Simple facts about Balochistan's state of unrest

The News, March 30, 2005
Simple facts about Balochistan's state of unrest
M B Naqvi

The writer is a well-known journalist and freelance columnist.

Many explanations are being offered for the Balochistan situation, some of them commendable. Most such efforts are, however, partisan and not free from their own spin. A simple political geography of Balochistan, seen objectively, should provide a balanced perspective.

Let's begin with what has been grabbing the headlines first: trouble in Sui and Dera Bugti. The March 17 clash in which 10 soldiers and allegedly as many as 60 civilians died and many more injured was a major tragedy. Damage to property in Dera Bugti was, in view of general poverty of its populace, considerable. That was supposedly the retaliation to what the Bugtis had done in menacingly surrounding the Frontier Constabulary's camp -- housing some 300 soldiers who were being supplied by air. This action and an ambush of LEAs were in retaliation to what the FC had done to protesting tribesmen, angered by the gang rape inside the hospital run by the gas company in its Sui installations.

In addition, there is a regular campaign of sabotage and ambush while bomb blasts continue in many places. A shoddy Balochistan Liberation Army is claiming credit for the attacks on infrastructure -- railway tracks, gas pipelines and governmental symbols. Trouble in Sui and Dera Bugti is not an isolated event, sparked either by the rape incident or by the revolt of Sardar Akbar Bugti. The situation on the whole is one of a slow burning of the fuse of a Baloch nationalist revolt, with occasional spectacular flare-ups like the Dera Bugti one. Such incidents are symptomatic. The central reality of a nationalist struggle, at the end of its tether, must be grasped.

To continue with the map of Balochistan politics, the second major force is extreme Islamicist forces; they comprise, in addition to many militant Islamic outfits, various jihadists who participated in the two Afghan jihads, viz. of 1980s. After 1992, various jihadi organisations that waged jihad in the Indian controlled Kashmir. There are, of course, Taliban and their protectors. These forces include religiously oriented political parties, now constituting MMA, especially JUI with its splinters that provide a broad-spectrum political cover to all these jihadists. Contrary to the normal view of Pakistan politics that Islamicist parties were no more than of marginal importance, they now control one third of the parliament and two out of four provincial governments. They have to be taken seriously, more so for the future because of the 2002 poll results.

The obvious significance of this force is the presence of Taliban in fairly large numbers that led the American ambassador to Afghanistan and the top US general there to complain publicly that President Musharraf is not showing equal diligence in arresting or killing Taliban, mainly in Balochistan. And that he is displaying regard to al-Qaeda fugitives. But for Pakistanis, there are more worrying facets of this force.

The first, and hopefully temporary facet, is the interpenetration of these Islamicists with the Pakistan Army, especially its intelligence agencies; anyone can make the connection. If there are so many Taliban in Pakistan and the Army has not done to them what it has done to al Qaeda, an obvious conclusion follows. Either it has strong sympathies with Taliban or it is afraid of the reaction of their friends and protectors. The controllers of Pakistan's policy may wish to retain the option to reactivate the jihad in Kashmir when necessary, but they would scarcely want to decimate their old and would-be recruits.

The jihadists' ideological physiognomy is relevant. They may have originated in the Deobandi seminaries (being an offspring of JUI) but have sharply veered from the historical legacy of Deoband's Darul Uloom: in pre-independence India Shia-Sunni riots never involved Deobandi Sunnis. In Pakistan one face of all these jihadis is their intense hatred of Shias. The same person can in one phase be a Taliban and in another be a freedom fighter in Kashmir and in yet another phase be a sectarian terrorist. Also, the post-Zia Army's and Jamaat-e-Islami's ideological contributions have gone into the making of their current political philosophy.

Some point out the strange phenomenon of the current riches of Islamicist parties; to all appearances money is no problem for any religious party or leader. Earlier there was an easy explanation: ample funding from American CIA and Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Iran, Libya etc. But that phase ended by about 1990, though some may still be coming from the Arab sources. After 2001 the Americans have not, for some odd reason, focused on the funding of MMA parties' and their spiritual offsprings who have escaped all serious scrutiny. That is strange and needs study. One big rally today costs two to three crore rupees. Where are their billions coming from? From the measly contributions of their members?

In the Balochistan context, it is necessary to note two or three circumstances. Balochistan is an arid desert with a sparse, extraordinarily poor population. But there are also some extraordinarily rich individuals. The mainstay of the province's economy is patches of agriculture and fruit growing, some minerals -- sparsely exploited, except of course the natural gas. But smuggling, narcotics and gun running trades, with Afghanistan and NWFP connections, have flourished and generated a lot of money. The profits from heroin and cannabis trades are massive: western estimates are $3 to 4 billion, pocketed largely by a small number of the politically important individuals. Could it be that these super-rich buy respectability here as well as the prospect of lenient treatment from the Almighty on the Day of Judgement, if they fund Islamicists?

The third major force in Balochistan is of course the Pakistan state that operates largely through the army and paramilitary forces. It has both money and overwhelming force. From the viewpoint of an ordinary Baloch, this state takes from him too many (indirect) taxes but delivers -- what? Its record in establishing schools, hospitals and providing jobs in Balochistan is worse than that in any other province. It just shows a stern face. It has left large swathes of territories to be governed at the tribal Sardars' will; the human rights of these people are not equal to those in Punjab or Sindh.

This state has never bothered to develop the area despite its resources; if the poor have no realistic prospect of finding a job, who should take the rap? Authority has deliberately neglected and occasionally it propagates against the Sardars, while the fact is that this pre-independence arrangement has been carefully preserved as a matter of policy. Why? Is it because bureaucracy has more opportunities to do, as it will without any accountability?

One fact needs underlining: the province has been neglected while some improvements are visible elsewhere. Given its clear-cut ethnic identities, different from a non-democratic Centre where all power, money and authority resides, is it strange that nationalism, conscious of injustices done to it, has arisen?

Once this is grasped, what is to be expected is the working out of the dynamic of a deprived nationality's struggle -- with its ups and downs -- for attaining power for itself. How much power do they want to reorder their lives, much will depend on how central authorities handle the issue now. Watching Islamabad's past and current mindset -- reliance on a clever half tactic of stern military action followed by sweet talk with some money to go on buying time for the status quo -- is profoundly distressing.



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