely termed Balochistan – a region inhabited by tribes that accepted affinity to each other – were forcibly divided between Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Even after Independence and the creation of Pakistan in August 1947, for more than a year present-day Balochistan remained only loosely federated to Pakistan. In 1948, however, it was formally annexed – against the will of the people of Balochistan, many say. This discontentment at being forced to join the federation has led to three movements of independence.  

The first of Balochistan's armed movements was led by Karim Khan during 1948, beginning very soon after the area's annexation. The second erupted in 1968, and was led by Nawab Nowroz Khan. Both of these ended quickly. But following 1971, Baloch tribesmen took a cue from Bangladeshi nationalists, who on the other side of the Subcontinent had successfully wrested their independence from the Pakistani state after years of disaffection. The year 1973 saw the emergence of a major insurgency in Balochistan. Many Baloch tribes, mainly led by Marri and Mengal chiefs, took part in this struggle, which lasted for nearly five years. As with the earlier two, this armed movement too was ruthlessly crushed by the Pakistan Army. As the relationship between the province and the rest of the country – and particularly the capital – has evolved over the past three decades, sentiments that motivated the three insurrections of the past have, if anything, been sharpened.

Watan ya kafan
Following the step-up in violence in 2005, the old agenda of Balochistan's militants – that of 'snatching more rights' from the central government in order to exercise greater control over the province's abundant natural resources – has for the first time received a serious hearing in the rest of Pakistan. This attention of opinion-makers in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad can largely be attributed to the dramatic killing, on 26 August of last year, of the renegade tribal leader Nawab Akbar Bugti, at age 79. Not only was Bugti's killing by the armed forces startlingly brutal, the order for his assassination is believed to have come directly from General Pervez Musharraf.

Nawab Bugti was not necessarily one of the province's most popular leaders, but his assassination has generated a grievous sense of injury among the Baloch. On the streets of Quetta, many readily proclaim that Bugti's assassination will have far-reaching consequences, for both the province and Pakistan.

Warns Haider Bhurgri, a Baloch development worker, "General Musharraf may think that he has gotten away with the murder of Nawab Akbar Bugti, but his killing will always remain one of the major charge sheets against the federation of Pakistan." Bhurgri says that the fallout of Bugti's killing may not become evident as some activists may wish, but he notes that "the course of future action is certainly set". Bhurgri's frustration is shared by many Baloch, as also his words regarding a 'future action', which is a clear reference to the eventual dismemberment of present-day Pakistan and the emergence of an independent Balochistan.

People may look for signs of what is to come in different ways, but the Baloch opinion with regards to the future remains largely united. Using a traditional method of predicting the future, one local sardar studies the bones of a butchered goat, and predicts Balochistan's independence. "Balochs, who are born in these vast lands, are very independent people by nature," he says. "I can tell you it should not take more than ten years before we attain independence." His clansmen gather around and listen attentively to their chief's 'forecast'. They too claim to see in the fleshless bones of the goat a future very much as their sardar has described. The chieftain continues, with evident bravado: "We have been Baloch for more than 7000 years. We became Muslim some 1400 years ago, and have been Pakistanis for just 60 years."

The sardar who would divine the future did not want to be identified. Despite obvious disgruntlement with the Pakistani state, except for a noteworthy few, most sardars prefer not to be vocal about the separatist desire, fearing a backlash from Islamabad. Privately, however, many openly discuss independence. But while the elders remain circumspect, Baloch youths are becoming increasingly aggressive, and many today work to make their desire for independence as public as possible. Such a tendency was evident in the aftermath of Nawab Bugti's assassination, when a major tribal jirga was called by the Khan of Kalat to decide on the course of action to be taken. The meeting was attended by all the local tribal heads, and an overwhelming number of young people also showed up. They attempted to pressure the elders to call for an independent Balochistan, with some threatening to otherwise set themselves afire. Eventually the elders prevailed, telling the gathered youth that it was too early for such sloganeering, which they said could end up causing more loss for the province. Instead, the jirga demanded that Islamabad provide Balochistan with more autonomy and more rights for its people, as was promised to them when they joined Pakistan nearly six decades ago.

