By Zubeida Mustafa
NAWAB Akbar Khan Bugti is dead. His violent death at the hands of the Pakistan army in a targeted military operation has given Balochistan the martyr that it needed at this hour to rally people round the nationalist movement and inject fresh vigour into it. Ironically, in his death Bugti’s contribution to Baloch nationalism may prove to be greater than his role in life.
His oppressive tribalism and brutal style of ruling over his clan drove terror in the heart of many of his tribesmen and earned him enemies among his own Baloch people. He was accused of not doing enough for his people though he had been at the helm in his province — once as governor under Z.A. Bhutto and then as chief minister under Nawaz Sharif. Regarded as Islamabad’s point man in the province, Bugti could have brought prosperity and development to Baloch society if he had wanted to — until he fell out with the rulers. But all his failings will now be erased from public memory as he is mourned as the hero who fought for Baloch nationalist autonomy and honour.
The violent reaction to Bugti’s death in Balochistan and also the Baloch-dominated areas of Sindh has not been entirely unexpected. Of course, those in office have turned a blind eye to reality and are insisting that all has been well in the aftermath of the events of August 26. But if General Musharraf had the political instincts of Nawab Bugti he would have realised a long time ago that the issues that are disturbing the Baloch now are no more of an economic nature that can be resolved by pouring money into the marginalised province. Today, what is at stake is the Baloch aspiration to have decision-making power in their own affairs and on issues that concern them.
For them, what is important is not that Gwadar is developed as a modern port but that the Baloch should exercise control over the process of formulating and executing a policy in respect of Gwadar. The presence of the Frontier Constabulary in their home province is another provocation because it is a constant reminder that the Baloch have no hold over their own territory. Lack of control over their own natural resources such as the gas at Sui has also irked the nationalists. These issues may be beyond the comprehension of a non-political government that is constantly boasting of the colossal funds it is pouring into the development of Balochistan.
Problems of lawlessness and militancy as posed by Balochistan cannot be resolved by economic bribery as the British would vouch for. They paid massive sums to the tribes in the North West Frontier yet could at the most pacify them for brief periods. Neither can turbulent tribal societies be subjugated militarily to force them into submission, as the Musharraf government is confident that it can do. It will hopefully come a round to seeing the folly of such an approach. The only way of pacifying the Baloch is by talking to them and treating them with due respect. This is what the government was being advised to do all along.
In fact, those leaders of the ruling PML-Q with some political understanding had been suggesting to General Musharraf to initiate a dialogue with Akbar Bugti. Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, PML-Q’s president, even formed a parliamentary committee when he was the caretaker prime minister in 2004 and visited Akbar Bugti in his stronghold in Dera Bugti. Two subcommittees were set up. The one headed by Mushahid Hussain, PML-Q’s secretary general, prepared a report with some very sensible proposals. That entailed a number of visits and meetings with various sections of the Baloch population.
But this process was not allowed to go ahead and the recommendations were not implemented. The ceasefire that had been negotiated broke down and the dialogue came to an abrupt end. The rulers in Islamabad were convinced that they could divide the Baloch and militarily crush the intransigent sections. But that strategy has failed. The jirga held last week that declared support for the president was stage-managed. It is unlikely that this pro-establishment jirga will stand up now to condemn Bugti for his shortcomings. He will be glorified and idealised even by his detractors as the champion of Baloch nationalism, just as members of the ruling party have expressed shock at his death.
Bugti was a shrewd politician and could be tackled only by another politician shrewder than him. Pervez Musharraf was no match because army generals do not negotiate with their enemies. They fight them in a bid to vanquish them. That approach has proved to be lethal.
The question that is haunting every thinking mind in Pakistan is: what next after Bugti? Are the rioting and turbulence that have erupted a foreboding of worse to come? Those who still remember the traumatic events of 1971 are asking: will history repeat itself? It is small comfort that at least the people are allowed to speak out against what is happening in Balochistan. Bangladesh had gone unwept and unsung.
But if this articulation of public discontent on what the army is doing in Balochistan has no impact on the governments thinking, this freedom of expression will bring no credit to the military rulers. At the same time, the opposition forces will be quick to capitalise on the crisis which will become their rallying cry. With so many contradictory issues muddying politics in Pakistan, one cannot even predict a steady movement towards a stable democracy.
What is more, the repercussions of Bugtis death will be felt far and wide. Pakistan’s relations with India which had been on the slide for quite some time — more so since the serial bomb explosions in Mumbai in July 2006 — can be expected to deteriorate further. The Pakistan government’s conviction — or at least what it says — is that the Baloch problem is rooted in India’s policy of meddling in the region. Hence the recriminations that have already started and will hardly benefit India-Pakistan relations. The IPI will now receive a quiet burial and Pakistan will find Iran distancing itself from Islamabad. This hardly augurs well for our foreign policy.
Mercifully, the US State Department has been very correct in its stance on Balochistan. It has expressed its hope that the dispute will be settled within the framework of a strong and unified Pakistan. It also added that Bugti’s death will have no effect on US-Pakistan relations. That will be reassuring for General Musharraf. But he cannot be complacent given the article and map published in the US Armed Forces Journal which show a ‘Free Balochistan’ as a result of the redefining of the boundaries in the region on religious and ethnic lines. The Americans have denied that they have any such plans. But can one believe them?