Before the Gulf War created the twin menace of embedded journalism and military-led press guidelines, quality reporting from any frontline was scattered, gritty and episodic, but mostly factual if not objective. Today it is the scale of the information deficit for ordinary people and decision-makers that prompts questions inPakistanâ€™s unempowered parliament, even about matters as serious as the intensifying Sui-Bugti clashes between tribals and security forces. It was one such factual vacuum about the March 17 massacre in Dera Bugti that led to heated arguments on the floor of the National Assembly late last Friday evening, when the casualty count that I presented in the House prompted the Information Minister to not just challenge those figures, but throw out the gauntlet of sending a parliamentary and media fact-finding mission to Dera Bugti and Sui.
After one abortive attempt to obtain a security clearance to land in Sui, the parliamentary delegation that landed in Sui on March 22, 2005went with low expectations. Yet given what we saw in the space of one working day in Dera Bugti, many of us came back with a new perspective on the whole vexed issue of Balochistan burning. Our main findings were both troubling and graphic. For those of us from the opposition ranks, who chose to step outside the information-cordon sanitaire laid by our hosts, the FC, life outside the PPL and FC compounds is both precarious and entirely unpredictable. The Sui-Bugti area is bristling with the grim rumble of intermittent war, scarred on many sides with the bleak desiderata of a weapon-saturated conflict zone. The majority of the tribals are united under the banner of its sardar and the JWP, and the once-abstract notion of long-term deprivation and random grievances have been institutionalized into a hard-core resistance movement that can seriously damage the security and existence of the federation as we know it. Balochistanâ€™s geo-strategic location has put it squarely back in the new great game for energy and shipping lines, and the Colonial administrative structures left intact there since the 19th century feed into the ambiguity about state law that such tribal societies experience. Vital parts of the huge province are in the grip of an open civil war, administered under three crumbling legal systems, but the tragedy is thatIslamabad is still sleeping, almost a hundred years removed from the reality of the backwater that could break awayPakistanâ€™s long under-populated flank.
An aerial view of Sui is an experience that cannot be replicated. The eponymous gasfields and its pipe-lines cross-hatch the flat desert landscape like a web of busy arteries. The first view quickly confirms the on-ground reality that in this part of Balochistan, terrain is a key determinant in shaping the politics of both government and the fiercely nationalist tribes that inhabit this area. First of all it is clear that the flatlands and the proximity of tribal mud-houses of Sui leave the pipelines vulnerable to any member of the Baloch resistance movement who can easily blow a vital installation up with one bomb and no particular resources. Secondly, the approach to Dera Bugti from Sui is a winding road going into a valley surrounded by stark craggy peaks, leaving the road convoys completely exposed to tribe pickets posted at key junctures on the passes, able as they have been to road-block and cripple all traffic on the critical supply-line to troops and FC posted in the valley of Dera Bugti below.
As it stands, the military logic is as follows: if even a proportion of all 6000 FC personnel stationed in Balochistan are transferred to Dera Bugti, to supplement the 600 odd men the FC has posted in Dera right now, they will of course win more than a pitched battle with the outnumbered Bugtis. What the military is finding hard to grasp is that they will still lose the war. Basically, the way the terrain is configured, it is almost impossible to win a final battle against hardened tribals that know the landscape, its secret gulleys, its dips and peaks. Anybody who has followed the tortuous history of the Afghan resistance against the Soviets can see the parallels between the Salang highway bottlenecks and the negotiating power of the warlords who routinely bartered their control of the supply route for political and fiscal exchanges. The only difference here is that the Baloch field commanders cannot be broken by cash and compromise, so they remain committed to their political objectives, and in this case they are engaged in battle against their own government, not a foreign power. It takes little investigative initiative to grasp that the Bugtis are armed to the teeth with four-barrel rocket launchers, mortars, and long-reach heavy weaponry that can do serious damage to its opponents. According to Major General Shaukat Dar, the DGFC heading the Sui-Dera Bugti FC posts, the Bugtis command a private army of 3000-4000 levies, which itself constitutes a serious challenge to any state. What he is not mandated to understand, but probably still does, is that objections to the existence of this parallel state can only be raised once the government stops ignoring Balochistan, which it does when the state relies on running a province through tribal levies and sardars.
The second thing that hit home is the fact that the Frontier Constabulary posted in the Sui-Bugti area unfortunately, is as angry and as cornered as the Bugtis in their stronghold at the Fort. Both need an exit strategy from the impasse they have locked themselves into, but remain unable to break the deadlock. For the FC and the army battalion now posted there, the situation is untenable : they have to fly in their supplies from Sui to Dera Bugti because their approach to the valley is now blocked after the March 17 hostilities. They rightly have no mandate to negotiate with the Bugtis, unlike a Political Agent or even the powerless DCO, and remain dependent on a ditheringIslamabadfor vital decisions.
