Tuesday, Jun 28, 2022

Behind An Iron Curtain

Former senator Habib Jalib Baloch, secretary-general of the Balochistan National Party-M, was shot dead on July 14, 2010 in Quetta. His murder was not an incident in isolation, nor was he killed by mistake...

Behind An Iron Curtain
Behind An Iron Curtain

"Awake my Punjab, Pakistan is ebbing away", Pakistan's revolutionary poet Habib Jalib wrote, "Our Dreams have faded now, Pakistan is ebbing away, / Sindh, Baluchistan, have been weeping for ages. / The people of Punjab are still lost, asleep."

The poet Jalib passed on in 1993. On July 14, 2010, his namesake, Central Secretary-General of the Balochistan National Party, was shot dead outside his brother’s shop on Sariab Road in Quetta. Ironically, barely twenty persons showed up to condole the lawyer- politician’s death in faraway Islamabad, a city rendered remote by its own siege and indifference. Was Punjab really losing interest in the rest of the country, troubled as it was with its terrorists?

Habib Jalib Balcoh's murder was not an incident in isolation, nor was he killed by mistake. His compatriot and colleague, Mir Maula Baksh Dashti, from the National Party also a former Chairman of the Baloch Students Organisation, had been gunned down only four days earlier, on July 10. Commentator Amir Mateen noted, in a report published on July 25, 2010, that there are, on average, two targeted killings in Balochistan every day; while official figures put this figure at 370 in the last ten months, others say the number would be closer to 600. Sardar Akhtar Mengal, president of the Balochistan National Party (BNP) and a former Chief Minister of the Balochistan, on July 31, also accused the Government and its functionaries of carrying out targeted killings, adding, "The State and its agents have deliberately created panic in Balochistan, but the BNP is not scared of anything, as the party has already scarified the lives of many of its leaders and workers."

Baloch nationalists like Malik Siraj Akbar Khan compare the killings of Habib and Dashti to the assassinations of Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti and Balach Marri. Yet, while the latter had united the Baloch, the unfortunate reality today is that the Baloch remain divided. There is a leadership vacuum in Balochistan, with most surviving iconic leaders no longer living in Quetta. Mir Khair Baksh Marri is in Karachi; Sardar Atuallah Khan Mengal is in Wadh (Khuzdar district), while his son, Akhtar, is in Dubai; Mir Hasil Bizenjo, Member of Pakistan’s National Assembly, operates from Karachi. Even an important secular Pashtun nationalist like Mahmood Khan Achakzai, leader of the Pakhtoonkhwa Milli Awami Party, is believed to be away, possibly in the United Kingdom.

An acute provincial xenophobia now targets the non-Baloch in the Province. Mateen says one-quarter of Quetta is a no-go area; half the city goes to sleep at sun down; and areas like Sariab Road and Arbab Karan Road are out of bounds for the non-Baloch even during daytime. Barring the Quetta Cantonment, which is heavily protected, all other areas, including pickets of the paramilitary Frontier Corps, are subject to attacks; local Police enter areas like Spiny Road and Samungli Road at their own peril. Mateen observes,

... the ordinary citizenry has been left to the butchery of a lethal mix of extremist nationalists, political separatists, religious fanatics, smugglers, drug dealers and the land mafia hand in glove with criminals, not to forget international terrorists and foreign intelligence agencies."

The Pushtun of Quetta have moved to safer areas of Nawankhali and Sraghurdhi, while Punjabi settlers, many of whom have lived in Quetta for generations, have been forced to leave for other Provinces. Doctors and surgeons have been intimidated and prevented from attending their clinics, so that they are not able to report incidents and casualties. About 1,600 Government officials have sought transfers out of Balochistan.

In the current cycle of violence, according to former Senator Sanaullah Baloch, between 2003 and December 2005, about 2,600 to 3,200 innocent people were killed in military operations, particularly in the Marri and Bugti areas. Islamabad frequently used air raids to subdue the Baloch tribals. About 80 to 85 per cent of those killed were women and children. During this phase, according to the United Nations’ December 2006 estimates, there were 84,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Balochistan without any relief or shelter; there was a total blockade of the Marri and Bugti areas; an estimated 8000 to 10,000 died in the exodus which caused malnourishment, disease and lack of shelter.

Violence in Balochistan has since been continuous. Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti was assassinated on August 26, 2006, and Mir Balach Marri, on November 21, 2007. The Baloch cannot forget the campaigns launched by General Musharraf against the Bugtis from 2005, when he rolled in tanks and brought in the Air Force to eventually kill the Nawab. Both these killings were accompanied by numerous others. There were only six reported incidents in 2005; the number rose to 44 the next year, accounting for 391 deaths, including 124 Security Force (SF) personnel. In 2007 there were 22 major incidents, with 199 fatalities. Since 2005, there have been 1,448 deaths, more than half of which were described as civilians; 404 were security personnel and 247 ‘terrorists’. In 2010, 97 civilians have been killed, as against 8 terrorists and 32 security personnel, thus far. While there have been a few sectarian killings, many targets have been the middle class – the educated and the professionals.

