The News on Sunday: As somebody who is so familiar with the issue, what exactly do you think is the Baloch problem? Give us some historical perspective?
Najam Sethi: There is a historical narrative in a section of the Baloch middle class which says that the accession to Pakistan of the Princely State of Kalat after partition was enforced. From there, the narrative expands into a demand for autonomy and provincial rights and, eventually, spills over into the demand for independence because of the inability of the rulers at the centre to devolve power.
Balochistan remains a tribal society. So, the form of resistance has always been through weapons and bullets whereas similar political or economic resistance in other parts of Pakistan is on the streets, through strikes and protest marches and so on. In tribal societies, violent methods are as ‘democratic’ as peaceful ones in modern ones.
Unfortunately, from the point of view of Baloch nationalism, their tribal society is very fragmented and tribal rivalries or local rivalries take precedence over provincial and even national issues. That is why the centre has always been able to exploit the situation and found willing takers from amongst the Baloch sardars who have had historical rivalries with each other.
So, Balochistan is beset with several narratives: the tribal narrative of internecine warfare, the middle-class urban narrative of constitutionalism and the rural-tribal sardar narrative of separatism. When the 1973 constitution was cobbled together by ZA Bhutto, the Baloch led by Nawab Khair Bukhsh Marri, Sardar Ataullah Mengal and Nawab Akbar Bugti were reluctant to sign on the dotted line. It was Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo, the urban middle class constitutionalist, who played the role of a bridge between these tribal sardars and Bhutto and got them to agree to sign on the 1973 constitution. The one solitary person who refused to sign was Nawab Khair Bux Marri who still remains the arch exponent of separatism.
So, there is a constant clash of all these narratives.
What has happened now is that because of central-state repression, the nationalist narrative is getting stronger and, as new middle classes develop (like our middle classes over here are becoming Islamised because of the narratives in their education system), the narratives in Balochistan are all about resistance and injustice. Every year, a new symbol is created in that narrative; originally it was Sui Gas that was supplied to all of Pakistan but not to Quetta, then it became Gwadar Port where “outsiders” bought up the land and so on.
TNS: In one of your recent articles, you have talked about the military action in almost the same breath as Baloch nationalist elements that have taken up arms against the Punjabi settlers. A sympathiser of the Baloch cause would say these acts are more reactions and not actions?
NS: No, this is not a reaction. It is part of a political strategy by the separatists. It didn’t exist in any of the earlier movements for independence, not even in the 1970s when state repression was at its height. This is the first time that Baloch insurgents have tried to eliminate Punjabis from Balochistan as part of a political framework. This time the movement has a new leadership also that is not at all tied to the strings of constitutionalism. And, for the first time, the resistance incorporates the two big tribes of Marris and Bugtis. Until now, it was always the Brahuis led by Mengal and the Marris led by Khair Bux; the Bugtis were never a significant part of the nationalist narrative, they were more concerned about their rights vis-à-vis the Pakistan Petroleum explorations for oil and gas in their areas. The Marris and the Bugtis standing together have changed the whole situation.
There has always been a strong anti-Punjabi sentiment in Khair Bux Marri. Now it’s part of policy. When you talk to these young Marri-Bugti leaders in exile, they are very clear. They say we’d rather be slaves of America than be slaves of these Punjabis who are the slaves of America anyway, a reference to the Pakistan military that is both a puppet of America and their repressor. In turn, this is why the Pakistan army, which is predominantly made up of the Punjabis, is determined to eliminate them.
TNS: What exactly is the military’s interest in Balochistan?
NS: The Pakistan Military is the state within the state. No state in the world would allow any part of its territory to secede, would it? Just as they now have to fight the Taliban who are claiming FATA, they will fight the Baloch if they fight for secession, like they did the Bengalis in 1971. The army created these problems because of its national security paradigm revolving round the eternal arch-enemy India. Having done that, now they have to defend their spaces from the blowback of such paradigms.
This is ‘normal’ state repressive behaviour. If you look at the anti-insurgency laws in India, they are unbelievably harsh. The story of hundreds of thousands dead or missing in Indian-held Kashmir is the same.
