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The Baloch pick up guns to end their silence

Ironies and contradictions plague Balochistan, Pakistan’s province that borders Afghanistan and Iran. This resource rich province is now a dangerous brew of tribal separatism with great power geopolitics. Kamal Siddiqi reports. See graphic

world Updated: Jul 27, 2009 01:42 IST
Kamal Siddiqi

Ironies and contradictions plague Balochistan, Pakistan’s province that borders Afghanistan and Iran.
The province has been in the news again — this time because Pakistan accuses India of causing trouble there. Last week, Interior Minister Rehman Malik claimed the government had given proof to both India and Afghanistan regarding their “direct involvement in promoting insurgency in the province”.

He did not elaborate.

Balochistan is the country's least populous as well as largest province. It is the richest in natural resources and its government the most financially strapped.

Tribal chiefs here are among the richest and most powerful of the land. Yet its people are the worst off. Social indicators here are the lowest among all of Pakistan's provinces — hospitals and schools are equally scarce. Piped water is restricted to a few towns but natural gas pipelines from here fuel the rest of the country.

Standing in the border town of Hub, which is the gateway to Balochistan from Sindh, one gets the impression of a lot of industry and commerce in the province. The highway is packed with trucks. Not so, say industrialists who have set up factories in Hub and its surrounding areas.

“These factories only cater to the Karachi market, beyond Hub there is factory, no commerce, no jobs,” says Muhammad Buksh Lashari, a local councillor.

It is the lack of employment and a strong feeling of alienation from the centre that leads many Balochs to take up arms — they want to make themselves heard. Baloch leaders have insisted this has come after years of neglect and deprivation.
“This was the last option for us,” said Sardar Abdul Rahim, a local chieftan.

Things have gone from bad to worse since the reign of General Pervez Musharraf, whose government led an army operation in the province. For years a mysterious outfit known as the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) targets government installations, kidnaps foreign nationals and attacks government officials.

In 2005, a feeble attack against Musharraf, in the form of a rocket that landed several miles off target, led to Islamabad coming down hard on the BLA and its supporters.

The army’s offensive galvanized Baloch resistance which found a leader in the form of Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, a tribal chief and politician, who had earlier founded the Jamohoori Watan Party (JWP). A former chief minister and governor, Bugti went underground after the army action started. In 2006, he was killed in a shoot out with soldiers.

“Since then there has been no looking back. The violence has increased manifold,” said Shamim-ur-Rehman, a political analyst.

President Asif Ali Zardari , who claims to be half Baloch, insists any solution should be political. But political negotiations with the Baloch nationalists, who now openly demand independence from Pakistan, have failed.

What is worrisome, is that the charge India is creating trouble diverts attention from the genuine complaints of the Baloch people, said Rehman, who spent years reporting an earlier insurgency in the 1970s.

This time, he said, the situation is more serious. The trouble is no longer confined to the mountains, it has spread to the towns and cities of the province.

Brahandagh Khan Bugti, the grandson of Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, now heads his faction of the JWP. He has renamed it the Baloch Republican Party. In an unguarded moment, Brahandagh stated his party would welcome assistance for its struggle “even from India”. This has been taken as acknowledgement of Indian involvement in Balochistan.

As things move from bad to worse, there are fears the violence from the province will spill over to other parts of the country.

This adds to the headaches of the Zardari government, which has moved from one crisis to another — acting only when forced to do so. Some fear that in this case, it may already be too late to do anything.