To put this into perspective, Balochistan has a population of 7.8 million, and there have been 1,448 fatalities. Pro rata, in the Punjab Province of Pakistan, with a population of more than 85 million, this would be equivalent to nearly 15,000 fatalities. Worse, UN reports claim that 8,000 Baloch have been missing since 2005; translated into Punjab equivalents, this would mean as many as 80,000. The truth is that there is no accurate figure of how many Baloch have died behind Pakistan’s Iron Curtain. The enormity of the casualties has been lost in the remoteness of the Province, and the seemingly ‘low’ absolute number of casualties spread over five years.

There are two versions about the ownership of these killings. Representatives of the Jamhoori Watan Party insist that the middle class was being targeted by the separatists, since the former believed in an unified Pakistan even as they struggled for a better deal for the Baloch. Others feel that the separatist movement draws its inspiration from Sardar Khair Bux Marri, who is believed to have said that violence was the only way to attain Baloch goals. Many, however, believe that this targeted killing of the political middle class is the handiwork of the ‘Agencies’ who wish to "knock out our political brains", according to Senator Manzoor Gichki. The Baloch also suspect that the so-called Baloch Massala Daffah Army (BDMA), which has claimed responsibility for the recent assassinations, is a front for the Agencies. The plan looks reasonable from the Agencies’ point of view. Having either killed or driven away the traditional leadership of the Baloch, it would be best to decimate the middle class leadership, which could be the source and inspiration for the other dissenting Baloch. Although there are many who believe that violence is the only way to attain Baloch rights, some nationalist leaders still believe that dialogue may yield results, which could include provincial autonomy and a greater say in the national affairs under the original terms of accession. This, however, is unlikely to be granted, though Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, on August 1, reiterated the old formula that the Government was ready for a dialogue with the Baloch leaders, whether they were in or out of the country, and that the Government wanted to bring Baloch leaders into mainstream politics.

The picture that emerges from Balochistan is of total lawlessness, with no one seemingly in control. A situation where various kinds of mafia – drugs, weapons, land and smuggling, anything, take control, and even the government of the day seems part of that mafia. With Chief Minister Aslam Raisani taking shelter in Dubai for half the month, nobody is really in charge. Local dissidents and objectors are routinely described as ‘terrorists’ and treated as such. The Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), for instance, has been seen to be increasingly anti-Punjabi in recent years. Its cadres consist of the educated class too, which includes doctors, engineers and lawyers, and this obviously means that this class too feels that their basic rights would not be available to them except through a violent struggle. Age-old grievances have not been addressed and new ones like the presence of the Chinese in Gwadar have been added.

The Baloch resent the fact that theirs has become a garrison province; that lucrative projects like the Saindak Copper Project and the Gwadar Port are being handled by the Chinese; that projects like the Sui Gas and Reko Dik Copper-Gold undertakings are exploited by Pakistan Petroleum Limited, and the Baloch get no share of the revenue. In November 2009, former Senator Sanaullah Baloch gave a detailed account of the extent of discrimination and deprivation that the Baloch face, speaking of "The centre’s endless desire to control the province’s natural wealth and its continued suppression of the people through ethnically-structured military and paramilitary forces..."

There is further resentment on issues such as the fact that Civil Armed Forces in the Province (numbering 50,000 personnel). The World Bank released the Balochistan Economic report 2009, which recounts a dismal story. During the period 1972-73 to 2005-06, Balochistan’s economy expanded 2.7 times compared to 3.6 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP, formerly the North West Frontier Province) and four times in Punjab. The report also pointed out that Balochistan had the worst social indicators for education, literacy, health, water and sanitation for 2006-07. The Human Development Index rate the resource-rich Dera Bugti as the worst District in Pakistan, at 0.285, compared to the best in the land of the powerful Jhelum District at 0.703. While rural poverty in Punjab decreased by four per cent, it increased by 15 per cent in Balochistan during the same period (other provinces, Sindh and KP, also grew poorer). Gas from Balochistan has been used primarily in the Punjab since 1964; Quetta got gas only in 1986. The Chaghai nuclear tests were carried out without the knowledge of the Baloch Government and, although many in the Province have suffered from the after effects of these tests, there has been no compensation.

Yet other grim statistics are

  • 92 percent of Balochistan’s districts are classified as ‘high deprivation’ areas, compared to 50 per cent in Sindh and 29 per cent in Punjab.
  • Balochistan has the highest infant and maternal mortality rate in South Asia, caused mainly by malnutrition among 34 per cent of pregnant women.
  • Infant mortality rates in Balochistan stand at 130 per thousand, against Pakistan’s national average of 70.
  • Balochistan has only one vocational institute for women. Punjab has 111.
  • 23 per cent of girls in rural Balochistan have access to primary schools. The figure for Punjab is 46 per cent.
  • Punjab has 486 polytechnic, computer science and women’s vocational institutes, as well as commercial and law colleges, while Baloch have just nine.
  • The Social Policy Development Centre report of 2005 stated that the percentage of population living in a high degree of deprivation was 88 per cent in Balochistan, compared to 25 per cent in Punjab.

