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Balochistan is no Bangladesh

Sushant Sareen is Consultant, Pakistan Project, at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • January 19, 2010

    The separatist sentiment sweeping through the province of Balochistan has led many in Pakistan to draw parallels with the situation that prevailed in East Pakistan and which ultimately culminated in the formation of an independent state, Bangladesh. But such parallels, while they sensationalize the issue of Balochistan and help to draw attention to it, tend to gloss over some very critical differences between the situation that existed in the erstwhile East Pakistan and what obtains in today’s Balochistan. More than the similarities, which are many, between East Pakistan of yore and Balochistan of today, it is the differences that stand in the way of Balochistan becoming another Bangladesh.

    Like in East Pakistan, the alienation of the people in the Baloch populated areas of Balochistan with Pakistan appears to be near total. There is an accumulated sense of grievance that is increasingly being expressed in the desire for seceding from the federation. Political formulas for granting greater autonomy, fiscal resources, control over the natural resources of the province, the freedom to decide development priorities, a greater hold over the security forces operating in the state to quell the insurgency no longer seem to hold any attraction for the disaffected Baloch. If anything, efforts on the part of the federal government – the new National Finance Commission award, the holding of a cabinet meeting in Gwadar, the announcement of the Aaghaz-e-Huqooq-e-Balochistan package (that includes stopping the construction of cantonments, pulling out of the Pakistan army from parts of the province, release of ‘missing persons’ etc) are all probably a case of too little too late.

    As far as the Baloch are concerned, even after all the pious declarations by the federal government, nothing has changed on the ground: activists continue to go missing or are found dead, replacing the army by the Frontier Corps has only increased the indignities to which the Baloch are subjected. FC troops, mostly Pashtun or Punjabi often stop people on the road and force them to shout slogans like Pakistan Zindabad, play songs like ‘dil dil Pakistan...’ on street corners, and carry out ‘full pat–down searches’ of any Baloch who is found to be wearing Baloch-style baggy trousers. Incidentally, even as the Pakistani leaders fulminate at the US for ‘enhanced screening’ at American airports, there is not a peep out of them over the ‘racial profiling’ that leads to ‘enhanced screening’ of fellow citizens on the streets of Balochistan.

    The brutal repression, extra-judicial killings, summary executions of Baloch activists, forced disappearances, harassment and mistreatment of ordinary people have only fuelled the disaffection with Pakistan. The sense of deprivation, exploitation, powerlessness and marginalisation that pervades the Baloch consciousness has a remarkable resemblance to how the Bengali’s perceived their state in Pakistan. If it were only public opinion that would settle matters, then perhaps Balochistan today would choose a path similar to that of East Pakistan and secede from the federation. But the problem in Balochistan is that apart from public sentiment there is little else that is common between Balochistan and Bangladesh.

    Unlike Bangladesh, where the public sentiment was harnessed by a political leadership and transformed into a mass-movement, in Balochistan there is only a groundswell in favour of separatism but no political direction to translate this into reality. One glaring obstacle in the path of a national movement in Balochistan is the structure of society. Despite the fact that the insurgency is today more bottom-up rather than top-down like in the 1970’s, the tribal chiefs continue to be one of the biggest obstructions in the path of the aspirations of the people. While some of the tribal chiefs – most notably, Brahmdagh Bugti, Hairbyar Marri and his brother, Ghazain – are believed to be in the vanguard of the movement, or are at least poster boys of the separatists, the ballast for Baloch nationalism is coming from the middle-classes.

    The trouble is that while many of the tribal Sardars, in their hearts might be supportive of the Baloch cause, or are being forced by public sentiment as well as the circumstances on the ground to pay lip-service to the aspirations of the Baloch people (for example, Akhtar Mengal insisting on a dialogue with the Pakistani authorities under the aegis of the UN!), they are not willing to put aside their personal egos in the service of Baloch nationalism. Their personal ambitions, feuds, rivalries, a desire to be one-up on their fellow sardars makes it impossible for all of them to come together for the larger cause of their people.

    Take the case of Sanaullah Zehri. He became the home minister of Balochistan in Jam Yusuf’s government in 2002 but resigned a few months later by taking a stridently nationalist position and revealing that he was totally powerless on when it came to issuing directions to the law enforcement agencies. He merged his party with the National Party, which had a middle class leadership. But just few days back he joined PMLN, which is a Punjabi-dominated mainstream political party. The reason that some observers give for this volte-face by Zehri is that all his contemporary sardars have become chief ministers and his best chance was to join the PMLN which is widely perceived to have the best chance to form the next government in Islamabad, whenever that is. And as it so happens, the government in Quetta is almost always decided not so much by the votes of the people of Balochistan as by the powers that be in Islamabad. Even more difficult for the sardars is to let a middle-class person, who is probably more articulate, better educated, much more committed to the cause, to lead or represent the Baloch movement.