Notwithstanding the success of moderates during the 2006 jirga, walls across Balochistan today reverberate with graffiti for a 'Greater Balochistan'. 'Watan ya Kafan' is the rallying cry: either to attain independence, or a willingness to end up in a coffin. A proposed national anthem for an independent Balochistan is currently in circulation, and parallels are regularly drawn with the rumblings in East Pakistan pre-1971.

The provincial colony
Although each of the three Baloch uprisings (not counting the current agitation) has eventually been subdued by the military, none of Pakistan's governments has ever undertaken a serious attempt to deal with the roots of the anger on which Baloch nationalism is founded. The source of disenchantment lies in the deep-seated suspicion among the Baloch people that they are being treated by both Islamabad and the country at large (and particularly Punjab) as a colony. The fact that Balochistan constitutes more than 42 percent of Pakistan's landmass is presented with vehemence. Despite the province's massive mineral and petroleum reserves, development and living standards in the province remain extremely low, even by Pakistani standards, and this goes to the heart of the matter: The Baloch are being made to bleed for the sake of Pakistan.

Caption: Following the air assault, local oficials used Nawab Bugti's trademark glasses to confirm his death

The first deposits of natural gas in Balochistan were discovered in Sui in 1953. Since then, the national economy has benefited enormously from this cheap source of energy, although no royalty was offered to Quetta until 1980. That meagre amount has now remained static for more than two and a half decades. Although household and commercial gas was supplied to Punjab as far back as 1964, Quetta had to wait until 1986 to be connected – the same year that Islamabad established a military garrison there. Similarly, Dera Bugti District, home to the Sui gas fields, go connected to gas only because a paramilitary camp was opened there in the mid-1990s, and needed the service. Even today, only four of Balochistan's 26 districts are supplied with gas – as compared to nearly every village in Punjab and Sindh.

A copper project in Saindak, in Chagai District near the Iranian border, was originally supposed to train and employ local youth. The project remained in limbo between 1996 and 2005 due to Islamabad's unwillingness to provide PKR 1.5 billion of working capital. In 2005, the project came under Chinese management. The Metallurgical Construction Corporation (MCC) of China, which has been given the project on a ten-year lease, is now to invest roughly USD 1.4 billion, in return for 50 percent of the plant's profits. Out of the remainder, 48 percent will go to the federal government, while just two percent will stay in Balochistan.

For their part, companies working in Balochistan say that their operating costs in the province are extremely high, since enormous royalties have always been paid to the Sardar of Sui, Nawab Bugti, and some of the other chieftains. S Munsif Raza, the chief executive of Pakistan Petroleum Limited (PPL), one of the country's oldest and largest oil and gas companies, admits that although his company has not paid cash, it provides diesel, medicine and other materials to the tribal chiefs. "All the companies working in Sui have to oblige them or else they won't be allowed to work," says Raza. Likewise, contractors who work in Sui are paid more than those who do the same jobs in other areas. "We pay up to 75 percent less to contractors doing work in the gas fields in Sindh than to those who work in Sui. Their costs increase because they have to put in more money to ensure security," says Raza.

Whenever Balochistan's economic backwardness is discussed, officials in Islamabad also tend to repeat that refrain – that it is due to the avarice of the tribal chieftains, particularly Sardar Khair Bakhsh Marri, Sardar Attaullah Mengal and the late Nawab Akbar Bugti. Gen Musharraf has called these three "corruptible and corrupt", and dubbed them impediments to the construction of "mega-projects in particular and to development in the province in general". They act as impediments, he says, "for fear that their traditional hold on their areas may be weakened by modernisation".

But many observers are convinced that this deflection of blame is but a smokescreen. "This is absolutely incorrect and a lame excuse," says 'Hafiz', a Quetta teacher who does not want his identity revealed. "They have used this to justify the stepmotherly treatment meted out to us since the very outset. There are only two or three sardars who had been declared 'renegades' by various governments. These sardars may have sway over three districts, but what would the government say to the underdevelopment of the rest of the province?" When it comes to these tribal heads, Hafiz continues, the amount of power the state has in Balochistan can be gauged by the fact that Islamabad has now killed one of these sardars, another is in hiding, and the third has been imprisoned. "And still they are holding these chieftains responsible for underdevelopment!"

