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Whither Baluch Resistance?

Ashok K. Behuria is Senior Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • February 21, 2006

    Baluchistan is back in news. Most resolute among the Baluchis would tell you they are fighting a last ditch battle against Pakistan. They would try to convince you the flame of Baluchi resistance would live on. Will the Baluch resistance live on or will it be put out by the might of the Pakistan military for the time being only to rise again in the future.

    While talking to a retired Pakistani General almost a year ago, when the Baluch insurgency had resurfaced, this author had a feel of the shrewd realism that drives the establishment in Pakistan. "The army likes the territory of Baluchistan more than the people there and it will spare no effort to crush the insurgency." When I sought his opinion about the prospect of a political solution, he said with a wry smile on his lips, "Rubbish. All this talk of understanding through dialogue has no meaning for both the Baluchis and the army in Pakistan. Baluchis have timed it perfectly well with the Pakistani army engaged in an unending operation in Waziristan. The army will choose its own time to crush the Baluchis and find its own excuse." With the rocket attacks on December 14, 2005 during Musharraf's visit to Kohlu, the army perhaps found its excuse and the recent operations against the Baluchis, reportedly with helicopter gun-ships and jet-fighters, have left about 200 dead.

    What is it that drives the Baluch resistance? More than the brutal army operations in the late 1940s, 1950s and the 1970s, it is the chronic sense of neglect and lassitude shown by the Pakistani state that is responsible for the Baluch insurgency. The Pakistani state has over the years co-opted the Sardars while the average Baluch has languished in poverty and illiteracy. The Pakistan government has always paid less attention to the people than the Sardars of Baluchistan. It has happily ignored the issue of Baluch resistance over the years by assuming like the colonialists of yester-years that the best way to deal with the Baluch people was through their traditional Sardari system.

    Spread over almost 43 per cent of the entire territory of Pakistan with a population of around 6.5 million, almost half of them non-Baluchis, Baluchistan has remained a problem area for Pakistan ever since its creation. The Baluchis have demanded greater autonomy in provincial matters only to be treated with absolute disdain and brute force over the years. Rich in natural resources like gas, coal and copper, Baluchistan has emerged as the 'power house' of Pakistan. The province has also emerged as a critical link with the land-locked energy rich states of Central Asia. The newly built deep-sea port at Gwadar lends an entirely new dimension to the strategic importance of the province.

    In view of its critical dependence on Baluchistan, it is natural for Islamabad to do everything possible to keep Baluchistan calm and quiet. But the strategy adopted by the state has boomeranged. The decisions taken by the Pakistan government in recent years to establish more cantonments and to shut out Baluch nationalist political parties through a doctored election have backfired. Unlike earlier times, the average people of Baluchistan, and not the Sardars, have joined the latest round of the Baluch nationalist movement, which has assumed militant proportions. The Sardars have been forced, in a way, to join the nationalists in their demand for greater autonomy bordering on independence.

    The Baluch situation has been simmering since 2000 and has worsened after 2005. There were about 244 bomb blasts and 766 rocket attacks in the year 2005, which killed and injured many people. The attacks targeted and damaged strategic installations, including gas distribution networks, railway tracks, water pipelines and power stations, telephone exchanges and other communication links. The Baluch chief minister's house was also attacked by a car bomb blast. Baluch sources say that almost 4,000 Baluchis have gone missing since the beginning of the current phase of Baluch insurgency in the comb-and-eliminate operations launched by the Pakistani army. There have been increasing demands from the expatriate Baluchis on the international community to take stock of the situation in Baluchistan and put pressure on Pakistan to stop its attacks on innocent Baluchis. Interestingly, in spite of the fact that the army has restricted the flow of information on its operations in Baluchistan, the international media has taken note of the Baluchi crisis.

    A recent report by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) enumerates the problems the Baluchis face. Baluchistan generates a revenue of Rs. 1.622 billion, apparently just enough to pay the monthly salaries of government officials. The provincial government receives a grant of Rs. 27 billion from the federal government and has a deficit of Rs. 15.5 billion. The 12.5 per cent royalty fixed for gas, drawn from Sui area, was based on "wallhead value," which was much below market value received by other gas fields in other provinces. Poverty is so rampant that only 20 per cent of the people in Baluchistan have access to safe drinking water compared to 86 per cent in the rest of Pakistan. Village electrification is only 25 per cent compared to 75 per cent in the rest of the country. Infant mortality rate is quite high. As far as provision of basic amenities and access to education are concerned, Baluchistan has a poorer ratio compared to other provinces. The ongoing counter-insurgency operation in Baluchistan is pushing more and more people below the poverty line.