    On their part, the middle-class leaders are not willing to either trust or follow the sardars beyond a point. Many of these leaders feel that the sardars (even those who have been declared Public Enemies by the Pakistani authorities and anchorocracy, i.e. TV anchors) could at the end of the day sabotage the movement by cutting deals with the Pakistani establishment and leave them in the lurch, as they have done in the past. Some time back, the Khan of Kalat, Mir Suleman Dawood, held a jirga in which all the sardars were present. A decision was taken in this jirga to raise the case of Balochistan in the International Court of Justice. But within weeks, some of the sardars who endorsed this decision were sitting in the lap of the Pakistani establishment – Zulfikar Magsi became governor of Balochistan, Aslam Raisani the chief minister. Clearly, for the sardars their class interests dominate everything else and this is something that the middle class activists are not willing to accept unquestioningly anymore. After all, if the middle class has to once again kowtow to the sardars, then they might as well become subsidiaries of the Pakistani establishment, as indeed many of them have.

    The middle class leaders have another legitimate grouse against the sardars. They point out that when the sardars are targeted, the middle class agitates on their behalf, but when middle class activists are gunned down by the intelligence agencies, the sardars are quite mealy mouthed in their protests. The irony is that despite the role of spoiler that the sardars play, Pakistani commentators often toe the establishment line and disparage the Baloch movement by blaming the sardars for the backwardness and disaffection in the province, not realising that if the powers of the sardars was finished, it would actually be a shot in the arm of Baloch nationalism. If anything, the Baloch sardars play the role that the rulers of Indian states played during the British Raj in undermining the movement for independence. Unlike Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who because of his own middle class background had deep antipathy for the feudal Sardars and tried to undercut their power, the wily Asif Zardari understands the social structure of Baloch society well enough to overturn many of Musharraf’s steps and restore the power of the sardars.

    The Sardars are only one part of the problem affecting the Baloch movement. A bigger problem is that the Baloch nationalism is an ‘insufficiently imagined’ movement. There is a lot of rhetoric that is mouthed ad nauseam by those who are in favour of an independent Balochistan. But once you cut through the rhetoric, you realise that they all these people are offering is slogans. There is no over-arching vision of what sort of a state they want, no road map on how they propose to achieve nationhood, no thinking of how the state will be run, what sort of government it will have, how they will utilise the natural resources of the province for the welfare of the people, what sort of developmental model the new state will adopt, will the new state be a tribal confederacy in which the tribal order and customs will rule supreme or will it be based on rule of law and progressive ideals, what will be the status is women in the new state (will honor killing be acceptable or will it be treated as murder, will women be allowed to study and work, or will they be cloistered behind the walls of their houses and bought and sold like chattel? There are innumerable such issues over which there is total obfuscation by the Baloch nationalists and separatists. So much so that there is not even any consensus on what are the areas that will constitute the Baloch state. Clearly then, it is one thing to whip up passions which have already been aroused by decades of marginalisation, and start an aimless insurgency, and quite another thing to put in place the political, ideological and military structures that will deliver nationhood.

    To the internal problems that afflict the Baloch national movement and are preventing it from achieving its goals can be added an external environment that is still not sympathetic to the Baloch cause. Notwithstanding the self-serving accusations levelled against India for fuelling the insurgency in Balochistan, both the Pakistani authorities as well as the Baloch separatists know perfectly well that there is practically no interference from India in Balochistan. In any case, unlike Bangladesh which India liberated by sending in its army, such a possibility doesn’t exist as far as Balochistan is concerned. Iran remains implacably opposed to all manifestations of Baloch nationalism. And given that the government in Afghanistan is unable to extend its writ in Kabul, to expect it to fund and arm the Baloch separatists is nothing but a flight of fancy. As for the Americans, their involvement is probably more in their joint venture with ISI in funding the Jundullah rather than in any support to Baloch separatists in Pakistan. The assassination of Balach Marri by NATO is a stark example of what side the Americans are backing.

    As things stand, unless the Baloch nationalists are able to get their act together and set aside their petty differences in pursuit of ‘achievable nationhood’ within Pakistan or without, it will be only a matter of time before this latest upsurge in Balochistan will be brutally crushed. Given the demographics of the area which are loaded against the ethnic Baloch, and the growing attraction as also inclination of sections of Baloch youth towards radical Islamic groups like Jundullah, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Deobandi Jihadi groups, not to mention the active encouragement to such groups by Pakistani military and intelligence establishment, there might never be another uprising for attainment of Baloch national rights. From wanting to become a nation, the Baloch will almost certainly end up being reduced to being a minority ethnic group in their own land – a South Asian version of the Red Indians.