Such statistics are endless, but all confirm the acute discrimination and deprivation that Balochistan faces. Deprived of political, economic and social rights, the Baloch have no faith that the federal government will ever deliver on the various promises it has made in the past. This is the sentiment that underpins their struggle for self-determination. Islamabad, on the other hand, feels it has an inalienable right to exploit the resources of Balochistan, and feels no necessity to assuage the feelings of the rebellious Baloch.

Comparisons between the present situation in Balochistan and East Pakistan in 1971 are not just tempting, they are, in many ways, accurate. The Bengalis had suffered decades of neglect and discrimination, which the Punjabi rulers in Islamabad/Rawalpindi fobbed off as ‘external intervention’, sustaining the argument that nothing needed to be done to alleviate the local grievances. When the Bengalis reacted by launching a movement for separation, the response was brutal, indeed, genocidal, use of force. In Balochistan, four previous uprisings have been suppressed through brute force, and nothing has been done to remove the sense of injustice, alienation and deprivation. In a recent interview to a Sindhi newspaper, Khair Bux Marri declared, "The British only laid the foundation of our slavery but the Punjabis bathed us in blood and kept us slaves. What would we do in such circumstances? Obviously, we would retaliate."

There are other complications in Balochistan. The foremost is the presence of the Quetta Shura of Mullah Omar, and divergent US and Pakistani interests in the future of this Shura, as well as the Pushtun response to this in Balochistan. US involvement in the intricate and seemingly hopeless war in Afghanistan against the Taliban and al Qaeda with the dubious assistance of Pakistan and its surrogates in Balochistan, will inevitably bring the Province on to the front page. The activities of the Jundullah, a Sunni Wahhabi organization, from bases in Balochistan, have already attracted Iranian ire and the suspicion in Tehran that the movement is meant to detach the predominantly Sunni Sistan-Balochistan. Already feeling surrounded by Sunni regimes, fearing a Talibanised Afghanistan on its northern borders and the Centcom Forces in the area that have indulged in periodic sabre-rattling, the Iranian leaders have reason to be paranoid.

Further, the concept of reconfiguring the region has been doing the rounds for some time. Among these, Ralph Peters, in his article "Blood Borders – How a better Middle East would look", argued that since there have been arbitrary and distorted borders in Africa and the Middle East, it was necessary to mend this. His redrawn map leaves a reconfigured Iran, Afghanistan and a much reduced Pakistan. Peters does not say how this would be achieved and his argument remains no more than a hypothesis. 

In July 2010, former US Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill and geopolitical journalist Michael Hughes, explored the idea of re-configuration of the region again. Blackwill’s essay "A de facto partition of Afghanistan" is more about how the US could exit Afghanistan and stay there as well: "De facto partition is clearly not the best outcome one can imagine for the United States in Afghanistan. But it is now the best outcome that Washington can achieve consistent with vital national interests and US domestic politics."  Though he refers more to the Pushtun belt in Afghanistan, it is unlikely that the Pushtun belt in KP and Balochistan would remain unaffected by this plan. A domino effect is quite likely. 

Hughes’ essay, "Balkanising Pakistan: A collective national Security Strategy – Breaking Pakistan to Fix It" argues that,

…as a result of flawed boundaries combined with the nexus between military rule and Islamic extremism, Pakistan now finds itself in rapid descent toward certain collapse and the country’s leaders stubbornly refuse to do things required to change course. But before allowing Pakistan to commit state suicide, self-disintegrate and further destabilise the region, the international community can beat them to the punch and deconstruct the country less violently.

Hughes admits that Balkanisation did seem to be an extreme step, but adds, "after considering Pakistan’s historic and current relationship with al Qaeda – it becomes easy to justify." More than just strategic justification, one can discern a serious undertone of exasperation and disillusionment with Pakistan in the emerging western discourse, which the Wikileaks exposures will only exacerbate. 

It is only natural that all Pakistanis would find this kind of discourse about their country extremely abhorrent. But they must also realise that the biggest existential threat to them comes from the policies followed by their political and military leaders these past sixty years, with little hope that this will change. The implications of all this go beyond Balochistan, even beyond Pakistan, and the region and the world cannot be passive spectators.

Vikram Sood is Former Secretary, R&AW; Vice President, Observer Research Foundation. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal

The attribution in the opening paragraph had erroneously been given to the Baloch leader which has now been corrected after alert reader Sheerazuddin Ahmad brought the slip-up to our attention. The revolutionary poet Habib Jalib is indeed well known to us but there was a confusion which should have been spotted and corrected before it was posted online. Apologies and thanks.


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