Balochistan blaze

Print edition : September 22, 2006

The killing of Nawab Akbar Bugti gives Baloch nationalism a martyr around whom to build itself and galvanise the Opposition in Pakistan.

SOMETIMES, the first spark comes from the most unexpected of quarters. As protests raged all over Pakistan against the killing of the Baloch leader Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, the question uppermost in people's minds was whether General Pervez Musharraf, who completes seven years as President this October and has indicated a desire to continue in office beyond 2007 when his term ends, may have acted unwittingly against his own ambitions.

In a province that is strategically located, rich in natural resources, where Pakistan believes India has been meddling to cause unrest, where China has invested hundreds of millions of dollars to build a port in Gwadar, and in which several other international powers are said to be interested, it was finally Islamabad that lit the match on August 26, when Pakistan's military carried out an operation in Kohlu that killed the 79-year-old leader of the Jahmoori Watan Party (JWP).

The killing set Balochistan ablaze for three days and gave Baloch nationalism a martyr around whom to build itself. In his lifetime, Bugti, a consummate politician, had as many detractors as admirers. He was often seen as a divisive figure in the Baloch nationalist cause, and his metamorphosis as the most prominent face of the Baloch insurgency was a latter day development. It had as much to do with his personal gripes against Musharraf over the amount of government royalties to him for the land in Sui (from where the government extracts natural gas), as with Baloch demands for more provincial autonomy.

Bugti retained ties to the ruling party until almost the end, keeping his options open on a political deal with Islamabad. His death has transformed him from a pro-Pakistan, and at times, disliked figure in Baloch politics and cast him in the mould of the Baloch freedom fighter that he never was. It is around this image that the protagonists of the simmering nationalist cause in the province are now rallying.

So deep-rooted are the grievances in Balochistan that the resource-rich province, where the security forces have grappled with a low-intensity conflict since 2002, was just waiting to erupt. The news of Bugti's killing virtually ignited the province, and brought together a fractious Baloch leadership.

A PROTEST IN KARACHI against Bugti's killing.-ATHAR HUSSAIN/REUTERS

Bugti and the two other prominent tribal sardars - Attaullah Mengal and Khair Baksh Marri - were often at odds. Mengal and Bugti have had a love/hate relationship. However, a reconciliation of sorts between the Marris and the Bugtis was evident earlier this year, when Marri offered shelter to Bugti on his territory after the latter's ancestral home in Dera Bugti came under direct attack from the security forces. Kohlu, the area where Bugti met his end, was in Marri land. After Bugti's death, both Marri and Mengal have been in the forefront of the protests.

The four-party Baloch Alliance, comprising Mengal's Baloch National Party, the Baloch National Party, the National Party, and Bugti's JWP buried internal differences to organise protest rallies and strikes in Balochistan. All four members of the Baloch National Party (Mengal) even resigned their seats in the Senate, the National Assembly and the provincial assembly.

Bugti's killing, the first political figure to be killed since Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's hanging by Zia-ul-Haq, sent shock waves through political circles. It also galvanised the Opposition parties into action. They organised protest rallies, strikes and shut-downs and put up spirited shows in Parliament, complete with noisy scenes and walkouts.

The Opposition parties had moved a no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz much before the Bugti killing, focussing on alleged government corruption in the privatisation of Pakistan's steel mills, and in the stock market. In this, the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy, a 12-party coalition headed by Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party and Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam) or (PML-Q), joined hands with its ideological opposite, the Muttahida-Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a coalition of six religious parties.

By August 29, when the motion was taken up for debate, Bugti had been killed. It was inevitable that the Opposition would take this up in a big way during the debate. There was never a chance that the motion would find the required support of 172 members in a 342-member National Assembly. With the combined Opposition's strength totting up to 141 (on that day it was 136), the motion was defeated. But the Opposition did not give up and took the battle against the government outside the National Assembly.

Opposition leaders are telling the country that the killing of Bugti has underlined the importance of restoring democracy, that it is further proof that a military regime knows only about using force, and that this does not solve a nation's problems.

BUGTI AND HIS tribal bodyguards in the remote mountainous area of Dera Bugti in Balochistan province.-BANARAS KHAN/AFP

Interestingly, even the MMA, a partner in the Balochistan government with the PML (Q), which had no love lost for the secular Bugti, joined in the condemnation of his killing and supported the other protests.

No one has bought the government's explanation of August 30, four days after the killing, that Bugti was not targeted by the military, that the intention was to apprehend him alive, and that the cave in which he was hiding collapsed owing to a mysterious blast just as military personnel were entering it to talk to him.

The first statement from the Inter-Services Public Relations, the military's public face, was that the cave came to the notice of the security forces when one of their helicopters came under fire from the cave on August 23 and 24, provoking the operation on August 26. At a press conference on August 27, Minister of Information and Broadcasting Mohammed Ali Durrani said there was no chance of taking the Nawab alive. Resistance from the cave was so intense that it necessitated a heavy response, he said.

