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PAKISTAN

The Balochistan cause gets a martyr

Tuesday 29 August 2006, by SUBRAMANIAN*Nirupama

The killing of Akbar Khan Bugti has angered Balochistan. It has also sent shock waves through political circles in Pakistan. A former military intelligence chief has sounded an early warning that Bugti dead is more dangerous for Pakistan than Bugti alive.

ON SATURDAY, Pakistan gave Balochistan the martyr the region’s nationalist cause lacked these last 58 years, when security forces killed Akbar Khan Bugti. The irony: the 79-year-old Bugti was more pro-Pakistan than many other Baloch leaders.

Over the years, the tribal sardar, more popularly addressed as Nawab Bugti, had definitely crossed swords with Islamabad for more political autonomy and more finances to the province but, despite becoming the face of the Baloch resistance movement, especially after 2004, it was widely believed that he was Pakistan’s bridge to the more anti-Pakistan elements in the province, such as Nawab Khair Buksh Marri and Sardar Ataullah Mengal.

A product of the elite Aitchinson College in Lahore, educated also in Karachi and at Oxford, Bugti had been member of the National Assembly, served as a Minister of State for the Interior, and was appointed governor of Balochistan as the federal government battled an insurgency between 1973 and 1977. With his six-foot-plus frame, silver hair, Daliesque moustache, and articulate personality, Nawab Bugti was a high-profile political presence in Balochistan and on the national scene since the 1950s. Until the end, he retained strong links with several ruling party politicians.

By killing him with an inordinate show of force that included helicopter gunships strafing the cave in which he was hiding and firing missiles at it, Pakistan has given a powerful demonstration of the heavy-handedness for which the Baloch people have resented Islamabad all along. Even those Balochis who did not consider him their leader or who disliked him - and there were many of those - are stunned at the brute show of force by Islamabad.

The former military intelligence chief, Asad Durrani, sounded an early warning of the backlash that could follow when he said Bugti dead was more dangerous for Pakistan than Bugti alive.

From the spontaneous rioting that erupted in every zilla of the province following the news of his killing, it is evident Balochis are already rallying around the potent symbolism of the event - the world’s seventh largest military versus a frail old man. For Balochis, the manner in which Pakistan dealt with Bugti has now come to represent the way Pakistan deals with Balochistan.

What is Balochistan’s beef with Islamabad? Starting with a problematic accession in 1947, the list of Balochi grievances has grown over the years especially after the 1952 discovery of natural gas in the province. The federal government sucks up the natural gas from under the desert in Sui and two other places, and pipes it to homes as far away as eastern Punjab and Sind. That the piped gas reaches only a small percentage of Balochistan’s own six million population is only a minor irritation. People struggle for clean drinking water. Education and health facilities are inadequate. Despite its natural riches, Balochistan is Pakistan’s least developed province and gets the least amount of funds from the federal government. It has virtually no representation in the army and very little in the bureaucracy.

The recent investment by Islamabad in the Gwadar port has bought no cheer to the province, as people see very little benefit in it for themselves. They consider a way for the government to bring in more non-Balochis, although President Pervez Musharraf has said the energy corridor he proposes from Gwadar to China will bring lots of employment to the region.

Nawab Bugti had his own quarrel with the Musharraf regime over the slash in royalties paid to him for the gas fields, which lie under Bugti tribal lands. The government complained that the sardars were pocketing the royalty to build personal wealth, and denying any share of it to the tribes by way of development works.

In an address to the nation on July 20, President Musharraf said the three tribal chiefs - Bugti, Marri, and Mengal - were the cause of the whole problem in Balochistan. In strident tones, he described them as "anti-democracy, anti-development, anti-government and anti-Pakistan" blackmailers who had kept their own people "under subjugation of a very cruel kind".

Opinion is divided on where Nawab Bugti drew the line between his personal interests and the interests the Baloch people. Many Baloch nationalists viewed the tribal sardars as part of the problem, as leaders who had sold out to Islamabad to line their own pockets.

