Balochistan comprises 347,188 sq km, larger than the combined areas of Punjab and Sindh provinces, and constituting about 44 percent of Pakistan’s total landmass. For many passive news-followers, Balochistan is a place were Pakistani security forces have been conducting operations against al-Qaeda and Islamic fundamentalist forces. The war in Pakistan’s western province, however, is not simply another arena in the ‘war on terror’.
In Southasia, it is common practice to blame the neighbours to hide the failures at home. In late December, President Pervez Musharraf placed some of the blame for the deteriorating Balochistan situation on foreign powers, for allegedly providing funds for arms and mercenaries in the province. On 9 January 2006, a Pakistan Foreign Office spokesperson claimed that Islamabad had evidence of Indian involvement in the Baloch insurgency.
The current flare-up predates the Musharraf regime, with successive national governments often neglecting Balochistan and its problems. Upon becoming president in October 1999, Musharraf promised, among other things, to work towards “strengthening the federation, removing inter-provincial disharmony and restoring national cohesion”. Six years later, his promises unfulfilled, Musharraf is following the example of his predecessors by seeking only a military solution in Balochistan. The ongoing military operation that started on 17 December 2005 is the fifth since 1947 and the second since Musharraf became president.
Baloch anger against the federal government has been brewing for some time. Initial signs of trouble in the present crisis arose when Islamabad unilaterally decided to launch several mega-projects and to build new army cantonments in the regions of Sui, Gwadar and Kohlu – all of which have been announced over Baloch protests. With one paramilitary post for every 500 people, Balochistan already has the highest military concentration in the country. Out of the three areas under consideration, the government has already acquired 400 acres of land in Sui Tehsil and started construction.
The crux of the problem in Balochistan is threefold: a lack of political autonomy, underdevelopment, and the exploitation of natural resources without benefiting the province’s people. On 29 September 2004, a parliamentary committee headed by Pakistan Muslim League President Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain was formed “to examine the current situation in Balochistan and make recommendations thereon” and divided into two subcommittees. One, headed by former-President Wasim Sajjad, was mandated to address the question of provincial autonomy. The second, headed by Senator Mushahid Hussein Sayed, was to address the immediate crisis in the province. Recommendations made by both subcommittees after six months of study remain almost completely unfulfilled one year later.
Autonomy and development
The denial of autonomy has been a major cause of the ongoing conflict. Pakistan’s 1973 Constitution stipulated that the determination of the quantum of autonomy given to provinces would be revised every decade. This has never been done. Despite Musharraf’s election promises, the deployment of thousands of regular troops and paramilitary forces in parts of Balochistan and South and North Waziristan, adjacent to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, flies in the face of efforts towards “strengthening the federation”.
Article 142 of the 1973 Constitution provides for the powers held by the national government, included in what are known as the Federal and Concurrent lists. The subsequent national supremacy held over the provinces has been a cause of significant resentment amongst the provinces, including Balochistan, with federal grant distribution being decided solely on provincial population numbers. Although Balochistan constitutes almost half of the country’s total landmass, it is also the least populated province. Revenue awarded by the National Finance Commission to Balochistan is thus the lowest in the country, a fact that has long angered Balochs.
In March 2005, Wasim Sajjad’s subcommittee recommended a complete revision of the Concurrent List; announcement of the National Finance Commission award before budget; and activation of a Council of Common Interests, a constitutional body for implementing provincial autonomy and distribution of federal resources on the basis of provincial poverty, backwardness, unemployment and development levels, rather than just on population size. That these recommendations have yet to be implemented compounds the impression that Islamabad is not serious about politically accommodating the Baloch people.
Balochistan faces the twin problems of high illiteracy and high poverty. The average literacy rate of those over 10-years-old is only 36 percent. Its drought-stricken pastoral economy cannot provide enough food for even the small provincial population. This has been the situation since Independence, and the neglect has by now strengthened nationalist ranks. While Balochistan reportedly produces more than half of Pakistan’s natural gas, which is a mainstay of the national economy, the province’s people have benefited little from their land’s reserves. It is said that the reserve will last no more than ten more years, which would mean that the Baloch people would have lost out on the possibilities of developing through their natural gas, which is transported through pipelines to the far corners of Pakistan.
In a March 2005 report, the Mushahid Hussain subcommittee’s recommendations included: increasing gas royalties and surcharges; maximising provincial representation on the boards of oil and gas companies operating in the province; implementing job quotas; shifting the Gwadar Port Authority head office to Balochistan and funnelling seven percent of the port’s revenue to the province; holding in abeyance the construction of cantonments at Gwadar, Dera Bugti and Kohlu; and a host of infrastructure-development and confidence-building strategies. A powerful committee formed to implement these recommendations was to meet monthly, but has done so just twice in its first eight months. Further complicating the process was the appointment of Major General Farooq Ahmed, a member of the implementation committee, as federal relief commissioner after the 8 October 2005 Kashmir Earthquake.