For those of us committed to witnessing both sides of the story, the real narrative only began to unfold once we commandeered and drove the FC vehicles into the Bugti heartland of the Fort. Behind this frontline too, things are no better. Although you cannot enter Dera without the clear consent of its Sardar, because their pickets surround the entrance to the valley, on this roundÂ when the FC helicoptered-in their supplies inside their camp, the family and its retainers have been directly targeted and badly wounded. As we entered Dera Bugti, as in Sui, the shops were all shuttered like a ghost townâ€™s tenements, but the streets were lined with JWP flags and anti-military operation protesters. As soon as we drove into the fort to be welcomed by Jamil Bugti, the horror of what happened a few days ago dawned on some of us. The March 17 casualty figure of 60 dead and 90 wounded stated in the National Assembly on Friday 19th was confirmed not just by the Nazim and the Bugtis, but grudgingly admitted by the FCâ€™s Brigadier Salim. The extensive and heavy mortar damage to the Nawabâ€™s own quarters, his katcheri halls, baithak and private hujra, gave lie to the fact that the Bugtis at least in this case, had been the aggressors. The 35 Hindus who had died on Bloody Wednesday were victims of clear collateral damage, as their quarters and temple are located within the Bugti Fort and directly contiguous to the familyâ€™s shelled-out residential quarters. Five days later, the narrow galis and septic pathways inside the Fort were still scattered with the debris of fleeing people and half-lived lives, broken glass and blood-soaked dupattas flapping in the putrid post-carnage wind. Even in the sanctum of the womenâ€™s quarters the smell of death was everywhere, with women wailing and breast-beating the massacre of innocent children and sisters. There was little one could say in the sight of such suffering.
After a frugal lunch befitting as they said a household in mourning, Sardar Bugtiâ€™s repeated refusal to talk to his â€˜killerâ€™s representativesâ€™ as he dubbed our government colleagues, caused them understandable discomfort, but prompted several queries to the old but still physically upright Nawab about the nature of his grievances and expectations. Unsettlingly for all, his unyielding replies exposed a mindset that had almost given up on the state, beginning to see it virtually as an enemy and occupying force. To break the ice, as he escorted us into his baithak, I asked if he saw a light at the end of the tunnel, only to be told that for them â€œPakistan was becoming a closed tunnel.â€ While his confidence in the ARD remained high, as he repeatedly stated, the Bugtisâ€™ recoil from the government senators present, was palpable at every level, even outside the Nawabâ€™s settlement. Sardar Bugti made a point of repeating his answer to my question about what percentage of gas royalties would be acceptable to them, when he said that â€œ the gas coming out of Sui is part of our Baloch national wealth, and you all better reflect on the implications of what I am saying.â€ It does not take a rocket scientist to realize that he meant that the Baloch were now so alienated from the federation that they saw no reason to negotiate on issues they would have done in the past. Now, he kept saying,Islamabadmust come to me.
Islamabadis already rushing to speak to him, but its â€œempowered representativesâ€ need to see beyond the grassy FC compounds, where the Baloch are clamouring for the kind of universal entitlements that many other Pakistanis take for granted. Even the FC commanders acknowledge that the January disturbances in Sui began with simple labour-rights demands from the Baloch either already employed or seeking representation in the PPL and FC ranks, given that right now they are the only employers in the area for miles on end. The poverty in these areas was not only grinding, it was shameful to witness. When minister Shiekh Rashid protests on the floor of the National Assembly that the Baloch should not resist the mega-investment of 130 billion Rs flowing into the province because of Gwador and the Coastal Highway, he chooses to ignore the fears of demographic cleansing the Baloch voice, ignoring also the suggestion that they can become stakeholders if they are given certified representation by the law. There can be little quarrel with the argument that the writ of the government must be established in Balochistan and other areas where the Pakistan Penal Code is supplemented or substituted by informal political arrangements or the FCR, but one can say equally little to the Sardar when he claims he maintains such a huge private army for his self-defence when the state has never really tried to integrate his people or other tribes into the federation.
Driving back from Sui to Sukkur through the night, as the Fokker at Sui air-field could not take off after dark, the landscape slowly began to change again to the populous semi-rural Sindh-Punjab terrain familiar to people from â€˜mainstreamâ€™ politicalPakistan. I deliberately use the word mainstream to stress the vast craggy margins that Balochistan has become part of, which is something we must all share responsibility for. This visit may have accomplished little in terms of defusing the eyeball- to- eyeball confrontation intensifying in these hinterlands, which was never the committeeâ€™s mandate in any case, but in terms of bringing home the ground realities to those of us who live and work in the centre, it more than accomplished its purpose. For our colleagues in the government, whatever spin they may put on it, the jolt of being outside the cocoon of officialdom may have motivated their more empowered friends to understand the gravity of the situation. Chaudhry Shujaat and Mushahid Hussainâ€™s sudden decision to finally visit the wounded lion in his lair at Dera Bugti is certainly welcome, but will remain hamstrung by its own internal contradictions of power, as well as by a mission-statement that limits negotiations to a tactical easing of tensions on the Dera Bugti and Sui gasfield supply lines. What is troubling is that the Â oppositionâ€™s recommendations to the two Balochistan committees have been gathering dust for over six Â months now. Is it because Â they amount to a lot more than asking Â Islamabad to give Sui gas before it pumps it out for the rest of the country?
But before we do anything as a parliament we must grasp two crucial inputs central to a resolution to this conflict:Â One, the government must act fast before the situation spirals completely out of its control and reparations fall on deaf ears. Two: we must all understand that there is no military solution to this problem. Balochistan is still seeking political accommodation, most of which are already guaranteed within the framework of Articles 151-160 of the 1973 Constitution. To save this country, we must commit ourselves to an exercise of political will, not just military skill.
Two months down the line, I, for one, do not want to be quoting the much over-used but maddeningly appropriate lines from W. B. Yeats: â€œ things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.â€Â
Sherry Rehman is a member of the National Assembly of Pakistan and Head of Policy Planning for the Pakistan Peoples Party