FIRST it was the settlers, then labourers from other provinces, and now it is the local Pakhtuns. Last month’s carnage of labourers working on a dam, followed by the execution-style killing of bus passengers in Mastung, signals a dangerous and more violent turn in the insurgency in Balochistan.
The latest assault targeting Pakhtuns is indeed an ominous sign sparking new ethnic tensions in the already troubled province. Intriguingly, it occurred in the same region where sectarian militant groups have also targeted buses carrying Shia pilgrims. Is it just a coincidence or does it indicate something more sinister?
A shadowy Baloch separatist group, the United Baloch Army, has claimed responsibility for the latest bus attack in which passengers were gunned down after their ethnic identity was confirmed. The UBA is led by Mehran Marri, the younger brother of Hyrbyair Marri, head of the Balochistan Liberation Army that has reportedly been involved in most of the terrorist violence in the province. The two groups have recently been engaged in a bitter turf war resulting in several deaths.
The motive behind the latest attack targeting the local Pakhtuns is not yet clear. Pakhtuns are said to comprise some 35pc to 40pc of the province’s population and the ensuing tension is conspicuous in angry protests in Quetta and other towns. In fact, the Baloch and Pakhtuns have lived in harmony despite insurgencies that have gripped the province over the past six decades. The fallout of such attacks will certainly be much more serious than assaults on settlers or poor labourers from Punjab and Sindh.
Balochistan has seen four major armed insurgencies over the last six decades. But the latest has been the longest, leaving a much deeper impact on the Baloch population. Unlike in the past, when insurgencies mostly revolved around a few tribes, this uprising has had a much wider support base, particularly among the educated.
A reason for the escalation in attacks on civilians could be to destabilise the government in the province.
The brutalities carried out by the security and intelligence agencies further fuelled alienation driving many to align themselves with separatist organisations. The growing number of ‘missing persons’ and the dumping of dead bodies has turned more and more people against the state. Even moderate nationalists were pushed into the corner by the action of the security forces and the marginalisation of the Baloch population in the political process.
A plausible reason for the recent escalation in attacks on civilians could be to destabilise the nationalist government in the province. The return of nationalists to the political process and their participation in the 2013 elections came as a huge setback to the separatist cause. Although the voter turnout in strife-affected Baloch areas was low, the electorate by and large ignored the boycott appeal.
Widening differences among them that often led to bloody clashes further weakened the separatist groups. Last year saw some of the worst infighting among the insurgent factions since the start of the insurgency in 2004. The attacks on each other’s camps were unprecedented. While there are more than half a dozen militant groups operating in Balochistan there had not been any instance of their fighting against each other despite political and tribal rivalries. This internecine war is believed to have substantially weakened their capacity to challenge the security forces.
Many of the separatist leaders are living a comfortable life in exile in Europe which has caused serious fissures within the groups. According to an insider, this has generated resentment among the fighters who feel betrayed by their leaders. The space for militant groups to operate further has shrunk with the security forces intensifying their offensive, eliminating even those suspected of having any link with the insurgents. The use of brute force has drawn condemnation from civil society and human right agencies, but with little effect on the security agencies.
It is surely convenient for the government and the security agencies to put the entire blame for the insurgency on Indian and other foreign intelligence agencies. It may be true that insurgents receive support and funding from outside. But Baloch discontent is rooted in years of deprivation of political and economic rights.
External involvement can only work in an unstable, internal political environment. The situation in Balochistan and the state policy of repression has provided a favourable situation for India and other vested interests to apparently fish in muddied waters.
No doubt the state has to act when its writ is threatened but the unrestrained use of power generates alienation. That is exactly what has happened in Balochistan. Indeed, those responsible for the terrorist attacks and the carnage of innocent citizens must be apprehended, but this should not be a licence for the indiscriminate use of force as has happened in the past. Not to forget that the issue of the ‘missing persons’ is still alive. Revenge actions could get the separatists fresh recruits.
It is apparent that the motive behind the latest bus massacre was to create fear and fuel ethnic tension. The perpetrators may not be successful in breaking the harmony between the Baloch and Pakhtun communities, but the government and security agencies face a major challenge in preventing the situation from flaring up.
While going after the militants, the state also needs to heal the wounds of the Baloch population and end their marginalisation. There have been some positive changes over the past few years encouraging moderate nationalists to return to the political process. The 2013 elections also brought changes in power. Although that did not restore complete normality, there was a palpable change in the atmosphere. But the wounds of a decade of conflict are hard to heal.
No economic and infrastructural development can work if it fails to change the lot of the common man in the province. The issue of the missing still remains a major cause of Baloch distrust of the Pakistani state. This situation has to be resolved to restore the confidence of the Baloch in the government. It is more important to focus on the internal factors fuelling discontent than to look for foreign hands in the turmoil.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, June 3rd, 2015