In 2006, Pervez Musharraf launched a military operation in Balochistan and killed a former governor and elected chief minister of the province, Nawab Akbar Bugti. This was a watershed moment in the region, which radicalised even ordinary, apolitical Balochis to join the long-standing nationalist movement for regional rights and justice. More than 50,000 Baloch were displaced during the extended military operation that surrounded the killing. Even worse, national and international organisations were obstructed from providing humanitarian relief to those people who fled the violence. Unicef came out with a report on the condition of these IDPs and it was asked to retract it.
The military operation in Balochistan has only intensified over the last five years, with many in the province seeing it as nothing but a brutal form of state repression. Reportedly, more than 4,000 people have been illegally abducted and detained. Out of these, around 149 were later found dead, usually with their dead bodies found by the roadside. The dehumanising nature of the violence is evidenced not just in the ways people are tortured — with holes drilled in the head and bodies mutilated beyond recognition — but also in the way their bodies are discarded. One note accompanying a decomposed corpse said, “Eid gift for the Baloch”.
Those who have been kidnapped, tortured and killed are not just armed militants hiding in the mountains. A vast proportion of them are from the urban middle class, including students, engineers, lawyers, journalists and activists who have been engaging in civilian protest against what they perceive to be wrong policies of the state and the establishment. As the Guardian reported two months ago, a Baloch farmer went to court to file a case for his missing son but his lawyer was murdered. When he subsequently went to the media, the president of the local press club was murdered. Now, no one wishes to speak up for him.
In this situation, why should we be surprised or offended if some children in the province refuse to sing the national anthem and local schools refuse to fly the national flag? Why do we shudder when an increasing number of people in Balochistan — including women, for the first time — shout slogans that go against the existence of Pakistan. Every dead body is an embodiment of a renewed resolve to fight the policies of the centre. This, in turn, has brought about retaliatory violence. Armed Baloch groups have also resorted to horrific forms of indiscriminate violence. They used to blow up gas pipelines. Now they carry out target killings. Of Punjabi settlers, government servants, even Chinese engineers — any blood that the elite might care about.
To address the situation, the present civilian government had introduced the Aghaz-e-Haqooq-e-Balochistan package in November 2009, promising a ban on new military cantonments, a commission on enforced disappearances and payment of overdue gas royalties. This is exactly what was needed. But the Gilani government remains powerless in the face of the forces that continue to run and rampage Balochistan. US military aid was meant to train and equip the FC to fight the intrusion of the Taliban into Pakistan. Instead, a situation has arisen where Pakistan constantly has to hear accusations that it is sheltering the Taliban in Balochistan.
Forty years ago, the eminent sociologist, Hamza Alavi, wrote that it was the Pakistani Army itself which was most threatened by the Bengali demand for regional autonomy. The Awami League, which had an absolute majority in parliament, was committed to aiding development by decentralising economic policymaking and reducing military expenditure. Moreover, army cadres were fed the self-perpetuating delusion that Bengali nationalism was ‘an Indian-inspired, Indian-financed and Indian-engineered move to disrupt the unity of Pakistan’. This was accompanied by an added delusion — that Bengali nationalism was limited to a small number of intellectuals and politicians and if they were eliminated, the obedience of the Bengali people would be restored.
These are precisely the twin delusions which were used to drive and justify a systematic campaign of violence against the Bengalis in 1971, at the hands of our armed forces and the Jamaat-e-Islami militants, alBadr and alShams. We all know the result. These are precisely the delusions that undergird the current campaign of terror in Balochistan, with new sponsored wings such as Baloch Musalah Defa Tanzeem and Sipah-i-Shuhada-i-Balochistan. Additionally, worryingly it seems that, extremist Islamic forces are being mobilised to quell the secular Baloch struggle.
Hasn’t the use of radical Islam as ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan already landed us, as well as our neighbours, in extremist depth? The biggest threat to our sovereignty is neither India nor the US, it’s from within, from our inability to ensure supremacy of parliament and elected civilian rule. We urgently need to have in place a system, as mandated by the constitution, where elected governments are sovereign and have control over the military and its various arms. This should be accompanied by the return of all those who have ‘disappeared’ in Balochistan in recent years.
The recognition of political, economic and cultural rights for constituent regions is fundamental for any federation to survive and is central to the functioning of a modern democracy. Yet, generations of Pakistanis have been made to believe, the army-backed logic that extending these rights is the vey antithesis of modern nationhood, because it is tantamount to ‘provincialism’ and destroys Pakistani and Muslim unity. This is our fundamental problem. A positive Pakistani identity can never be based on the repression and denial of the many histories and societies that, in fact, embody the life and spirit of Pakistan. All we have to do is acknowledge and respect them, instead of killing and dumping them.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 24th, 2011.