The latest round of troubles between the sardars and the government began soon after the Musharraf regime established itself. There was already simmering discontent over the marginalisation of Balochistan through the democratic regimes of the 1990s.

In 2000, Nawab Khari Buksh Marri was accused and jailed for the murder of a judge of the provincial High Court. Soon after his arrest, the Balochistan Liberation Army, last heard of in the 1970s, re-emerged and claimed responsibility for a string of bomb blasts targeting gas pipelines and rocket attacks on government installations. Since then, the shadowy group has been linked to Nawab Marri although there is no certainty about this. As the frequency of the attacks increased, the government accused Nawab Bugti of giving shelter to the BLA.

Certainly, he did nothing to discourage the BLA. Protesting the alleged rape of a doctor working at the Sui Gas Company’s hospital in January 2005, the BLA carried out rocket attacks on military personnel guarding company headquarters. Bugti praised the group, saying it was part of the Baloch code to avenge the dishonour to a woman. All of 2005 saw skirmishes between the Frontier Corps and Bugti tribesmen, who seemed well armed. There was no let-up in the bomb blasts and rocket attacks either. Through this period, the Nawab grew into his role as the predominant voice of the anti-government sentiment in Balochistan.

But he also made it known that he was open to a political settlement. A rocket attack on President Musharraf in December 2005 when he visited a paramilitary base in the province ended a mediation effort between Bugti and the government.

Increasingly citing Indian assistance routed through Afghanistan to the insurgents, the government stepped up security operations. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, which sent a fact-finding mission in December 2005-January 2006, reported disappearances, torture, and other rights violations by the security forces.

The Nawab was forced to abandon his family mud fort in Dera Bugti when it came under direct attack. Living on the run and in hideouts in caves in hilly terrain added to the mystique of the man and his leadership. But when he left his ancestral home, the government installed a rival tribesman in Dera Bugti. Through the last three months, security forces have been reporting that they had brought the situation under control, and that Nawab Bugti would soon be captured. Under the rival Bugti’s leadership, a jirga last week - just two days before the Nawab was killed - took a decision to abolish the sardar system, clearly a government move to sideline the Nawab.

The killing of Bugti has angered Balochistan, and is certain to fuel the anti-government resentment in the province. But analysts says its repercussions are also certain to be felt beyond the boundaries of the province, particularly in Sind, which has its own troubled relationship with the federal government.

"Ominous sign"

It has also sent shock waves through political circles across Pakistan. For one, it has led to a further consolidation of opposition parties, and is certain to provide firepower to the August 29 no-confidence motion they have tabled in the National Assembly against Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz. The Chairman of the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy, Makhdoom Amir Fahim, said it was an ominous sign that the government had started targeting politicians that opposed it. The Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, a religious coalition, said it was considering quitting the provincial government of Balochistan, where it is part of the ruling alliance with the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid).

In a sign, perhaps, of an emerging divide over the killing even between the military regime and its handmaiden ruling party, the PML(Q) president, Chaudhary Shujaat Hussain, who was one of the emissaries to the Nawab in 2005 and had longstanding family ties with him, told journalists "it should not have happened," and there could be no rejoicing over Bugti’s death. This he said as General Musharraf is reported to have congratulated the security forces on their "victory" and pledged to continue the operations until the writ of the government was established fully in Balochistan. The PML (Q) party secretary-general, Mushahid Hussain Sayed, said in a statement he was grieved and saddened by the death of a friend. "His death and the manner of it is sad and unfortunate, and I condole with his family," Mr. Sayed said.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that a pall of gloom and despondency has descended over Pakistan after the death of Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti. It has even recalled the troubling memory of the hanging of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto at the hands of General Zia-ul-Haq. The Nation commented that this was the first killing of a mainstream politician since Bhutto. The Daily Times called it "the biggest blunder since Bhutto’s execution".

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