There are those who claim that Balochistan’s leaders have used their region’s backwardness opportunistically. President Musharraf recently stated that the government has pledged development projects worth PKR 130 billion for Balochistan, but blamed miscreants in the province for blocking Baloch progress. But is the package actually meant for the Balochs themselves? The suspicion is that the money is used simply to entrench the national government and security forces further in the province. In 2004, the Federal Interior Ministry reportedly finalised a PKR 9.6 billion security plan to convert Federal ‘B’ Areas – where police do not have any control – into ‘A’ Areas, through the recruitment of almost 9900 additional personnel. The process of militarisation subsequently began in earnest with the proposal to establish cantonments at Gwadar, Dera Bugti and Kohlu.
Despite the government’s claims of these large expenditures in the province, there has not been much change for the Baloch people, who remain the most backward in the country. Balochs complain that three-quarters of the land for the Gwadar seaport was acquired by serving military officers at throwaway prices, and that the proceeds from these projects will be siphoned off by Punjab, in any case. Most jobs at Gwadar and Saindak seaports have already been given to non-Balochs. The fear has grown in the province that if the number of non-Balochs – mainly Punjabis – continues to grow as a result of government mega-projects, Punjabi-speakers may soon outnumber and dominate the Balochs.
State of no-war
The latest turbulence began on 14 December 2005, when eight rockets were fired at a paramilitary base on the outskirts of the town of Kohlu, a stronghold of the Marri tribe. President Musharraf was visiting Kohlu at the time. The local leader, Sardar Khairbaksh Marri, is regarded as a close ally of the Baloch nationalist chief Nawab Akbar Bugti. Military authorities blamed tribal leaders for the attacks and launched a massive military operation three days later.
Over 200 Balochs have reportedly been killed since the operation began, while Akbar Bugti has alleged that up to 85 percent of those either killed or injured were women and children. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reported that as many as 53 people were killed and 132 injured in military operations in Dera Bugti from just the last week of December through 8 January. A Commission team visited the areas of Dera Bugti and reported that the fighting had caused widespread damage to buildings, and that 85 percent of the town’s 25,000 people had been forced to flee. The town of Kohlu, meanwhile, has been under a state of siege. Entry to the area has been prohibited and the town’s 12,000 or so residents have remained virtually cut off since the middle of December, with complaints of food shortages and an inability to deal with injured and sick townspeople.
Yet for the past months, Islamabad has consistently denied even the existence of any military operation. “There is no collateral damage” in Balochistan, President Musharraf thundered in early February, blaming the crisis instead on the local tribal chiefs. “I am telling you, the public pulse, the Marris are happy with the operation against their chiefs,” Musharraf declared earlier, while criticising Akbar Bugti, Khairbaksh Marri and Sardar Ataullah Mengal, founder of the Balochistan National Party. On 18 January, Jamhoori Watan Party Secretary-General Agha Shahid Hasan Bugti retorted, “if the three tribal chiefs decided to allow looting of Balochistan resources, then they would become as pious as other pro-establishment chieftains”. As the situation continues to deteriorate, Musharraf has found fewer tribal chiefs left for politicking.
The present conflict in Balochistan is not a law-and-order problem, but one of autonomy and sharing of resources. Pakistan’s long line of one-man military dictators has left the country with little democracy and even less federalism. While the 1973 Constitution stipulated the re-evaluation of provincial autonomy every decade, it was Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the Constitution’s architect, who dismissed Balochistan’s popular coalition government formed by the now-defunct National Awami Party and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam. With the arrest of NAP leaders, the seeds of dissent were planted. The 1973 Constitution was buried with Bhutto in 1979, after he was hanged by General Zia Ul-Haq.
In the wake of the attacks in the US of 11 September 2001, Islamabad has had greater latitude internationally to use indiscriminate force against the Balochs; but Balochistan cannot be roped together with the search for al-Qaeda, for its problems with the centre- state were long pre-existing. Besides, Balochistan is not another East Pakistan. Nor is it another Mohajir Quami movement. 95 percent of Balochistan is designated Federal ‘B’ Areas, where the Pakistani government’s writ does not run. President Musharraf recently stated that the government would move for a political solution only if the local sardars were to give up arms and stop hampering hydrocarbon exploration activities and development projects in the province.
Apart from the inherent gun culture in Balochistan and South and North Waziristan, the experience of Southasia generally is that no major armed group has ever given up arms before sitting down for talks to find political solutions. Despite the stated plan of converting 14 of 28 districts into Federal ‘A’ Areas, President Musharraf must realise that there is no military solution to the crisis; he must descend from his pulpit and engage in dialogue with the Balochs before the situation in Balochistan gets out of hand.
~ Suhas Chakma is the director of the Asian Centre for Human Rights in New Delhi.