Hafiz adds that Nawab Bugti was part of the government several times over a period of 40 years. In 1958, he was elected to the National Assembly, following which he briefly served as minister of state (handling home affairs) in the government of Malik Sir Feroz Khan. In 1973 he served as governor of Balochistan, and in 1989 was elected the province's chief minister. In 1993 and again in 1997, Bugti was elected to the National Assembly, representing the Jamhoori Watan Party, Balochistan's largest political unit. However, his stints in the government did not seem to significantly change the equation between the province and the Centre. In fact, Nawab Bugti resigned from government posts on several occasions, due to disagreements with the federal government's Balochistan policies.

The present chief minister, Jam Muhammad Yousif, is also a chief of his tribe, as was Zulfikar Magsi, the previous chief minister. "So why has there been no development work carried out in these areas?" Hafiz asks. "Why are there still no schools, no colleges, no roads and no hospitals in these areas?" It may be worth noting here that, from the province's 1948 accession by Pakistan to the present, Baloch nationalists have ruled Balochistan for a total of just 37 months. These include the eight-month chief ministership of Sardar Attaullah Mengal (see accompanying interview), which ended in February 1973 with the dismissal of his government; and the 17-month term of Nawab Akbar Bugti, who resigned as governor after a disagreement over the deployment of the Pakistan Army in Balochistan as part of the crackdown on the National Awami Party. Nawab Bugti's term as chief minister also lasted for just 17 months; he resigned in August 1990 because he could not agree with Benazir Bhutto's government on the rights of the province. Sardar Akhtar Mengal's one-year term as chief minister ended in July 1998 following the decision of the Pakistani Muslim League to withdraw support to the ruling alliance in the province.

While the reasons may be various, the lack of infrastructure and services is readily apparent on the ground. Throughout Balochistan, there is neither a modern cardiology nor a dialysis centre, and patients able to do so travel the thousand miles to Karachi for such treatment. Similarly, schools and colleges, if they exist at all, are under-staffed and unable to provide any kind of quality education. Again, those who can afford it send their children to study in the cities of Punjab or Sindh.

Even as Gen Musharraf has often conceded that the graduates from Balochistan are the worst prepared in the country, he has never publicly delved into the reasons behind this anomaly. The fact is, successive Islamabad governments have simply never made an effort to staff Balochistan's educational institutions with qualified teachers. Asks Jamil Mengal, a Quetta local: "When they can set up excellent schools in the remote areas of Punjab, such as Bahawalpur or Marri, why has no effort ever been made to set up a proper school to impart quality education to the people of Balochistan?"

The federal government is today engaged in muzzling independent voices from Balochistan. Over the past two years, after Islamabad loosened its media policy and allowed private players to get into broadcasting, almost every province has set up one or two television channels in the regional language. However, when a Quetta-based journalist named Munir Mengal tried to set up a Balochi channel, he was arrested by intelligence agents. Mengal has now been missing for two years. The government has officially denied that Mengal is in its custody; but privately, officials concede that he was picked up after the intelligence agencies received reports that he was planning to set up a satellite TV channel to uplink from Singapore. The Balochistan Liberation Army had allegedly provided him with financial assistance, with an eye towards promoting the nationalist cause.

"Forget about roads or fancy buildings. Just look at the basic facilities of the modern world – the education, health and other social indicators in the province," says Saleem Baloch, based in Quetta. "They are in shambles when you compare them with Pakistan's other underdeveloped areas, outside Balochistan." He says that such a situation has increasingly compelled the Baloch people to pay more and more attention to the rhetoric of the secessionists. "We are providing the most precious source of energy, especially natural gas, to the entire country. And yet we continue to live in the pastoral age, where man and animal share water from the same ponds!"

