History and nature have one thing in common. They rarely teach lessons without bloodshed and trauma. Although we have never officially embraced it as a potentially preventable wound, one of the lessons etched like a deep scar on our body politic is the partition ofPakistan. Perhaps because of, not despite, all the cosmetic surgery we have done on that amputation, that wound is throbbing again today.
The dark shadow of 1971, when provincial disharmony turned into a virulent movement for secession, should have informed all decisions Islamabad took on assuaging tensions from provinces that felt they had an unequal share in our multi-ethnic federation. Balochistan stood first in line since the 1950s as a Â province that was restive, but never through all the decades that led up to the recent past, has it posed such a serious challenge to the stability of the federation, which is now seen by the Baloch as an oppressive state with a colonizing army.
Nawab Akbar Bugtiâ€™s death in the largest military operation that Balochistan has ever witnessed was not unexpected by his close aides. Since March 17 2005, when his personal home and living quarters were bombed by the Frontier Constabulary, it had become clear that Bugti was a marked man. The conflict between him andIslamabadhad escalated over the last two years, triggered off by the infamous rape case of Dr Shazia Khalid, allegedly at the hands of a military man. The confrontation took a particularly ugly turn when General Musharrafâ€™s helicopter was fired upon from the ground in Bugti areas, after which the episode took on a personal colour between Parvez Musharraf and the Baloch sardar who dared to defy him in the full knowledge that this was a doomed encounter. He knew he was living on borrowed time, which is why he was esconsed in the cave complex in Kohlu.
Yet no one had quite been prepared for this naked use of state force to bomb out a political leader who had lived out a long and checquered career both inside and outside public office. When I last saw Nawab Bugti, which in 2005, he was talking the tough language that was his trademark, but he was definitely seeking institutional attention fromIslamabad. Despite the fact that his entire homestead had been brutally shelled all the way to his personal quarters, Bugti was looking for dialogue. He was looking for the Baloch of Dera Bugti and Sui at least to be accorded the dignity of full citizenship. Despite the fact that he earned personal royalties from the state for the gas-rich land he leased to Pakistan Petroleum in Sui, his lifestyle was clearly frugal, and his dependants impoverished. The mud settlements in Sui, outside the compound of the PPL complex, did not have the benefit of Sui gas. They were scrabbling for jobs, for energy, for water and for basic amenities for their community.
There is much to be said for the conventional wisdom that tribal sardars like Nawab Bugti romanticize authoritarian power, and thrive on the politics of a personal cult. Their hold on the illiterate but armed followers is mediaeval in its interpersonal hierarchism, and the impulse to buy guns instead of books for the Bugtis is encouraged by them today. This argument is all the more reason thatIslamabadshould have felt obligated to turn the fortunes of this province from tribalism to modern standards of citizenship, especially when the crisis had become unmanageable through conventional methods
After his assassination, the most serious challenge to the status quo will of course, rise from all three smaller provinces. The street-fires from Kohlu, Dera Bugti will, if these fires are not put out politically, ignite all over Balochistan, Sindh and parts of NWFP, which shares a disaffected Pushtun population with northern Balochistan. Old governance equations and resource-sharing formulas will catapult to centre-stage or become catalysts for dangerously repressed anger. After his murder, which has swiftly morphed the late sardar to the status of a local saint, most of the Baloch, a group of 4.5 million, will now see Bugtiâ€™s resort to militancy as the only answer to their troubles. The BLA, which attracted a fringe following of nationalists, will increasingly be seen as the mainstream armed wing of a legitimate political movement of an oppressed people. The arguments made forPalestine,LebanonandIraqwill resonate inPakistanâ€™s internal discourse, in which the Baloch narrative will assume apocalyptic, millenarian overtones. The state will be emerge as the â€˜otherâ€™, or the enemy, and will no longer be distinguishable from the military which so blindly went in for the overkill.
Further military confrontation in Balochistan, apart from spurring long-festering ethnic unrest in Sindh, will surely incite various anti-Musharraf forces throughoutPakistan. General Musharraf’s ability to commit adequate military resources into the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban, already doomed on the bedrock of illegitimacy, would be further reduced, undermining efforts to stabilizeAfghanistan. The strategic importance of Balochistan, which has grown since China started building a port for Pakistan at Gwadar, close to the Strait of Hormuz, with a projected 27 berths, enough for a major Pakistani naval base that could be used by Beijing, will become its ticket to a new but disastrously overstretched Great Game.
