In a strange irony of history. Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, the Tamundar of the Bugti tribe, who supported the creation of Pakistan, served as minister in the central cabinet and then as governor of Balochistan — at a time when his fellow Baloch sardars, the Mengals and the Marris, were in revolt against Islamabad — has been killed by a Pakistani bullet.
The exact circumstances of his death are not yet clear. It is not known whether he died because the cave collapsed under heavy bombardment (bunker busters), or was killed in cold blood by commandos sent in by General Musharraf. It is quite apparent, though, that the frequent use of satellite phones gave away his position, thanks to the latest counter-terror direction-finding equipment that the Pakistanis now have.
It was the Shazia Khaled rape incident in January 2005 and the cover-up by the army that provided the real impetus to Baloch resistance, which had been simmering and erupting periodically since the creation of Pakistan. Bugti assumed control, and the movement found a totem pole.
In his last interview with the BBC on July 7, Akbar Bugti described how the Pakistan air force had strafed his positions all day for three consecutive days, and helicopter gunships and SSG commandos were pressed into service. Yet, the proud Bugti would neither bend nor surrender.
Wealthy and powerful, the 79-year-old Akbar Bugti need not have chosen to die in the Bhambore Hills. Instead, he chose to fight and die for a cause bigger than wealth and power - for Baloch pride and for the Baloch nation. The nationalists lost their leader but gained a martyr. They will now fight to honour his memory.
The General was thrilled because it was on his visit to Balochistan last year that he was targeted by missiles and had to be whisked away to safety. He had neither forgotten nor forgiven that the Baloch did not celebrate his takeover in October 1999. General Musharraf’s exultation and his act of offering congratulations to his officers for killing the sardar are hardly likely to endear the General to the Balochs. The anger and the resentment will fester for years even if the Pakistan army is able to suppress the movement through the use of ruthless force. The Bugti tribe now has a personal enemy in Musharraf, so says Baloch rivaz. Unlike the Pakhtoons, the Baloch wear their religion lightly, but are fiercely nationalistic.
The Balochs’ age-old grievances have been about persistent economic and social discrimination, and about the fear of being swamped by the Punjabis and the army. They also resent their land being parcelled out to outsiders, military cantonments being set up in Balochistan and the central government not sharing the revenues from the natural resources that the Baloch say belong to them.
Long years of army rule had ensured a policy that either ignored Baloch demands or suppressed their protests. The Balochs’ hatred for the Punjabis has been deep and never really concealed. It is sometimes forgotten that the Balochs had been dragooned into joining the Pakistan federation, or what they thought would be a federation but turned out to be Punjabi domination.
The recent Ralph Peters thesis in the US Armed Forces Journal, which redraws the map of the Muslim world in West and South Asia, speaks of a greater Balochistan comprising parts of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, maps on drawing boards do not by themselves translate into a country. The Balochs sit on crucial areas that are resource rich and strategically located, lying virtually at the mouth of the Strait of Oman through which 40 per cent of the world’s oil passes. The province provides access to Central Asia and Iran. It lies on the land route for gas pipelines that could one day flow from Iran to India, and from Turkmenistan to Afghanistan into Pakistan, India and, possibly, China. Balochistan could provide access to US Special Forces wishing to operate in Eastern Iran where some of Iran’s nuclear facilities lie.
Seymour Hersh, writing in 2005, said the US President had signed a series of findings and executive orders authorising secret commando groups and other Special Forces units "to conduct covert operations against suspected terrorist targets in as many as 10 nations in West Asia and South Asia." There were reports that the anti-Iranian Mujahedeen-e-Khalq had been shifted from Iran to Balochistan by the US to operate inside Iran.
Forty-five years ago, even the great Henry Kissinger had not heard of the Balochistan problem. The US interest was revived when the Soviets pushed into Afghanistan, but then the main interest was in Pakistan as the Cold War was being fought out. It was Carter’s national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who pointed out the importance of Balochistan for the defence of the Persian Gulf. Later, Reagan upgraded American links with Pakistan.
Today, in the post-Cold War era, there are other Great Power interests in Balochistan — of the US because of Iran and the energy resources up to the Caspian Sea, and of the Chinese because of the strategically located Gwadar port that they are helping construct. The Chinese would be quite happy to receive some of their West Asian oil and gas supplies at Gwadar and have it sent overland northwards into China.
Akbar Bugti used to allege that coastal land from Jiwani (including Gwadar) to Karachi would be detached from Balochistan and given away to a foreign power. Besides, the Chinese have been extending their reach into the US’s backyard by cosying up to Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Paul Wolfowitz’s recommendation that US foreign policy should prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power, is coming into play.
The Baloch misfortune is that they are like the Kurds. They have no friends because they are scattered across three countries — Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. Pakistan became a rentier State and today its realtors in jackboots face the possibility of two elephants fighting on their territory. Maybe India will stand by as an interested observer or merely a bystander as the two powers play out their Great Game on Baloch playgrounds and the rebellion continues to simmer.
There are lessons for us in this, and worries, too. Perhaps the first one is for those who oppose the Indian State. Surely the Kashmiris, who have taken to the gun, now realise how the Pakistanis treat those who revolt or ask for their rights, which is in sharp contrast to how the Indian State treats its own dissidents. No aircraft are sent in to strafe them, no helicopter gunships attack them and no artillery guns pound them. Instead, even the Prime Minister is willing to talk to them. Second, no State today can afford to ignore grievances of federated units. In India, such grievances are bound to increase as the country progresses and greater regional imbalances emerge from increasing expectations.
Finally, since Musharraf has acted out of pique and fear, his actions reflect a sense of weakness. He had refused to negotiate an agreement. A lot depends on how the General and his army handle the situation in the weeks ahead. There are already misgivings. Even retired army generals have expressed doubts. As his position seems to weaken further, Musharraf will need a diversion. The only diversion possible is either tilting towards India or meddling in Indian affairs.