The Baloch battlefield

From the West’s perspective, while Syria has to be destabilised to get at Iran, Balochistan must be kept stable in order to keep Pakistan happy

The killing of Zamur Domki along with her 13-year-old daughter Jaana on January 31 in Karachi was a new low in that violence-prone city. It may have been routinely described as yet another criminal act except that Zamur was the granddaughter of slain Baloch leader Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti and the sister of Brahamdagh Bugti. Brahamdagh is wanted by the Pakistani authorities for rebelling and waging war against Pakistan. This brutal murder was a ruthless message to Brahamdagh. There was immediate retaliation by the Baloch Liberation Army, which killed 15 Frontier Corps men and injured 12 others in attacks on four posts.

Balochistan has been in perpetual revolt ever since Pakistan became independent — there were four other campaigns after 1948. The current rebellion gained momentum after the assassination of Nawab Bugti in August 2006 and the murder of Balaach Marri, son of Nawab Khair Bux Marri, one of the two surviving leaders of the famous 1973 Baloch uprising. The other survivor is Sardar Ataullah Khan Mengal. Among younger leaders of a possible Baloch revolt, Brahamdagh Bugti lives in exile in Switzerland, while Hyrbair Marri (Khair Bux’s son) is in London. But there is no totem pole in Balochistan around which the Baloch nationalists can rally.
The constant Baloch grievances against Islamabad have ranged from deprivation of profits from its contribution to the national exchequer to inequitable sharing of the province’s abundant natural resources with the Baloch people (which are siphoned off, mainly to Punjab). The Baloch also resent the fact that they are outnumbered by outsiders (mostly Punjabis), and that prime arable land is being parcelled out to these “outsiders” and the Army, which, in many cases, is double jeopardy. The nationalists probably echo Ataullah Mengal’s warning last year — “Balochistan will not remain with you.”
There are other problems for the Baloch. The Baloch lack centralised leadership in the campaign for their rights. There are as many as six Baloch insurgent organisations that have been banned by Islamabad, including the Baloch Liberation Army, Balochistan Republican Army and Baloch Liberation Front. In the absence of reliable data, conservative estimates assess that there have been at least 180 attacks since 2005.
While the West may fret over events in Syria, very little attention has been paid to what has been happening in Balochistan. From the West’s perspective, while Syria has to be destabilised to get at Iran, Balochistan must be kept stable in order to keep Pakistan happy and maybe helpful in Afghanistan. Balochistan provides access to Kandahar and borders the predominantly Sunni province of Sistan-Balochistan in Iran. It is not in America’s interest, therefore, to make any noise about killings and disappearances in Balochistan. The province is thrice the size of Syria in area, located on the borders of Iran and astride the Strait of Oman, and not far from the Strait of Hormuz. Balochistan was a base for drones, and Pakistan remains far too important for America’s global calculations to allow anything more than congressional hearings. The deliberations of the US House foreign affairs committee on February 8 upset the Pakistan government as much as it elated the Baloch nationalists. The US simultaneously has been making moves to “normalise” relations with Islamabad.
There is also considerable long-term Chinese interest in having access to the port of Gwadar, which would shorten the route for China from and for its African and Gulf interests to Xinjiang. The Chinese have considerable interests in the Saindak copper mines, in mineral resources, Sui gas and the possibility of participating in the Iran-Pakistan pipeline if and when it materialises. The Iranians have alleged that Mujahideen-e-Khalq as well as Jundullah are sectarian Sunni-US proxies operating from Balochistan against Iranian interests.
Having learnt from the tactics used in the Arab Spring protests last year, the Baloch nationalists — many of whom are outside Pakistan — have been using Internet platforms such as Twitter to spread their message rather effectively. Almost every day one reads about killings, abductions and kidnappings both by the state and the nationalists; there are reports of explosions but very little is reported outside the province. There have been a few brave articles in Pakistan’s English-language press, but the Baloch anger at years of discrimination, deprivation and suppression — at the hands of Pakistan’s Punjabis — continues to manifest itself.
The reaction from Islamabad to all this has been predictable. It has been a policy of kill and dump bodies of young Baloch nationalists as a warning to others. Human Rights Watch, in its 2012 World Report, documented that 200 Baloch nationalists had disappeared or were killed in the previous year. The Asian Human Rights Commission report says at least 56 bullet-ridden bodies of “disappeared persons” had been found in Balochistan. An estimated 200 extra-judicial killings had taken place since 2010. There were a total of 711 killings in 2011 — comprising 122 SF personnel, 47 militants and 542 civilians.
The situation is further complicated because, along with Baloch insurgents, there are Pushtun Islamists and sectarian mafia. The Quetta Shura of Mullah Omar, which is present in the midst of a strong Afghan Pushtun population, is another complication and cause for ethnic tension. Sectarian militant outfits like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi have repeatedly targeted the Shias. It is suspected that this has the blessings of Islamabad/Rawalpindi. Over 50 Hindus have also been kidnapped for ransom in Balochistan in a bid to discredit the nationalists, which gives a clear indication of the lawlessness in the province. And last year around 12,000 Persian-speaking Hazaras had to leave Quetta, fearing for their lives. All this is a form of Wahabi ethnic cleansing.
The best way out for Pakistan would be to negotiate with Baloch leaders in good faith; but possibly it feels the jackboot is the better option. The world will continue to ignore Balochistan, while the Baloch will continue their lonely struggle, which the Pakistan government will try to suppress through force, and innocents will continue to die.

The writer is a former head of the Research and Analysis Wing, India’s external intelligence agency

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