The lack of basic infrastructure for the majority of Baloch is all the more stark when contrasted with the province's wealth of natural resources. Besides copper, oil and natural gas, Balochistan is host to large deposits of coal, silver, gold, platinum and aluminium. In addition, significant deposits of uranium have also been found in the province, which feed Pakistan's need for weapons-grade fissile materials.

Along the Makran coast
Since the inception of the Pakistani state, Baloch politics have been factionalised by federal interference. With few exceptions, every time a new chief minister has been installed by Islamabad, the perception is that the province continues to be run by federal diktat – almost as if by remote control. One particularly egregious example of this disconnect was the detonation of a nuclear bomb in the Chagai mountains in May 1998: neither the Provincial Assembly members nor the chief minister were taken into confidence before that test. Besides a nuclear testing ground, Balochistan continues also to serve as the main base for Pakistan's space programme and rocket experimentation.

Caption: Militarised Quetta, March 2007.

None of Islamabad's administrations have promulgated a serious policy of development in the province, even while the rest of the country has benefited greatly from Balochistan's plentiful natural resources. For instance, the multi-billion dollar deep-sea port in Gwadar, which was inaugurated in March this year, was approved by neither the Provincial Assembly nor the Balochistan government. Rather, the massive project was handed down by fiat from Islamabad in the name of development. Against such a backdrop, Baloch nationalists are feeling so disillusioned with the system that today they perceive these mega-projects as attempts not only to plunder their resources, but also to marginalise and colonise the local people.

Since Independence, 95 percent of Balochistan has been dubbed a 'B-area' by the Islamabad authorities. While 'A-areas' encompass urban centres such as Quetta, Sibi and Loralai, all tribal and other areas outside of municipal limits are known as B-areas, which means that they are ruled by the 'Levies forces', or the semi-private armies of pro-government sardars. Ironically, when Islamabad recently began initiating large development projects in Balochistan, it found the Levies forces incapable of handling local insurgents. As such, government officials decided to dispense with their services, and to bring some areas under the regular administration. Other areas where the government has major interests, however, are likely to come under the vigil of the Pakistan Army.

The government is now planning to construct military garrisons in the three most sensitive districts of Balochistan – Sui, with its gas-producing installations; Gwadar, with its grandiose port project; and Kohlu, the 'capital' of the Marri tribe, to which most of the nationalist hardliners belong. The government insists that the construction of garrisons goes hand in hand with road construction and the setting up of schools and hospitals. Nationalist leaders, however, view these cantonments as outposts of control and repression, not development. Since these installations are not located near sensitive frontier areas, the apprehension seems well founded that the army will not be used to exert control over an external enemy, but rather over disgruntled local elements.

Beyond outright oppression, the apprehension remains that along with the funding of massive national projects will come a flood of outsiders. When the government first announced plans to construct the Gwadar port in 2003, many nationalists opposed it, fearing the marginalisation of the local population by an influx of migrant labour. Parallels are drawn with Karachi, where the indigenous Sindhis have now become a minority. The new coastal highway between Gwadar and Karachi, which has reduced travel time considerably, has also become an object of provincial paranoia. Before the government announced the development of Gwadar, an acre of land was going for as little as PKR 15,000. Nowadays, a plot of just 1000 square yards fetches up to PKR 5 million. This is a sum far beyond the reach of ordinary Balochs.

Another port recently developed is Port Qasim on the Makran coast, built in cooperation with Kuwait. The Jiwani peninsula, near the Iranian border, is being developed as a strategic airport together with a berthing facility for naval ships. Jiwani and nearby areas are also being explored for petroleum, while some Chinese firms aim to explore offshore for oil reserves. The Makran coast also reportedly has a covert port facility near Ormara, used by Pakistan's Hangor Class submarines. There have also been recent indications that Adi and Damb, on the Sonmiani Bay, are being developed as strategic ports, reportedly with US assistance.

Chinese interest in Balochistan – described by some as the 'Gateway to the Central Asian heartland' – is significant. Aside from its collaboration with Pakistan in nuclear and missile technology, and its development of mining facilities and the Gwadar port, China is interested in a joint operation with Iran and Pakistan for laying oil and gas pipelines to run from the Makran coast through inland Balochistan, Sindh, Punjab and Pakistan-administered Kashmir, to destinations in China's Xinjiang province. Amidst the modern 'great game' being played out on the Baloch landscape, the locals feel un-consulted and marginalised, and have decided one more time to try and flex their considerable muscle.

