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Pakistan on a false track

The people in Balochistan no longer want independence, but only greater control over their resources.

india Updated: Apr 19, 2006 16:01 IST
PN Khera

The Pakistani government has resolved the Balochistan issue ‘amicably’ and no law and order situation exists there anymore, President Pervez Musharraf claimed on Monday.

Canute-like, he may want the waters of the insurgency to recede, but they are not likely to and his statement can be dismissed as characteristic bravado.

Till the other day, the general was portraying the mayhem in the largest province, Balochistan, as an attempt by a few tribal warlords to skim the creamy layer of natural resources for personal gain.

But the sporadic and widespread nature of the insurgency over the past 50 years is in reality an assertion of both self-determination as well as a desire to control and use the province’s assets for local good.

Explosions of gas pipelines and railroad tracks are common in this remote desert region bordering Iran.

Now, IEDs have begun to be used. Here, more than 100 civilians and dozens of security forces have been killed according to local sources and the Pakistan Human Rights Commission (PHRC).

Pakistan has deployed more than 40,000 troops in the province, though it claims this is merely the Frontier Corps.

On April 8, the Balochistan Solidarity Front demanded immediate cessation of military operations in the province.

The Balochi insurgency is not some rag tag band, but a people’s movement led by the over-80-years-old Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, and other leaders like Balach Marri, son of Nawab Khair Baksh Marri and Rauf Mengal, son of Sardar Akhter Mengal.

There have been five distinctive insurgencies in the past 50 years, and though all have been crushed, fires of Balochi nationalism have not completely died out.

But what is certain is that in spite of it muttering about the ‘foreign hand’ or terrorism, Pakistan’s handling of Balochistan has been the primary cause of unrest in the province.

While the old Sardar Mengal lives in Karachi, with his house surrounded by police and his water supply cut off, the grand old Nawab Bugti is leading the resistance in his home region, as is Balach Marri.

The shadowy Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), one of three armed resistance groups born in the Seventies, has claimed responsibility for many of the recent attacks, including the killing of three Chinese engineers working on the deep seaport, at Gwadar.

The most recent violence has included killings of settlers from the Punjab, whom Baluch nationalists blame for stealing jobs and land.

Recently, the Pakistan government banned the BLA and asked the provincial government to act against it.

But the Balochistan home minister, Shoeb Nausherwani, says no organisation named the Baloch Liberation Army exists.

He is reported to have said that some four to five thousand people have been using the name of the BLA as ‘an excuse for anti-State activities’ but lack the structure and planning of a proper organisation.

Obviously, the Pakistan government is setting the stage for in tensifying its crackdown on the supporters of the main tribal leaders, called sardars, in the name of terrorism.

Pakistani papers say that the target may be Balach Marri, a member of the Balochistan provincial assembly.

As it is, hundreds of political party members, students, doctors and tribal leaders have been detained by government security forces, many disappearing for months, even years, without trials in cases that are well-documented. Some have been tortured or have died in custody.

In places like Dera Bugti and Kohlu, government forces have carried out reprisals against villagers, claim Baloch leaders.

In a case documented by the PHRC, the Frontier Corps killed 12 men from Pattar Nala on January 11 after a mine explosion near the village killed some of its soldiers.

Local fighters say the Frontier Corps carried out over 40 reprisal killings in the last three months.

The government offensive began after a rocket attack on President Musharraf when he opened a military base in Kohlu last year on December 17 — an attack for which officials blame Balach Marri.

Shortly afterward, government forces stormed the town of Dera Bugti, Nawab Bugti’s headquarters and ransacked his fort-palace.

Recall Musharraf ’s response last year to Baloch demands for equitable sharing of resources. He had said that he would hit the Balochis so hard “they wouldn’t know what hit them”.

Pakistan aims to fight the uprising by cracking down on the dissidents and promoting friendly sardars.

But it should pause and reflect. The Balochis are no longer demanding independence, all they want is an equitable share of the resources that come from their province.

Last year, the Baloch political leaders presented a 15-point agenda to the central government. The demands included greater control over the province’s resources, protection for the Baloch minority and a halt to the building of military bases.

Their concerns have been aggravated by the indifference shown by the Pakistani authorities who are pressing on with ambitious projects to develop the area’s oil and gas fields, build a pipeline across the region to carry oil from Iran and a strategic deep sea port to expand trade with China.

But if Pakistan’s heavy-handed repression continues, no one knows what the outcome could be. As it is, Pakistani forces are already committed heavily to combating the insurgency in neighbouring Waziristan.

But the greater worry is over the ‘skills’ of the Pakistan government in managing complex domestic strife.

As it is, its record has been marred in the horrendous manner with which it dealt with the erstwhile East Pakistan. But its past handling of Sindhi, Balochi and Mohajir movements has been nothing to write home about.

So far, at least in Balochistan, the Pakistani official response seems to suggest that it has learnt nothing and forgotten nothing.