    The report also accused President Pervez Musharraf's military-led government of "gross human rights violations" in the province, where it said a "war-like situation" prevailed. It said that up to 85 per cent of the 22,000-26,000 inhabitants of Dera Bugti had fled their homes after the town was repeatedly hit by shelling by paramilitary forces. There are also reports that the army has used poisonous gases in some places.

    But the Musharraf government has chosen to ignore these reports and gone ahead with its own plan of action. In a bid to confuse the international media, the Pakistan government has issued official statements that the security forces have called off their operations in Baluchistan. The government has even allowed the media in Pakistan to broadly and critically discuss the issue and permitted the Human Rights Commission to visit some parts of Baluchistan and bring out their report. It has also not taken exception to Baluchi leaders like Senator Sanaullah Baloch going around the world telling people to help the Baluchis in their struggle for freedom. Mr. Baloch has even got away with statements like "Musharraf is the Saddam of Pakistan."

    If one analyses the response of the Pakistani army this time round, the Musharraf government has adopted a very sophisticated approach to the entire problem. It has not gone the whole hog at one stretch and is instead seeking to isolate the nerve centres of the resistance movement and then take them on one by one. Musharraf is adopting a style, which is quite different from the styles adopted by his predecessors in uniform. He is allowing the dialogic process at one level and showing his fangs by launching well-targeted strikes at another. As one Baluchi leader noted, "He perhaps realises the problems he will face if he launches massive operations like Ayub and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. There could be Americans driving his policy on Baluchistan. Or may be he is just biding time. But either way, he is not concerned with the real problems of the Baluch people."

    This January, Musharraf put off the proposal for construction of Kalabagh Dam, though he had been rather enthusiastic about it ever since he came to power. After almost a month long operation in and around Kohlu, he has wound up the operation in Baluchistan. He does not want all problems to come to the boiling point at the same time. A visceral General, he is biding time to take each of them separately. Like any other leader preceding him, he is supremely confident that he can arrive at a military solution to the Baluch problem any time. As the retired General cited above told me, "About 3.5 million Baluchis, terribly divided amongst themselves, can never pose any significant problem for Pakistan. The likes of Bugtis and Marris are more worried about their booties than the fate of the Baluchis in general. They can easily be bought over."

    In the meanwhile, the expression of concern by the Indian foreign office has dragged India into the Baluch problem. Pakistan has accused India of aiding and abetting Baluch fighters. Musharraf is seen to be diverting the attention of his country towards Indian interference and away from Baluchistan. He has recently raked up Kashmir again at Davos as the core issue that continues to keep the enmity alive between India and Pakistan. Many analysts believe Musharraf may use the Baluchistan issue as an excuse to soft-pedal the Indo-Pak peace process. In fact, Pakistan claimed that it had cautioned India during the Foreign Secretary level talks in mid-January 2006 that any statements from New Delhi similar to the one made on December 27, 2005, expressing concern over the human rights situation in Baluchistan would have "serious consequences" for the India-Pak peace process.

    However, Musharraf very well knows that all this India-bashing may divert the attention of the people in Pakistan for a while, but it will not resolve the Baluch problem. The roots of the problem go deeper and the Baluchis are more determined than ever to keep the insurgency alive in spite of the all out effort of the Pakistani army to curb it. The very fact that the Baluch Sardars are no longer amenable to persuasions from the Pakistani side shows that there is a strong popular support driving the insurgency in Baluchistan and that the Sardars do not want to be branded traitors to the Baluch national cause. The Baluch leaders would tell us that the movement is no longer controlled by Sardars and the army actions are only facilitating their struggle and making it more popular. "We have learnt our lessons from the past and will do everything possible to safeguard the legitimate interests of the Baluchi nation." It is almost certain that if the Baluch insurgency comes to a head, Islamabad will prefer a military solution to a dialogic one. That will alienate the Baluchis further and help the Baluchi resistance movement in gathering more strength in the days to come. The apprehension of a Baluch insurgency dragging on for a long time is likely to keep Pakistan busy internally and this is not a very welcome prospect for Islamabad.