The current crisis in Balochistan erupted following the January 2005 rape, allegedly by an army captain, of Shazia Khalid, a medical doctor working for Pakistan Petroleum Limited in Sui. Before any official inquiry was conducted, Gen Musharraf publicly stated that no army captain had been involved. Although an inquiry was eventually made, the government has not publicised details of its findings, nor disclosed the name(s) of the guilty. Over the past two years, this issue has infuriated Baloch leaders, for whom Baloch honour has long been a cause around which they have rallied their followers. In an attempt to stem the fallout from the incident, government officials lashed out at Nawab Bugti and his tribesmen, accusing them of blackmailing the government.

Bugti began to be described as being a mastermind behind the Baloch Liberation Army, and accused of securing its support from neighbouring India. Other than the fact of its emergence in the 1970s, the BLA's origins remain unclear (see box). It is known to be fighting for Balochistan's independence, and has been held responsible for most of the militant attacks carried out in Balochistan over the past eight years. The BLA was officially outlawed last year, after a crisis began brewing around the case of Shazia Khalid.

Since the army operation began in Balochistan two years ago, a significant (though unknown) number of Baloch people have disappeared after being detained on charges of "spying for an enemy country", or for alleged connections with the BLA. The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan maintains that 400-500 people are currently missing, while nationalist leaders place that number at more than 4000. Many of those who have been picked up have either been Bugti tribesmen or otherwise had connections with Nawab Bugti. The government has continuously refuted charges of mass arrests, but Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao has publicly admitted that around 4000 people have been arrested in connection with the Baloch conflict. Meanwhile, for two years Pakistan's armed forces have indiscriminately bombed civilian settlements in Balochistan. It is a campaign of fear marked by disappearances, torture and custodial killings.

For their part, many Islamabad policymakers profess to be convinced that the reasons behind the Baloch unrest are to be found in foreign intervention, and their finger points to India, Afghanistan and Iran. "All this violence is a part of a greater conspiracy," Gen Musharraf said in a countrywide address a few days after Nawab Bugti was killed. "These militants would not be challenging the government so openly without the back-up of a foreign hand." Without naming any other country, he claimed that surrendered militants had disclosed to authorities how massive loads of weapons and tonnes of rupees were being supplied to them from the governments of neighbouring countries. (And indeed, both before and after Nawab Bugti's murder, dozens of his commanders publicly admitted that money and weapons had been supplied to them by sources in India.)

Some government officials in Balochistan even suggest that the BLA's two main leaders – Berhmada Bugti, the grandson of Nawab Bugti, and Hairbiyar Marri, the son of Nawab Khair Bakhsh Marri – are currently residing in Afghanistan at the invitation of Hamid Karzai, allegedly on the insistence of India. Although available information does indicate that these two are in Afghanistan at present, the rest appears to be conjecture. Intelligence officials in Islamabad maintain that there are various places in Zhob and Naushki districts, on the Balochistan-Afghanistan frontier, through which money and weapons are supplied to Baloch rebel leaders. These sources maintain that over the past two years, Baloch insurgents have procured weapons worth PKR 500 million (USD 8.2 million) from the Kabul government.

Baloch locals reject such claims, pointing out that every time they have raised their collective voice they have been dubbed 'foreign agents' – a convenient diversion, they say. "When the operation against the nationalists was launched in the 1960s, they were described as belonging to the CIA. In the 1970s, these nationalists were dubbed as KGB agents. Now they are branding them as RAW," said a Quetta college teacher. "It is always easy to tarnish the image of genuine movements. And, just for argument's sake, let us say that this is true, then the government should think about why these locals are compelled to seek support from foreign hands."