The Pakistan Army’s counter argument is that if the Indians have a consensus against insurgencies and in favour of the unified nation state, why are the people here raising issues. Isn’t the nation state more important? To which my answer is that there is a consensus on the civilian dominated democratic nation state in India – a democratic consensus and that is why the citizens back the state unequivocally even at the cost of massive human rights violations. But the military here has been usurping power since partition and defining the national interest. This is unacceptable to many civilians who believe they should define the national interest and not the soldiers. So there is no consensus.
TNS: What is the extent of international involvement in Balochistan?
NS: If you’re looking for footprints and hard evidence, you won’t find it. But valid questions arise. Where is the money coming from to fund and train the separatists? Why is the Afghan government giving them refuge? You see, when states are at war or hostile to each other, they will fish in each other’s troubled waters; that’s the universal principle of international relations. The Indians use this ‘intelligence agency’ principle against us in Balochistan, while we use it against them in Kashmir. Now that our relations with the Americans are not good, the Americans have begun to take an ‘interest’ in Balochistan that is unprecedented. The end-game in Afghanistan also warrants keen interest in Balochistan by the regional powers.
TNS: Is the military convinced that repression will solve the problem?
NS: No, they are not convinced, like the Americans are not convinced they can win the war against the Taliban. The idea is to degrade the capacity of the insurgents to a level where you can bring them to the negotiating table. This is what has been happening here. Check out General Kayani’s statement that the military is on board any “constitutional” solution to Balochistan (secession is not constitutional).
TNS: How do you look at Akhtar Mengal’s visit to Pakistan? Was it a consequence of some back-channel talks?
NS: Mengal could not have come here without getting a nod from the guerrilla leaders of the insurgency in exile, people like Hyrbyair Marri etc. He would also have received assurances from Nawaz Sharif, the Supreme Court and the military that he would be given an opportunity to explore solutions and make his statement. The assurances from the army would have amounted to something like this: participate in elections, we will help create space for you, if you leash the guerillas. While he was here, there was not a word out of the Baloch leadership in exile; they could have immediately denounced him as a turncoat but they didn’t. He came, did his thing and off he went because he knew this was a small window and he could not afford any misunderstanding. I think the biggest encouragement was from Nawaz Sharif and the CJP.
TNS: In the same article, you have also hinted at the possibility of the nationalists using the political platform for their separatist agenda in the post-election period.
NS: I am mindful of what happened in 1973. The nationalists formed a National Awami Party government in Balochistan and an NAP government in the Frontier. Ataullah Mengal became the chief minister and Khair Bux Marri was the president of NAP. The very first thing they demanded of the central government was control over the Levies and police. This was granted. Then they said they wanted to have their own paramilitary force. Islamabad said they could not have their own paramilitary. They countered with the argument that Bhutto had created his own paramilitary force, why couldn’t they. The centre became suspicious of their motives, especially since the secular Afghan government under Daud was very chummy with the Pashtun nationalists led by secular Khan Abdul Wali Khan, a component of NAP.
Then something happened that created a ruckus. Bhutto ‘discovered’ a shipment of arms from Iraq to Pakistan ostensibly meant for the Baloch underground movement. So, he beat a big song and dance about it. These were pinned on the Baloch government led by Mengal and Marri and he sacked the NAP governments, accusing them of treacherous behaviour.
At that time there was a division between the Baloch leadership. The Mengals and Marris stood on one side and Bugti went on the other side. Bhutto seized the opportunity and offered Bugti governorship to sort the Mengals and the Marris out. Bugti became the governor. The entire NAP leadership was sent to jail on charges of conspiracy. The Supreme Court banned the NAP.
TNS: Did the military figure somewhere in Bhutto’s decision-making process?
NS: Bhutto’s defence minister was Gen Tikka Khan who was ex-COAS and known as the “butcher of Bengal”. Together, they sent the army into Balochistan and this provoked armed resistance.
After two years of insurgency, in 1976, the army finally persuaded the Shah of Iran to give them American helicopters. Thereafter the resistance began to be hit badly in the face of greater repression. Military action was effective and by 1977 most of the guerrillas had fled from the mountains and taken refuge in Kabul where Daud, who had never accepted the Durand line like his Afghan predecessors, saw an excellent opportunity to exploit the situation. After Bhutto was overthrown by Gen Zia in 1977, the military leadership freed all political prisoners, granted general amnesty and encouraged the rebels in the camps in Afghanistan to return to Pakistan and re-settle down with help from the government. Khair Bux Marri was the last to return with the advent of civilian democracy in 1988.
