Balochistan in turmoil again

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

THE war in Balochistan is once again making headlines. 2005 was a troubled year for the province with the insurgency simmering throughout the year interspersed with military action by the Frontier Constabulary from time to time. It is a pity that as the year draws to a close the army has stepped up its operations and there are reports of casualties that include women and children.

This time the provocation has ostensibly been a rocket attack on the president while he was visiting Kohlu on December 14. It was described as an assassination attempt, and thereafter, the government launched an operation in the Kohlu district. Officially it is said that the army is trying to root out the ‘miscreants’ and ‘saboteurs’ who are accused of creating trouble in different regions of Balochistan. These are the terms we are quite familiar with in Pakistan. It was bandied about a lot in 1970 during the civil strife in East Pakistan and the province was the target of army action. Again in 1974, when Balochistan was under attack, the rulers dug out these labels from their vocabulary. They are again doing the rounds.

What is happening in Balochistan is quite a familiar phenomenon. The most backward and underdeveloped of all provinces of the country, Balochistan naturally feels deprived and exploited. It is rich in resources but these are not channelled into the development of the province. The data available confirms the general belief that Balochistan has been denied its political and economic rights.

A classic case is that of Sui gas which was discovered in the Bugti area in 1955. This was first of all piped to Karachi. Other major cities of Sindh and Punjab were supplied gas soon thereafter. Quetta the capital of Balochistan was low down on the list of priorities, and was connected with the Sui gas fields much later.

Having learnt from their experience with the gas companies, the Baloch have generally been sceptical about the blessings that are expected to accrue from the development of Gwadar port. The government leaders — from the president and prime minister to petty functionaries — have been promising that development of the port area will generate jobs and economic benefits for the local population. So far, this has not happened and the technical hands and workers who are being brought from other regions by the non-Baloch contractors have reinforced the beliefs of the nationalists that Gwadar will change the ethnic composition of the province by allowing the induction of a large number of people from other provinces.

True, the government is now paying a hefty amount as royalty for gas. It is Rs 13 billion per annum along with Rs 31 billion as gas development charges. But the key question is how much of this has actually trickled down to the common man? Strangled by an oppressive sardari system that was on paper abolished by Z.A. Bhutto’s People’s Party government in the ‘70s, the province is a picture of contrasts and extremes. While the sardars have wealth and affluence and enjoy all the luxuries one could wish for, their serfs are weighed down by grinding poverty that is unimaginable. Moreover, the sardars enjoy immense power — political and military — that has made them almost invincible.

The governments in Islamabad have had a paradoxical love-hate relationship with the sardars as the sardars have had with their people. On the one hand, Islamabad has patronized the traditional sardars giving them privileges and even a share in the governance of the province if they are prepared to be subservient to the federal government. They have been bribed with huge amounts being poured into their coffers to win their loyalties.

But at the same time, Islamabad has not fully trusted the sardars and has tried to undermine them by taking military action against them and also by trying to wean away the people from them. At present a large number of development schemes estimated at Rs 8.5 billion have been launched in Balochistan.

Infrastructure development is taking place in a big way. In this struggle to win the people’s hearts, the federal government appears to be having a tough time vis-a-vis the sardars who continue to enjoy the support of the people. It is perhaps the low credibility of the government that is responsible for its failure to win the confidence of the masses.

Viewed against this backdrop, it is not at all clear how the current crisis will be resolved. The government will first of all have to recognize the fact that the long standing Baloch problem will not be resolved by sending in troops and strafing and carpet bombing large areas. Given its hilly terrain, Balochistan is not an easy theatre of war for armies trained to fight a conventional war. It suits the insurgents who have been fighting a guerrilla war and who cannot be put down by cannons and helicopter gunships. Besides the fighters are at an advantage when fighting troops as the latter do not enjoy the backing of the people in whose territory the war is taking place.

The present round has ostensibly been launched after the president was attacked in Kohlu. But there are many who believe — rightly or wrongly — that the president’s trip that was unplanned is being used as a pretext for military action. In support of their argument, these observers insist that the army had already started concentrating its forces in the province since November and the president went there in mid-December.

It is believed that the present operation is part of a wider design aimed at paving the way for the pipeline politics that is looming large on Balochistan’s horizon. With the work on the Iran-India gas pipeline scheduled to start next year and the gas pipeline from Turkmenistan and Afghanistan in the offing, the government is now feeling the pressure of developing the communication infrastructure in the province and urbanizing it to facilitate the laying of pipelines.

What needs to be emphasized is that economic and political goals cannot be achieved through military means. The government in Islamabad had understood this earlier when the gas installations at Sui had come under attack from Bugti tribesmen. Hence a parliamentary committee under Chaudhry Shujaat has sought to defuse the crisis. It set up two sub-committees — one under Mushahid Hussain that was quite active in visiting the area and meeting various leaders and the other under Wasim Sajjad that was to look into the constitutional side of the problem. The second committee failed to make any recommendations.

In fact a ceasefire was also agreed upon and the army vacated 15 trenches in the Bugti areas and pulled back. Now Nawab Akbar Bugti is charging the government of having regressed and reoccupied 45 trenches. One cannot be too sure that other clauses of the agreement have not been violated either. In May, the Mushahid subcommittee submitted its recommendations that focused on financial measures such as the payment of gas royalties and the pumping in of Rs 9 billion into Gwadar, Quetta and Sui in order to transform the place. But these recommendations were rejected outright by the nationalists who claimed that their demands of a strategic and political nature were not considered at all.

Thus, the Baloch feel concerned about Pakistan’s military presence in the province. They would like the army to withdraw. Instead, one hears of plans to build three military cantonments (at Gwadar, Sui and Kohlu). It was also said that 10,000 jobs would be created in the Frontier Constabulary for which locals would be recruited. The gas royalty rates were to be enhanced substantially while the province was to be empowered to sign petroleum exploration and sale deals.

As is our wont, governments retract on their commitment without batting an eyelid. If the same has happened this time can the so-called ‘miscreants’ be blamed? The fears of the Baloch are genuine and should be understood with empathy. They fear that they are being turned into a minority in their own province. The commitment made in the 1973 Constitution in respect of provincial autonomy has still not been fulfilled. Can these doubts be removed and the Baloch reassured through military action?