The separatist movement in Balochistan dates back to the beginning of Pakistan itself.
By Yasir Babbar, Islamabad
The separatist movement in Balochistan has gained momentum, and relations between the province and the centre are at an all-time low. Just two months back, three Baloch nationalist leaders, Ghulam Muhammad Baloch, president of the Baloch National Movement (BNM), Lala Munir Baloch, member of the BNM’s central committee, and Sher Muhammad Baloch, joint secretary of the Balochistan Republican Party (BRP), were killed. Their killings prompted another bout of violence in Balochistan and have further strengthened support for separatists. The Baloch believe that state agencies are responsible for the killings, while the government has claimed that non-state elements who want to destabilise the country are responsible. There are also reports that separatists are threatening schools and colleges that hoist the Pakistani flag and sing the national anthem.
The list of grievances of the Baloch separatist movement is long. According to federal government facts and figures, Balochistan gives the centre $1.4 billion per annum but receives only $116 million. Similarly, it is mentioned in the Pakistan Energy Book 2007 that Balochistan, which produces the most gas in the country after Sindh, only consumes about one quarter of its production output. Gas from Sui reached all the major cities outside Balochistan from 1953 onwards but reached Balochistan only in 1986, and many areas in the province still do not receive any gas. Similarly, Gwadar – one of the only three deep-sea ports in Pakistan – is a bone of contention, with the Baloch claiming that it is being run for the benefit of outsiders.
Education in the province is in a shambles and violence is so endemic that Dera Bugti and Kohlu are still no-go areas. More than 80,000 displaced families are living in harsh conditions in Sindh and the Punjab. Arbitrary arrests, disappearances, blockades and restrictions on freedom of movement have not ceased. As observed by many Baloch politicians, the troops are still active, their intelligence networks still operational and hounding people struggling for their rights. It is estimated that around 40,000 army troops are deployed in Balochistan, in addition to more than 100,000 Frontier Corps personnel. The resource-rich Balochistan is facing increasing poverty and unemployment, its GDP is constantly declining and while government spending on law and order has increased, investment levels are still anaemic. While this latest conflict has the potential to grow into the most dangerous one, it is not the first time that relations between Balochistan and the centre have turned violent. In fact, it has happened five times before, in 1948, 1958, 1962, 1973-1977 and then from 2005-2006.
The first struggle for Baloch independence was launched soon after the annexation of the princely state of Kalat by the centre and its subsequent refusal to grant the state internal autonomy. The Baloch interpreted the move as a unilateral violation of the Sandeman System (the Baloch-British agreement that granted autonomy to the sardars). This resulted in civil unrest, with Prince Abdul Karim Khan, the younger brother of the Khan of Kalat, deciding to lead a national liberation movement on April 16, 1948. He invited the leading Baloch nationalist members – the Kalat State National Party, the Baloch League and the Baloch National Workers Party among others – to join the fight for a creation of an independent ‘Greater Balochistan.’
Prince Karim initially solicited Indian support but that was not forthcoming, as New Delhi did not extend logistical and political support on the advice of its British Governor-General, Lord Mountbatten. Prince Karim, along with other prominent Baloch leaders, decided to migrate to Afghanistan in June 1948. Pakistan alleged that India had incited the prince, through the Hindu Baloch (about 19% of Balochistan’s population at that time), and some communist leaders of Sindh, who maintained good relations with Indian communists. It also depicted the Baloch nationalist leaders as being pro-Moscow.
Karim also organised the Baloch Mujahideen, a liberation force comprising former soldiers and officers of the Khan’s army. The Baloch liberation army had separate wings: Jaannisar (the devotee), Jaanbaz (the daring), and the fidayeen (suicide squads). His GHQ was known as Bab-i-Aali (secret war office). However, the first Baloch liberation army did not comprise large numbers. Prince Karim’s efforts were further weakened by Afghanistan and the Soviet Union’s unwillingness to offer assistance.
There was a second Baloch resistance movement in 1958, when the Khan of Kalat organised a rebellion to secede from Pakistan. President Iskander Mirza directed the Pakistan Army to take control of the Kalat palace and arrest the Khan on charges of sedition.