The IPI pipeline is the first thing that will be scuttled, but so willPakistanâ€™s regional security. On the eastern border, Indian ambivalence about Balochistan will straddle its usual range of postures onPakistan.New Delhimay still talk of seeking a stable Pakistan that is open to an acceptable peace settlement onKashmir. But many Indian voices from its nationalist mainstream will still celebrate the prospect ofIslamabadfaced with quagmire in Balochistan. Privately, almost all Indian players in the security game will welcome crisis in Balochistan as leverage on General Musharraf to turn down Pakistani support for Kashmiri Islamist extremists.
The final, but most decisive domestic challenge to the existing elite consensus in Pakistan, will come from a previously co-opted source. As the most populous province in the country, Punjabmay no longer be able sustain its unifying metaphor on inter-provincial politics under the sheer weight of its own contradictions and internal tensions. Without federal forces in power, like mainstream political parties that unite, Punjabitself could start seeing its old bond with the army as counter-productive, and as the National Assembly representation on the 29th August suggests, in deep existential review of its relationship with the rest of Pakistan. Minus a myopic colonizing impulse gathering ballast among discontented locals and intellectuals in the Punjab, the army would face a challenge from its very heartland and recruiting ground.
Much of this unfortunately, has already been taking shape since the start of the military operation in the province. According toU.S.intelligence sources, more than six Pakistani army brigades, plus paramilitary forces totaling some 25,000 men, haveÂ been battling Baloch Liberation Army guerrillas in the Kohlu mountains and surrounding areas. Earlier in the year, the Human Rights Commission was given only limited access to the Kohlu area, which is at the heart of the current insurgency, and its findings disclosed not only a chilling list of disappearances, but also a catalogue of deaths. This was described as a result ofÂ “indiscriminate bombing and strafing” by 20 Cobra helicopter gunships and four squadrons of fighter planes, including F-16 fighter jets, resulting in 215 civilian dead and hundreds more wounded, many of them women and children.
Until this point, most Baloch leaders have not embraced independence or secession as a real option. Despite their rhetoric, at least as a first step, they have been ready to settle for the provincial autonomy envisaged in the 1973 Pakistani constitution, which successive military regimes, including the present one, have reduced to a farce. They sought an end to the blatant economic discrimination by the Centre, which is dominated by an elite, mostly still feudal, from Punjab. They are very conscious of the fact that most ofPakistan’s natural resources are in Balochistan, including natural gas, uranium, copper and potentially rich oil reserves, both onshore and offshore. Although the 1973 Constitution provides very specifically for provincial autonomy, as well as royalties and local rights even where well-heads are located, most of its stipulations are ignored.Â It is common knowledge that 36 percent of the gas produced in Pakistan comes from the province, yet Balochistan consumes only a fraction of its production due to its harrowing poverty. For decades, non-inclusive central governments have denied Balochistan a fair share of development funds and paid only 12 percent of the royalties due to the province for the gas produced there, while Sindh and Punjab pick up far more per thermal unit for the gas they produce. But under military regimes, which has no mechanism for internal conflict-resolution, Balochistan always slides back a little further into dystopic and cyclical backwardness.
Which brings us to the grievous blow back this ill-advised and tragic military action will invariably have in more ways than one. It is obvious to even the most facile observer of the Pakistani political scene that if security was the primary objective of killing Bugti, then the regime has guaranteed an opposite if not equal reaction. Not only will this killing catalyse Baloch dissent into material action, it will of course unite a fragmentedÂ nationalist movement. The main difference between earlier phases of the Baloch struggle and the present one, as many strategic observers say, is that Islamabad will no longer able to play off feuding tribes against each other. Any visitor to Kohlu or Dera Bugti will tell you that the other important difference is that the Baloch have a better-armed, more disciplined fighting guerrilla force. No one says where the sophisticated weaponry comes from, but the guerrilla grapevine hints at the booming Baloch-Pustun black market, spurred by active international activity at several points from East Gwador to the Afghan-Russian transit corridor. This lethal nexus, if cemented, will seal the contract on the commercialisation of this conflict. Once the international defence industry lands its middlemen in to protect the vital energy interests it wages wars for in other parts of the world, all bets will be off on which way the lines of the map will be re-drawn. That is when Balochistan will truly go global, andPakistanwill spiral deeper into chaos.
Akbar Khan Bugtiâ€™s killing at the hands of the military has escalated an old, often nascent struggle into a fight for many things inPakistan. His death has become symbolic of all that troubles the province, and the way military planners handle dissent. After the way Bugti was hunted down and his body was flown out in a locked coffin after several days, Balochistan can never be the same country. And without a doubt, if Balochistan will not normalize from shock-impact, then Pakistan too will be a different country in more ways than one.
Sherry Rehman is a Member of the National Assembly of Pakistan from the PPPP.