The "mysterious blast" theory was obviously aimed at containing the fallout of the Bugti killing, but it had little impact. What stayed in people's minds was the message from Musharraf immediately after the Bugti operation congratulating the military on its "victory". More than anything else, this helped cement the view that the killing was the result of a planned attack.

If the contradictory and confused statements emerging from the military and the government in the days after the killing were bad, the mishandling of the issue of Bugti's remains was worse.

BALOCH NATIONALIST LEADER Akhtar Mengal addresses a protest rally in Quetta on September 3, condemning the killing of the rebel leader.-RIZWAN SAEED/REUTERS

It took the government five days to recover the body, by which time all kinds of rumours were abroad - that the body had been recovered and was in a hospital in Quetta; that the body had been recovered from the cave immediately after the operation but the government was using it as a bargaining chip with his family; that chemical weapons had been used in the assault on the cave, which was why the government was reluctant to hand over the body; even that Bugti was not killed in the cave as the government claimed but in an encounter in the open, and that his body was in a hospital in Islamabad.

When the government flew Bugti's remains to Dera Bugti on September 1 and buried it in a locked and sealed coffin, opening it briefly to allow only the maulvi leading the funeral to take a look, the Bugti family and the Opposition protested vehemently.

For the first time, even ruling party leaders expressed disquiet at the manner in which President Musharraf has sought to bulldoze the Baloch question through military operations. In the immediate aftermath of the Bugti killing, PML (Q) president Chaudhury Shujaat Hussain, and secretary-general Mushahid Hussaid Sayed, both good friends of the Nawab, put out statements that seemed out of step with the President's jubilation. Sayed's statement described Bugti's death as a "tragedy" and said the need of the hour was a political settlement to the grievances of the Baloch people.

All signals from the Musharraf regime gave the impression of a government that had badly miscalculated the fallout of the Bugti killing. The situation was not helped by Musharraf's statement that "those who want to fight Pakistan will first have to fight me".

The President has long held the view that the three tribal chiefs - Bugti, Mengal and Marri - are the main reason for the troubles in Balochistan, helped by a "foreign hand". He accused them of blocking development and of pocketing the money from the royalties they received from the government to build personal wealth instead of using it for the welfare of their tribes. While many agree that there is an element of truth in this accusation, there can be no denying that Baloch nationalism is real and not just the creation of the tribal triumvirate for their own vested interests.

The killing of Bugti has certainly not finished the nationalist cause built on a foundation of legitimate grievances articulated by several Baloch parties in the province, and outside. Indeed, from now on, attitudes against Islamabad may harden.

Increasingly radicalised youth are attracted to the possibilities presented by a shadowy group called the Baloch Liberation Army, which has been linked to several bomb attacks and other acts of sabotage on gas pipelines and infrastructure in the province over the last four years. Whether or not the group really exists, there is no denying that militancy in Balochistan has resurfaced after nearly three decades.

While this will strain the Pakistan federation, it is doubtful if the insurgency itself will intensify. Although slogans of `Free Balochistan' rented the air during the protests over the Bugti issue, and many have talked of a 1971-like situation, a militant secessionist struggle by the Baloch against Islamabad is improbable.

The political demand of the majority of the Baloch people is still provincial autonomy, not secession. In any case, with a population of less than six million, the Baloch lack the capacity and resources to build the critical mass required for such a struggle.

The crucial question for the Opposition is whether it can sustain the momentum it has built through its campaign over the Bugti killing to force a free and fair election in 2007. As the protests and strikes have shown, even after seven years of military rule, it certainly has the energy, the capacity and the willingness to take up issues and put them up before the people.

But as the no-confidence vote showed, there are limits to what the opposition - even a combined opposition - can achieve in Parliament. And Pakistan is no Nepal where the monarch had lost control over most of the country, and the final month of street protests just tipped it over.

Aside from the early dissonant notes, the ruling party has by and large stood behind Musharraf, and so has the military.

For the Opposition, the key to a return to power and making the transition to a full democracy lies in the coming elections. The main challenge for them is to ensure they are free and fair, and meanwhile, avoid the temptation to do a deal with the regime.

"Momentum or no momentum, it depends finally on whether the elections are free and fair. If there are free and fair elections, the democratic parties will win; if there are not, then we will see the stresses and strains increase," said Samina Ahmed, South Asia Project Director of the International Crisis Group.

Thus far, reaction from the international community has been muted, with only India expressing concern at the Bugti killing, and the United States appealing for calm in Balochistan. The Opposition parties will certainly hope that Washington, which has given Musharraf unstinted support since 2001, will read him a stronger message when he visits the U.S. later this month.

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