Informed circles asserted that Iskander Mirza had played up the dormant dreams of the Khan and encouraged him to raise the banner of revolt so that it could justify imposition of martial law. After the arrest of the Khan of Kalat, there were spontaneous disturbances in most parts of Balochistan that continued for about a year. It was during these disturbances that Nouroz Khan alias Babu Nouroz, who was the head of the Zarakzai tribe, also started a revolt.
Babu Nouroz’s band of fighters, numbering only about 150, fought valiantly against the army, headed by Lt Col Tikka Khan. There are reports that Tikka Khan got Nouroz Khan to surrender by making him take an oath on the Holy Quran. He and his followers, including his sons and nephews, were taken to Hyderabad Jail, where his sons and nephews were executed for armed rebellion against the state. Nouroz was held in prison where he died at the age of 90. The Khan of Kalat was subsequently forgiven and freed.
Following the surrender of Nouroz, Tikka Khan launched campaigns in the Zarakzai, Achakzai, Marri and Bugti territories. According to Baloch chroniclers, over 1,000 Baloch civilians lost their lives in these operations.
The third Baloch uprising was both more effective and widespread than the movements which had preceded it. It was initially triggered by the Marri tribe in 1962, when they objected to the rapid migration of Punjabis to the province, the attempted curtailment of privileges of the sardars and the lack of development projects in the area. This movement was, as usual, suppressed by the government.
The violence died down somewhat between 1965-1971, as hostilities broke out between Pakistan and India. However, the secession of East Pakistan inspired Baloch nationalists to demand greater autonomy. But then Prime Minister Zulfikar Bhutto turned down the Baloch’s requests for a greater share in Pakistan’s resources and more autonomy. Baloch leaders had also been provoked by Yahya Khan’s decision to abolish the one-unit scheme and create an integrated province of Balochistan on July 1, 1970. Belying the expectations of the military junta, the National Awami Party (NAP) and the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) secured a majority in the general elections of 1970. But Bhutto decided to delay devolving power to the elected parties in Balochistan.
NAP and JUI leaders continued to demand a larger say in the affairs of the province. But Bhutto refused to negotiate with chief minister Ataullah Mengal and JUI head, Mufti Mahmood. This propelled the Baloch tribes to resort to an armed struggle. The Baloch rebellion took a serious turn when Bhutto sacked two provincial governments within six months, arrested two chief ministers, two governors and 44 MNAs and MPAs. He managed to obtain a Supreme Court order banning the NAP and ordered trial of all its leading members on charges of high treason.
The civil disobedience movement launched by the Marri, Mengal, Bugti, Zarakzai and other tribes soon turned into an armed struggle. Mir Hazar Khan Marri led the Baloch liberation movement under the banner of the Balochistan Peoples Liberation Front (BPLF). But, the BPLF was eventually forced to move to Afghanistan along with thousands of its supporters. From the original BPLF, the Baloch people, in recent times, have branched into organisations like the BLA, BLM, BLO, etc. There also exists a Balochistan government in exile in the US, with branches in Europe.
Pakistan alleged clandestine Indian and Afghan assistance to the rebels. Bhutto sent in the army in 1973 and the air force was also inducted to fight about 20,000 Baloch insurgents. Iran, fearing a similar uprising by its own Baloch groups, assisted Pakistan by supplying helicopter gunships and pilots. It is alleged that Reza Shah Pehalvi was asked by the US to come to the rescue of Bhutto, who had established a bridge between Washington and Beijing. Washington was also worried about India staging another ‘Bangladesh coup’ in Balochistan. The movement was mercilessly suppressed by the Pakistan Army, air force and the ISI, inflicting estimated casualties of about 15,000 Baloch people.
There were further problems during the reign of General Zia-ul-Haq, who had appointed General Rahimuddin Khan as martial law administrator and governor of Balochistan. While General Rahimuddin initiated some development activities, he ruled the province with an iron fist, curtailing the powers of the tribal sardars. Several hundred Baloch were incarcerated and Punjabis, mohajirs and Sindhis were brought into the province to weaken the indigenous population. Census operations conducted under Rahimuddin reduced the Baloch headcount. General Zia declared a general amnesty for those willing to give up arms. Tired and terrified, minor sardars surrendered to the military machine of Pakistan, isolating feudal leaders such as Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti and Ataullah Mengal.