TNS: Sitting here in Punjab, the Baloch problem especially of underdevelopment is often seen as one that is created by the tribal sardars.
NS: This is the narrative of every central government. The biggest flaw in this narrative is that central governments which are being run by corrupt feudals from Sindh and Punjab are very happy giving funds to them. But the minute a Baloch sardar says that you have to do development via me, they say that if you are not with us, you are standing in the way of progress.
TNS: But as of now, it appears as if the insurgents are standing with the sardars against the Punjabis?
NS: There are many sardars and nawabs in Balochistan, big and small. The biggest two or three are against the Punjabi-dominated militaristic state but many others are standing with the government because of internecine conflicts. So there is much inter-tribal rivalry and competition for resources and power. We are paying attention to what the military and insurgents are doing. But no one is focussing on puppets and touts of Islamabad who are running the provincial government and who have solid stakes in keeping the big sardars out of the reckoning. Zardari gave them 100 billion rupees as part of the Aghaz e Haqooq Package. Where has this money gone?
TNS: Where does Nawaz Sharif figure in all this?
NS: Nawaz is trying to expand his constituency, making alliances with the nationalists, doing seat adjustments, giving them assurances that he will do everything he can to bring them into power. He doesn’t have a vote bank in these provinces and, in the 2002 election, PML-N didn’t get a single seat in Balochistan. Now with the nationalists, they can win some seats and form a big block to be in a position to form a coalition govt. At this point, Mahmood Khan Achakzai (a Pashtun nationalist) is Nawaz’s candidate for prime ministership and has offered to accept Mengal’s nominee as the chief minister in the caretaker setup. And then after the elections, he will likely support Akhtar Mengal as chief minister. Nawaz Sharif is going to the Sindhi and Baloch nationalists because he doesn’t have a third force to ally with. Zardari has MQM, ANP and PML-Q with him and JUI will go with whosoever is in power.
Nawaz is the one who is under threat right now. Imran is hitting into him and he needs alliances and is reaching out to the nationalists everywhere. This is, in a way, good because he is a Punjabi, so it is a good political move.
TNS: How do you look at Mengal’s six points?
NS: This was well thought out. He has referred to the six points in order to draw our attention to what happened to the other six points in 1971. The suggestion is that in 1966, we Punjabis did not give the Bengalis any attention and that ended up in secession. He’s saying these are our six points; we are not asking for secession but, if you don’t pay attention, it could also end up in the same way. Mujeeb-ur-Rehman, like Mengal, was also doing this in order to get motivate Bengalis in the election of 1970.
The other dimension is that if two or three demands get fulfilled then that’s good enough. Some of them are plain impossible. The army has denied military action because it operates through tribal lashkars which are formally controlled by Baloch tribal leaders, MNAs and MPAs who are given money and have vested interests. As for PPP, it took the brief from the army in giving the response “there is no military action”. The generals of the armed forces hide behind the government when they want to and destabilise the government when they want to.
My argument is that there is a push factor and a pull factor. The push factor was General Musharraf’s bad politics, just like Bhutto’s, which alienated the secular Baloch and Pashtuns. The pull factor has been the regional situation which has sustained the Baloch separatists. In the 1970s, the regional situation was not conducive sustaining separatists and insurgents. The warm water theory was nonsense. The Soviets gave no assistance to the Baloch. So, the resistance floundered in the face of stiff repression and in the end everyone went home when amnesty was announced.
But today, the regional situation is tailor made for foreign intervention. So, when the nationalists were pushed out, foreign states were quick to offer them help. And when you get used to such ‘help’, it becomes difficult to break away from it. There is no shortage of weapons and money. Now the push factor is weakening because of mainstream realisation that the Musharraf policy was bad, but the pull factor is getting stronger with new players itching to get into the New Great Game that is developing in the aftermath of US intervention in Afghanistan. (Courtesy: The News on Sunday)