The Pakistan Army’s assassination of 79-year-old tribal leader Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti on August 26 in Balochistan’s Bhambore hills — reportedly with the use of cluster bombs and laser guided missiles — is a blessing in disguise for the Baloch rebellion against Islamabad. I
t’s more than just Bugti’s martyrdom becoming a symbol for the provincial movement — his death facilitates unity among the next generation of Balochistan’s tribal leadership.
And despite President Pervez Musharraf’s bravado after Bugti was killed — he congratulated the security forces (it was apparently undertaken by the Special Commando Foce of the Special Services Group, of which Musahrraf is the most famous alumnus) for their “successful operation” — the incident does not bode well for the General as he goes into an election year.
One of the triumvirate of tribal leaders — the other Baloch Sardars being Attaullah Mengal and Khair Baksh Marri — Bugti was, as the Pakistan government says, despotic and arrogant.
The only thing that truly united him with his fellow Baloch’s was his long standing grievance over autonomy and the payment to the province of royalties for the natural resources of Balochistan.
The area under the control of his tribe is rich in natural gas, which is by far the major contributor to Pakistan’s energy requirements.
But despite a history of four insurrections in the province, the tribes could never unite for effective action, simply because Bugti looked down on all other tribes.
Though he was urbane — having been educated at Aitchison College in Lahore and at Oxford — and though he was probably the most pro-Pakistan of the tribals — he was close to MA Jinnah and facilitated Balochistan’s entry in Pakistan — he was known to be an autocrat, not tolerating dissent, showing cruelty even to his followers.
Legend has it he committed his first murder when he was 12, and has twice been convicted for murder (escaping the gallows in the 1960s as Islamabad needed him to be their man in Quetta, the provincial capital).
In one incident, he had more than 100 men of the Kalper sub-tribe killed as revenge for the murder of his son Salal Bugti (alleged killed with ISI help) in 1961.
Revenge, of course, is part of the tribal code in western Pakistan (even the British couldn’t bring them under their laws and left the tribes to their own way of life), and so Islamabad will find itself haunted by Bugti’s prescient words: “They might kill me. But I am sure our coming generations will continue my mission for the attainment of Baloch rights.”
Ironically, his death will facilitate the mission for the coming generations. Government experts say that the grandsons of the tribal triumvirate get along far better than Bugti did with the other Sardars.
Now that Bugti has been martyred, the last remaining obstacle to their coordinating their rebellion against the federal government is gone.
Though Bugti was grooming his grandson Brahamdag to take over the tribe’s leadership, the mantle may now pass to his eldest grandson, Talal, the son of the Nawab’s eldest son Addu.
Talal was based in Dubai for some time, and has recently returned to Balochistan. Of course, the secession will be decided by the tribal jirga (council), but it may be safe to assume that in this conservative society, the eldest male heir will win out.
Whoever does will find willing comradeship from the grandsons of the two other tribal leaders — Sardar Akhtar Marri, a former chief minister of the province, and Nawabzada Balach Marri, the underground chief of the banner Balochistan Liberation Army, who, media reports suggest, may have been the real target of the Army operation. And they’re all raring for a fight: “This incident has cut our last link, if there was any, with Pakistan,” Akhtar Marri told The Friday Times last week.
Marri’s words appear to have worried many in mainstream Pakistan society, and not just in the media, but also in Punjab, which has always been seen as “colonial” by Pakistan’s smaller provinces. And there has been unhappiness in the Army itself — two former ISI chiefs, Hamid Gul and Asad Durrani have been scathing in their criticism of the assassination of Bugti.
The Punjabis are worried about deepened alienation in Balochistan —they perhaps feel remorse about pushing Bangladesh out in 1971 — and feel that it will be increasingly difficult to bring the Baloch tribes back into the Pakistani mainstream. That’s why on Saturday, Punjab’s civil society had planned a strike, with doctors, lawyers, teachers and other professionals joining in.
Coming on the heels of the all party strike on Friday, things don’t look good for Musahrraf.
It’s not just that the Opposition is trying to make political capital out of it — despite their attitude towards Bugti when he started blowing up rail tracks and gas and power installations from January 2005 (in the aftermath of the rape of Dr Shazia Khalid by Army officers) — but the right-wing Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), which already rules the NWFP, is hoping to ride the anger to power in this province (which has a lot of Taliban presence) as well.
Most worrying for the General, however, is the beginning of a Mohajir-Punjabi rift in the ruling elite (Musharraf migrated from India, and is a Mohajir).
It’s felt that a Mohajir has gotten Pakistan into this mess, merely on a matter of prestige: the August 26 Army operation is said to have been in retaliation to Bugti’s firing upon Musharraf’s helicopter when the latter was making an aerial survey of Bugti areas a few days earlier.
“It is not the ’70s that they will climb mountains,” Musharraf is reported to have said. “They will not even know what and from where something has come and hit them.” Words that Musharraf, as he seeks to continue power in 2007, may end up regretting.