United Balochistan
Until Islamabad – which is viewed from the Baloch periphery as the capital not of Pakistan but of 'Punjabistan' – does more to address the grievances and accommodate the ethnic, cultural, economic and other interests of the majority of the people in Balochistan, no solution to the current situation is possible. Because introspection in Islamabad seems unlikely in the near future, the decade-old stalemate in Balochistan looks set to continue, possibly to worsen.

In the run-up to the general elections scheduled for later this year, Gen Musharraf, who at one point appeared to have a relatively solid hold on his administration and governance, has been increasingly losing control. Following the assassination of Nawab Bugti, the people of Balochistan have lost any faith in Gen Musharraf they may have once had, and the problems the province currently faces will almost certainly continue until he is out of office. At a time when Pakistanis throughout the country have also rapidly lost faith in Gen Musharraf's administration, in preparing for the general elections his administration's priorities will be on Punjab and Sindh, rather than on addressing Baloch grievances.

The importance of Balochistan to Pakistan lies not only in its natural resources but also in its strategic location. Quetta, Pakistan's all-important road-head to Kandahar in Afghanistan, witnessed the considerable mobilisation by Pakistan, the US, Saudi Arabia and others to fight the Soviet forces in Afghanistan. In addition to being used by the Afghan mujahideen and mercenaries under Osama bin Laden's command, Quetta also houses the operational forward base of Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). It is also rumoured that, to date, Islamabad is supporting the resurgent Taliban forces in Quetta, and that under no circumstances would it allow Afghan, Indian or other forces to gain a toehold in the strategically important capital of Balochistan.

But if the now two-year-old military operation has driven home the fact that there is little hope of 'containing' the Baloch issue on the current administration's watch, there is also little prospect for the success of the Baloch insurgents' desire for self-determination. This will remain the case until the militants are able to gather together their divided clan-based loyalties, overcome intra-tribal feuds and articulate a unified Baloch nationalism. If the goal remains independence, Baloch nationalist and militant organisations remain too scattered and un-unified to achieve their aims. What they can do, however, is continue to attract frustrated young people to their fiery cause, inevitably feeding a cycle of militancy and military response with which Islamabad seems only too willing to play along. Those who would lose in this are the Baloch people, caught between rivalries at home and the domination of 'Punjabistan', as they would see it.

Massoud Ansari is a Karachi-based journalist with Newsline.

The armed resistance
Caption: Baloch nationalist poster

Anti-Islamabad sentiment has seen the rise of an extensive armed resistance in Balochistan, although not much is known about the armed groups themselves. It is believed that young men are trained in tactics of guerrilla warfare in several camps, with estimates of the number of camps ranging from 15 (official figures) to 40 (according to journalists quoting local residents). The camps, each of which is said to house 300-500 recruits, are believed to be located in militarily strategic areas, using abandoned facilities built by the Pakistan Army during its 1973 operation against Baloch nationalists.

There are currently two known armed groups. The Baloch Liberation Army is an amorphous, underground organisation that is believed to have emerged in the University of Balochistan, in Quetta, during the 1970s. Left-leaning members of the Baloch Student's Organisation are thought to be the BLA's most important component. To establish the BLA as a countervailing force in a country perceived to be the weakest link in the international-coalition chain, the former USSR is believed to have supplied the BLA with money, arms and logistical support. The fall of the USSR was succeeded by a period of silence surrounding the BLA.

Following its ouster from Kabul, the presence of the Taliban in Pakistani-Afghan border areas prompted the US to establish its own spy network, to crosscheck the information made available to them by the ISI. Anti-Taliban nationalist elements, whether Pashtun or Baloch, were employed as the best available resource for the purpose of tracking Taliban activities.

According to some sources, Khair Baksh Marri's sons – Ballach Khan Marri, a member of the Balochistan provincial assembly, and Meheryar Khan Marri, a former provincial minister – are part of the BLA's leadership. Ballach Khan Marri has, however, publicly refuted this charge, even as he has expressed his support to the BLA's cause. BLA members are held to be from both the Bugti and Marri tribes, while members of the Mengal tribe are also believed to be joining its ranks of late. The BLA is said to have upwards of 5000 fighters, most of them having been trained in Afghanistan.

