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Balochistan: missing the point

March 25, 2005

THE crisis centred in Dera Bugti — thanks to Islamabad maladroitness, on the verge of becoming the most famous place-name in the country — is not about gas royalties, writ of the state, the unfortunate Dr Shazia Khalid, or even the new coinage being promoted in Islamabad, warlordism.

When you cut through the hype and inflamed verbiage, it is about something as old as the state of Pakistan itself: arbitrariness, adhocism and our strange inability to master the bare essentials of constitutionalism.

If Nawab Muhammad Akbar Khan, chief of the Bugti tribe, one of Balochistan’s largest, is a warlord — which he isn’t, he not being Ismail Khan of Herat or Dostum of Mazar-i-Sharif — has it not been Pakistan’s luck to be run and, if the truth is told, mis-run by a succession of warlords?

What were Ayub Khan, Yahya or, for that matter, Ziaul Haq? All warlords rose to power through the barrel of the gun, and therefore without legitimacy or constitutional sanction to do what they did to this country.

So let’s leave the warlord argument aside on the well-tested principle that those living in glass-houses should not throw stones. When we get constitutionalism, as per that most abused document in Pakistan’s history, the 1973 Constitution (and the original one, please, if warlords don’t mind), we can then take the constitutional mantle and fit it to other situations.

Writ of the state...there’s no such thing in the abstract. To mean anything, ‘writ of the state’ must be constitutional, that is, rooted in law. Not rooted that way bandying this phrase about simply becomes a cover for arbitrariness and adhocism.

You know what’s one of the handiest clauses in the penal code? Resisting or interfering with due process of law. You get into an argument with a thanedar (police official) and soon enough he’ll threaten you with this section. What was the army doing in East Pakistan in 1970-71? Establishing the writ of the state. We know where that got us.

Nawab Akbar Khan may not be everyone’s idea of an angel — indeed, he wouldn’t have survived as a tribal chieftain for long if he had been one — but there is no need to demonize him. Or give a wrong turn to what is happening in Balochistan.

What’s the conflict in Sui and Dera Bugti about? Can anyone educate us? What’s the precious goldmine or eternal river that the two sides are fighting over? No one knows and yet fighting has flared up, innocent lives have been lost and, if we aren’t careful, the Pakistan army will have another bloody conflict on its hands — all for that hoary chestnut, establishing the writ of the state.

In Gen Musharraf’s last ‘interaction’ with the press in Islamabad — the word ‘interaction’ being one of his favourites — he almost made it sound as if at issue was nothing more than a clash of competing egos.

If someone thought he was “bold and courageous” (the reference, unmistakably, to Akbar Bugti) he too, that is the president, was “bold and courageous”. Some people, the president went on, were probably annoyed with him because he hadn’t gone to pay them homage. Well, he never paid homage to anyone and looked people in the eye.

Hurt Bugti? These remarks would have flattered him. It was the president diminishing himself by casting the issue in such personal terms.

The wages of adhocism: this is what you get when institutions become irrelevant, democracy becomes a pantomime, constitutionalism is mocked, and the business of government, all its complexity and subtlety, is reduced to the whims and vagaries of one-man rule.

Musharraf is a nice person. That’s the general opinion. But so were Zia and Yahya and Ayub. All nice men, at the same time, all of them prime disasters as rulers, undone not by their niceness but their limitations. One-man rule is for epic sagas not everyday life, a distinction yet to be grasped by Pakistan’s military saviours.

Is the spirit presiding over Pakistan’s destiny immune from the lessons of history? I have just been reading Brigadier A. R. Siddiqi’s ‘East Pakistan, The Endgame’, a fascinating, near-ringside account of the follies which led to the break-up of Pakistan. Uncannily, it is also a mirror to our present condition.

Not that we face anything like the East Pakistan crisis, thank heaven for that. But the military mindset which got us into that quagmire is alive and well.

Yahya Khan considered himself infallible, the source of all wisdom. And he wanted to stick to power, no matter what. Again, 35 years later, we are afflicted by the twin curses of infallibility and indispensability. Further cementing the analogy is the same desire to stick to power, no matter what.

Endless repetitions of the same historical cycle, the torch of infallibility handed down from one set of ambitious generals to another, politicians collaborating, or not speaking up, or not speaking loud enough, the ordinary people of Pakistan picking up the bill in the shape of suffering the consequences.

The qualification ‘ordinary people’ is important because the so-called elites of Pakistan, including the political class, have been and are accessories to the crimes of authoritarianism. When Yahya’s military crackdown in Dhaka began on March 25, a feeling of elation gripped the army. The Bengalis had gone too far and needed to be taught a lesson. They were too much under Hindu influence and there was a dire need to make them Muslims all over again. (There was also no shortage of enthusiasts who thought their racial stock needed to be improved.) But this spirit of patriotism was widely shared by all sections of opinion in West Pakistan.

According to Siddiqi’s account, Roedad Khan, then Yahya Khan’s information secretary was an unabashed hawk, supporting tough action against the Bengalis. When the crackdown came and Yahya denounced the Awami League leader, Shaikh Mujibur Rahman, as a ‘traitor’, Roedad said, “Yaar iman taza hogia” (my faith stands revived).

This man who faithfully served Yahya, then Bhutto, then Zia, being secretary interior when Bhutto was hanged, and who was ecstatic when Musharraf seized power — writing that the man and the moment had come together — now gives extended lectures on democracy through newspaper articles.

A TV team headed by Aslam Azhar, Khawaja Shahid Hussain and Zubair Ali arrived in Dhaka on the heels of the army crackdown. “They discussed their technical problems with such enthusiasm and zest,” writes Siddiqi, “as if nothing else mattered. They were full of praise for the president and for the firmness of tone and language used in his address to the nation. Mujib had proved himself a traitor twice; there was absolutely no question of allowing him another chance.” Anyone might be forgiven for thinking that supposedly bright guys like them would have a different take on the situation.

But, no, the West Pakistani take on the crisis was all of a piece, the army action welcomed and not a thought spared for the people of East Pakistan. Bhutto throughout played a devilish role, his eyes, to the exclusion of every other consideration, focused on power. Wired to Yahya and playing him off against Mujib, throughout that long summer of agony for the people of East Pakistan he uttered not a word in their support or against the army action.

Admiral Ahsan, governor in East Pakistan, and Lt Gen Yaqub Khan, the military commander, were the only high-ranking dissidents. Not agreeing with the direction Yahya was taking, to their credit they handed in their resignations and went home. In West Pakistan, Malik Ghulam Jillani, Asma Jahangir’s father, denounced the army action. The journalists Abdullah Malik, Hamid Akhtar and I. A. Rehman wrote against it and suffered for their pains. That’s about it, to our lasting shame the list of honour just about this long.

East Pakistan is over and done with but its lessons remain. In East Pakistan the crop of generals we had, guardians of national ideology, thought they knew it all. Our present generals too think they have all the answers.

That’s one disturbing link with the past. The other: the politicians of that generation proved a spineless lot; the ones now on offer, from maulanas to mainstream politicos, look no better than a pack of jokers.