According to media reports, the fifth phase of the Baloch insurgency was triggered off by the sexual assault of a female doctor, Shazia Khalid, by an army officer – allegedly Captain Hammad – at the Pakistan Petroleum Limited compound in the Sui area of Balochistan. She was living in a high-security zone of the gas plant, which was guarded by the Defence Security Guards (DSG). Islamabad handled the matter in a cavalier fashion. Accumulated anger incensed the people and they mounted an attack on the Sui facility.
Nawab Akbar Bugti, the chairman of the Jamhoori Watan Party and former governor and chief minister of Balochistan, stated that the attack was a manifestation of the anger of the people and had nothing to do with the nationalist struggle for freedom by the tribals. General Musharraf retaliated by ordering the ISI and the army to mount operations against rebel Baloch forces headed by Akbar Bugti, who was allegedly assassinated in a missile attack by the army in 2006.
After the killing of Akbar Bugti, his grandson, Nawab Brahamdagh Khan Bugti, took over, changed the party’s name to the Balochistan Republican Party (BRP), and also changed the party’s agenda: to struggle for a separate Balochistan (Many nationalist politicians claim that Brahamdagh Bugti is currently headquartered in the village of Spin Boldak, across the border in Afghanistan). Soon after, however, Akbar Bugti’s son, Nawab Talal Bugti, announced that he would restart the JWP, which would continue to work in accordance with its original vision of a search for a moderate political solution. “I oppose my nephew’s independence movement,” said Talal Bugti. “I prefer to keep the party as an icon of the federation.”
Later, when former MPA Mir Balaach Marri was assassinated by the Pakistan Army, his younger brother moved to London where he now operates from. According to well-informed circles, the Baloch have established a strong base in London from where they are running a campaign to gain the support of other countries to set up an independent Balochistan, and alongside the Baloch Liberation Army and other armed groups, are waging a battle against the Pakistan Army, the FC and security agencies.
The situation seemed to have taken a turn for the better after the PPP victory in the 2008 elections, which was followed by an apology from President Asif Zardari to the people of Balochistan for the excesses committed against them in the past. Zardari also announced that an All-Parties Conference would be held to address the problems of the province and that a Truth Commission would be formed to give a platform for the Baloch people to voice their grievances. Following these moves, the three armed militant groups, the BLA, the Baloch Republican Army and the Baloch Liberation Front announced a ceasefire in the province.
But a year later, when the government failed to convene the All-Parties Conference and set up the Truth Commission, the three militant groups withdrew their four-month ceasefire. Subsequently, with the assassination of the three Baloch nationalist leaders, the situation in the province began to deteriorate. Interior Minister Rehman Malik accuses the “foreign hand” of fishing in Balochistan’s troubled waters. In his policy statement to the Senate session on April 22, Malik claimed that the government had proof of foreign involvement in Balochistan. He specifically accused Russia and India of supporting the BLA and fomenting trouble in the province.
Malik also pointed out that 4,000 to 5,000 Baloch people had received training in several centres in Afghanistan and he shared more details with the legislators during the in-camera proceedings of the House.
Senator Hasil Bizenjo accuses Malik of levelling false accusations to deflect attention from the real problems of Balochistan. He maintains that when Pakistan does not give the Baloch ownership rights over their resources like gas and oil reservoirs and the Gwadar port, they will naturally turn towards foreign hands for help.
Some observers also speak of US involvement in the province. They maintain that the US has long harboured a plan to keep a grip on Balochistan for strategic reasons and has been unhappy with Pakistan’s decision to contract out work on the Gwadar port to China. The US would want to block out China from the region.
All of this may well be true, but the fact remains that unless the federal government redresses the grievances of the Baloch, it cannot salvage the situation. It has to put its own house in order, instead of resorting to the blame game.
Given the growing anti-Pakistan sentiment in Balochistan, the Pakistani government will have to move fast and deliver on its promises to grant substantive political and economic autonomy to the people or this battle may well be the last.