Websites such as and carry details of the armed actions carried out in Balochistan by the BLA. Journalists who have visited BLA training camps say that the group possesses Kalashnikov automatic rifles as well as machine-guns, rocket-launchers, anti-aircraft guns, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades. They are said to be well supplied with walkie-talkies and satellites phones. The group's targets tend to be government buildings, rail lines, telephone and gas installations, power-transmission lines, passenger trains carrying military personnel, and paramilitary road convoys.

Although the BLA was outlawed in 2006, it claims to retain significant public support. Out of more than 2000 respondents to an opinion poll on, 85 percent expressed support for the BLA.

While officials deny the existence of any militant group other than the Baloch Liberation Army, some sources give credence to the existence of a second armed group of Baloch youth called the Baloch Liberation Front (BLF). While newspaper offices report receiving telephone calls from the BLF claiming responsibility for various bomb blasts and rocket attacks, these claims have never been verified. The BLF is also sometimes referred to as the Baloch People's Liberation Front (BPLF).

As for funding, in addition to kidnappings of and 'collections' from non-Baloch industrialists and workers in the province, the ISI alleges that the BLA and other Baloch nationalist forces receive funds from neighbouring countries, including India and Iran. Others suggest that these armed groups have close links with drug traffickers who operate in the border areas, and who are provided shelter in Iran. Allegations have also been made that members of the ruling family of the United Arab Emirates provide financial assistance to Baloch armed groups, with an eye towards disrupting the new Gwadar port, which would compete in the future with the lucrative port at Dubai.

Missing in action  

Human-rights violations in Balochistan, rampant for almost six decades, have peaked since 2001, when the Pakistan Army began operations there. Both local Baloch organisations and international human-rights groups have noted large-scale disappearances, arbitrary arrests and detention, torture, extrajudicial killings, and generally the use of excessive force by security and intelligence agencies.

The increase in militarisation – including reports of F-16 aircrafts and helicopter gunships being used against settlements, in contravention of international humanitarian law – has led to civilian deaths and widespread displacement. Taking note of the deteriorating human-rights situation, the US State Department's 2006 country report on Pakistan said that Islamabad's human-rights record "remained poor."

Disappearances in Balochistan are a key area of concern. The military intelligence agencies, including the ISI, reportedly arrest civilians, detaining them in what can only be called torture camps. After remaining in detention for up to 12 months in facilities that are off-limits to the public, the inmates have emerged to recount harrowing tales of physical abuse, confinement in narrow cells, and blind-folded solitary confinement for days on end.

The independent Lahore-based Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) reports: "In some cases it is not known where they are being detained, and furthermore the government has also not disclosed the identities of persons arrested during these operations." The HRCP also notes that the government gives contradictory accounts of the number of persons arrested in Balochistan.

While no official statistics are available, rights groups have attempted to document cases of missing persons. But reliable data is difficult to compile, and the range of estimates is very wide. According to Baloch sources, about 6000 Baloch persons have disappeared over the past six decades. The HRCP, in its report for 2006, says that of the total 99 abductions that took place in the country, 73 were from Balochistan. The number would be higher, but families are often hesitant to come forward due to warnings by intelligence agencies.

The Pakistani interior minister, Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao, stated in December 2005 in the National Assembly that over 4000 persons had been detained in Balochistan since 2002. Of this number, Sherpao continued, less than 200 people have been presented before the courts, therefore implying that the remainder are being detained incommunicado and/or have disappeared. Despite the high number of cases of various abuses, no law-enforcement or military personnel has been punished for such actions. Impunity is a key factor in enabling the ongoing human-rights violations.

Families of some missing Baloch nationalists have petitioned the courts for redress, claiming that government agencies are detaining their relatives without due process. Last November, the Supreme Court ordered the interior ministry to disclose the whereabouts of 41 illegally held detainees. Since then, Islamabad officials say that 25 have been released, although human-rights groups have only accounted for 18. It is widely believed that the Supreme Court's proactive stance on disappearances and impunity might have played a part in Pervez Musharraf's ouster of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry in March, which has since generated significant country-wide protest.

– Laxmi Murthy


Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian