The entire world is open to us, why should we confine ourselves to this country”
Nawab Khair Bakhsh Marri
By Amir Zia
Interview: Karen Armstrong
Interview: Cultures in Harmony
Nawab Khair Bakhsh Marri is seen as the kingpin of the radical Baloch nationalist movement, which explicitly demands an independent Balochistan. Although the veteran Baloch leader appears to be living a quiet life in Karachi’s posh Defence Housing Authority for the past several years, his admirers as well as rivals view him as one of the key players of the separatist movement, operating from behind-the-scenes. The shadowy militant Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) – which is waging a low-intensity insurgency in the rugged mountains of Balochistan, as well as targeting government installations, officials and security forces in the cities – is dominated by his Marri tribesmen.
An enigma to many of his contemporaries, Nawab Khair Bakhsh Marri was a key leader of the 1973-77 Baloch insurgency that saw an estimated 50,000 Baloch fighters taking up arms against the Pakistan Army. Thousands of people were killed in the insurgency, including hundreds of security personnel. The Marri tribe spearheaded the movement, which was supported by a handful of Pakistani leftists as well as by the now-defunct Soviet bloc. KB, as he was popularly known at the time, was languishing in prison during that entire period, along with several key leaders of the banned National Awami Party including Ghous Bakhsh Bizenjo and Ataullah Mengal under the Hyderabad conspiracy case. Once freed by the former military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq, KB flew to Europe for a brief stop over and then went into self-imposed exile in Afghanistan, along with his tribesmen.
He returned to Pakistan in 1991, only after the Soviet-backed Kabul regime was close to collapse. He was briefly arrested on charges of being involved in Justice Nawaz Marri’s murder, but was released in 2002, following which he moved to Karachi. Ill-health and old age have ostensibly removed him from the political scene, but he is still idolised by many Baloch nationalists.
His arrest during Musharraf’s tenure fuelled anger among many of his tribesmen, who, once again, went on a confrontationist path. These included his son Balach, who was killed in 2007 in a controversial military operation.
Unlike conventional tribal and feudal politicians, who are fond of lengthy political arguments and discussions, KB remains a man of few words. He speaks in a soft voice, but his one-liners are often filled with sarcasm, bitter wit and irony. He knows the art of answering a question with a question. From his calm body language and the gentle tone of his voice, he appears to be a gentle person, but appearances are often deceptive. Old age, exile, arrest and personal losses have in no way mellowed him. He is still as uncompromising and unbending as he was in the 1970s. He continues to chase his dream of an independent Balochistan, which has eluded him all his life and still remains a mirage.
Q: For a fairly long time, you have not been visible on the political scene. What’s the reason?
A: Sir, there are [different] tactics. Do you think there is only one way?
Q: Your tactics have changed?
A: That’s possible … I don’t admit that I have disassociated myself [from politics]. Maybe there is a change in tactics.
Q: In the ’70s, the country’s leftist forces were supporting the Baloch nationalists. The Soviet bloc was there. Today, it does not have any such support.
A: The Soviet bloc never gave us any armies. It only gave us books. Whether the Soviet bloc is there [or not] … injustice is still there.
Q: But moral support counts. People drew inspiration from the former Soviet Union.
A: I don’t know to what extent the Soviets supported [the nationalists]. Ideology does work, but guns and weapons play a more important role. The Soviets did not give us any guns, bombs or weapons.
Q: The ’70s movement is viewed as the high point of the Baloch nationalist movement.
A: I think the present times are the high point of this movement compared to that period.
Q: Why did the key Baloch leaders of the ’70s fail to evolve a common strategy once they were freed from prison? Ghous Bakhsh Bizenjo formed his own Pakistan National Party. Attaullah Mengal went into self-exile in London, while you, too, after a brief stop over in Europe, went to Afghanistan.
A: Maybe there was a change in thinking, which led to a change in practice. [Some] chose the wrong path or we picked one [which was wrong]. Some were diverted, afraid, or bought over … I don’t want to talk about who did what.
I first went to Europe for a brief period and then to Afghanistan. My tribesmen also went to Afghanistan. We have this pattern – a convention. My grandfather also went to Afghanistan to seek the help of the Muslim king against the British.
Q: The Afghan governments of those times have a history of supporting Pakistan’s nationalists.
A: Yes, they did; Dawood Khan supported us.
Q: Critics say that the movement of that time was tribal in nature and was not a nationalist movement. There was no united front of the Baloch.
A: This is a phase of our history. Tribalism is part of our society … It was tribal as well as for the Baloch identity.
Q: Don’t you think that the lack of a central leadership and divisions within the nationalist movement are weakening it?
A: This has happened everywhere in the world. The better option would have been to have a single party. If it is not there, an alliance will do. I will not say it is correct, but unfortunately, they [the nationalists] are divided. Being divided is not an ailment that cannot be cured. Even the Soviet revolution was not brought about by the power of Bolsheviks alone. Bolsheviks led the revolution by giving a correct thought, correct analysis and a correct diagnosis of the ailment. Then, the people helped.
Q: If you compare the ’70s movement to that of 2009, are the Baloch nationalists as divided as they were back then?
A: I think they are more united now. Even young kids, whose elders used to do nothing and had no concern other than bread, are talking about a free Balochistan. They will be tomorrow’s soldiers – at least, one or two out of 10.
Q: If you were asked to define your politics ideologically, how would you define Khair Bakhsh Marri – as a nationalist or a Marxist?
A: I am afraid to say this openly. [But] I believe that justice should be done in Balochistan in proportion to the bloodshed and the price being paid there.
Q: There was a time when you were seen as a Marxist tribal leader. Has there been a change?
A: There has been a change. I don’t know whether it’s [a sign of] maturity or immaturity. I don’t want to upset the American government.
Q: Can a movement be organised on progressive ideals in a tribal society?
A: It can be done but with hard work.
Q: So far, it has been observed that the Marri tribe has been in the lead in the armed movement.
A: I can’t say that my tribe remains in the lead. Yes, it is satisfying that we are part of the movement. But Nauroz Khan and others started this movement much earlier when the Marris had no role in it.
Q: What is your main grievance against Pakistan?
A: Our freedom has been snatched.
Q: Is this your personal view or that of the majority?
A: At the [time of] creation of Pakistan, we were asked whether we wanted to join India or Pakistan. And we said we wanted independence. As a state, we never had any connection with Pakistan. Our language, culture, history, geography were never the same.
Q: Is there a chance of any compromise? In all political movements, there is room for talks.
A: You must have observed, and I also think, that sometimes I am impolite or say things that are considered uncivil, but which I think are absolutely civil. We cannot live with the Punjabis. There is no room for compromise in my book. We have to get rid of them.
Q: Don’t you think 62 years after independence, all the provinces are now politically and economically integrated and staying united seems to make sense?
A: [It seems so] because we are not free … [But economically] we do not have to depend on others. We have sea, land, vast resources. It is others who depend on the Baloch; the Baloch don’t have to depend on others.
Q: The entire country is open to you.
A: Sir, the entire world is open to us, why should we confine ourselves to this country.
Q: If we talk about the past, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s democratic …
A: Bengal was denied [of its rights], you call that democratic? Aren’t you doing an injustice? They [the Bengalis] had a majority in votes, in numbers. And despite that, you call it democratic? Why do you misguide people?
Q: Those tragic events are a part of history. But Bhutto’s constitution was supported by all, including Baloch nationalists.
A: I wish we were more mature, especially after what happened with Bangladesh. Maybe we were so scared, so frightened that we thought it was sufficient. But a simple man like me didn’t sign that constitution … I thought that this constitution does not [provide any] salvation. You could call it my obedience or timidity, but as I didn’t like it, I thought [I should] express [my displeasure].
Q: The Baloch launched an armed resistance against Bhutto’s elected government. But when a dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq, was in power, the nationalists remained silent. Why?
A: That was the low ebb of our freedom movement. All movements pass through such phases.
Q: When your movement was at its peak in the ’70s, the Baloch were not in it alone. There were other leftist elements who remained part of the movement. There was a London group … then why do you talk in such a disparaging manner about one ethnic group?
A: (Laughing) There were only four, five people in the London group. But they could not remain with us. [Maybe] because of our mistakes or because their timeline for adventurism was over.
Q: What was the role of the London group?
A: I don’t know exactly because I had never been to the mountains [to fight]. But I have heard that they used to fight, write and explode bombs. One lost an eye, another got his hand slashed.
Q: Don’t you think the solution to the Baloch problem lies in democracy?
A: No, not with this rival. Not with the Punjabis.
Q: In politics, the doors of negotiations are never closed.
A: Negotiations remained open for 60 years, but we could not find a way. For us, the doors are closed.
Q: It is said that a lot of money was spent on Balochistan’s development and progress during Pervez Musharraf’s tenure.
A: Brother, when someone is asking for freedom, you offer them an increase in salary – even that is a lie. They are offering us some leftover meat on the bones … We are talking of freedom.
Q: The demand for freedom appears to come from only two, three tribal chiefs. It does not seem to be a popular movement in Balochistan.
A: All this army, these killings, exiles, arrests, torture … don’t you think they are a deterrence [in building a popular movement]? There are so many obstacles.
Q: There are allegations that a few tribal chiefs are opposed to development.
A: Which few sardars – Marri, Bugti and Mengal? I would have joined the Muslim League if this sardari was a paradise for me. [I would have] got motors, planes, a share in oil, become the chief minister – made money. Even in this age, I go to Afghanistan [in exile], go to jail – all the time I’m afraid [as to] when the policemen will break the door, drag us away, arrest or shoot us. What do you think I am – a normal human being or a lunatic out of an asylum?
Q: People say tribal chiefs will lose their grip on their people when education and development come to their areas.
A: If there is freedom, the Baloch will decide about the fate of the sardars. At your place, are there political parties in the western sense, who do issue-oriented politics? There are Chaudhrys, Khans, Nawabs, Pirs! Do you have issue-based politics? There are baradaris – is there any politics based on ideology or is it just opportunism?
Q: Is the present government sincere in resolving the Balochistan problem?
A: Yes, it is sincere in resolving the issue by defeating us. It is sincere in defeating us, breaking us, bending us, forcing us to flee and surrender. For this, they have to tell big lies, tempt people with money, [launch] operations … This shows how sincere they are.
Q: President Asif Ali Zardari promises to resolve the Balochistan issue. Do you see any ray of hope?
A: What is Zardari’s status? He is a puppet.
Q: Other nationalists welcomed it.
A: Whom do you call nationalists? Except for BNF or BNM, who are the other nationalists working openly?
Q: There is the National Party.
A: You call the National Party nationalist! In the eyes of the Baloch, it is not.
Q: You don’t see any democratic solution to this problem?
A: [We] tried, but were let down. Democracy does not exist here.
Q: What is the way to reach a settlement?
A: There is only one way to reach a settlement: you get out of our house. After that we will see what our relations will be. But I am sure you are not going to leave – by you, I mean the Punjabis and Mohajirs.
Q: Your son Chengaiz used to be a PML-N member. Your other sons were also part of the system.
A: Not all of them.
Q: Chengaiz was in PML-N. Gazen remained member of the provincial assembly, a minister …
A: Today it is not the same Gazen. You won’t be able to give references of any other sons of mine.
Q: Out of your four sons, who is to be the successor of your politics and ideology?
A: My heirs are not just my legitimate sons, but all those Baloch who respect us, listen to us and [are willing to] sacrifice.
Q: Do you think the tragic killing of one of your sons, Balach, could have been prevented?
A: Balach was following a path where death followed him at every step. The regret is that it came too early. He could have done more work. There used to be study circles, but Balach never attended them. He was a youngster who enjoyed life. When he returned from London, he was a changed man. I never thought he would be successful, but he succeeded.
Q: Worldwide, all such movements have a face. But the Baloch armed movement is without one. There is a shadowy BLA and the Republican Army, but they have no known leadership. Don’t you think this is a weakness?
A: There are no names? I think they are working under two banners.
Q: Do you endorse the tactics of these militant groups?
A: In today’s street language, I agree with them 110%.
Q: Pakistan has recently blamed India for fomenting violence in Balochistan. What do you think?
A: Right now, the most disturbing thing for us is [Pakistani] helicopters and planes. We are not getting those [from India]. What help is it [India] giving us? Providing us bullets, Kalashnikovs? They are available in the market here.
Q: You have spent a lifetime in politics. In the final analysis what have you gained and lost?
A: I can’t say what I lost or gained. But the Baloch are moving forward. Consciousness is increasing among them. Their numbers are rising. Out of 100, 25 will also raise arms.
Q: If you were asked to do a critical evaluation of your own politics and movement …
A: Self-criticism? I am not going to do it.
Q: There must be something for public consumption?
A: Being human, there are weaknesses. But why should I tell others about them – so that they [enemies] can further stab me with a dagger? If I reveal this before you, the government will also listen in. I will not commit the sin of sharing my weaknesses.
Q: How do you spend your time in Karachi these days?
A: It’s unfortunate, [but] the Marris bring their small and big disputes for settlement. Presently, I don’t have the strength to do much reading but occasionally I do spend time reading.
Q: One of your passions is cockfighting. I could hear roosters even during this interview.
A: Yes, this is my childhood passion. It existed even when I was a young man and stayed with me throughout my jail days. People think it is a bad thing; I think so too, but it is no secret that I keep roosters. [Though] I fail to understand [why I do it]. (In a lighter tone) Sometimes I think I need the help of a psychiatrist. Now I only keep roosters that are fit to fight but earlier on, as a child, I used to pick even the normal ones.
I believe it is a sin … the way they fight, get injured and die … but I still keep them, though I have stopped going to the ground [to watch the fights] for a long time now.