Profile: A sardar back in the saddle

Updated 12 Dec 2015

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Sanaullah Zehri
Sanaullah Zehri

With Sanaullah Zehri set to become chief minister of Balochistan, the province is reverting to type: its brief flirtation with a non-sardar — Dr Abdul Malik — in the top government slot is almost over. In the words of a senior journalist in Quetta, Mr Zehri is a “first class sardar”. As chief of the tribes of Jhalawan — a vast area stretching from Kalat down to Lasbela districts — he occupies a pre-eminent position in Balochistan’s tribal hierarchy. Alongside the chief of the Sarawan tribes, he is one notch below the Khan of Kalat, the ‘sardar of sardars’, who occupies the top of the pyramid. In the days of yore, when the Khan would hold his darbar, the Sarawan and Jhalawan chiefs flanked him on either side, the former on the right and the latter on the left. That ascendancy has not entirely faded away. Even today when the scions of powerful tribes such as the Mengals and Magsis assume the ‘sardari’, it is the sardar of Jhalawan who performs the dastarbandi ceremony.

That traditional clout notwithstanding, Mr Zehri had made no secret of his ambition to be chief minister. As head of the Balochistan chapter of the PML-N, the party which won the highest number of provincial assembly seats in the 2013 election, he believed the post was his for the taking and confidently announced his impending nomination in the first press conference following the polls. Instead, much to his chagrin, Nawaz Sharif, after discussions in Murree between the PML-N, the National Party and the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party decided to nominate Dr Abdul Malik as the chief minister.

Also read: Sanaullah Zehri nominated next chief minister of Balochistan

Meanwhile, he had to be content with the post of senior minister, along with the portfolios of mining and minerals, industry, and communications and works. He conveyed his resentment in private meetings, as well as publicly by intermittently boycotting cabinet meetings and assembly sessions on one pretext or another. “Sanaullah is a straight-talking man,” said Pir Mahmood Gillani, the Khan of Kalat’s grandson. “If he wants to fight with the prime minister, he’ll fight with him openly. He isn’t cunning like [other members of his family].”

As per the terms of the Murree Accord, Mr Zehri was to succeed Dr Malik at the halfway point in the five-year tenure and it is in accordance with this that he will be taking oath as chief minister.

Fifty-four-year old Sanaullah Zehri was born on Aug 4, 1961 in his ancestral village of Anjira, Khuzdar district. After studying at the Karachi Grammar School, he later obtained a bachelor’s degree in political science from Balochistan University. Although his maternal grandfather, Nauroz Khan, earns high praise in the annals of Baloch resistance as one of the leaders of the 1958 insurgency, his own father Sardar Doda Khan Zarakzai was seen as being close to the establishment.

Mr Zehri himself has earned a similar reputation during the course of his long political career which began with Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo’s Pakistan National Party (which later became the National Party) and has seen him win every election since 1990 except for one. Since 1988, he has consistently been a member of the provincial assembly barring one term as senator. When nationalist parties boycotted the 2002 elections, he formed a small breakaway group, the National Party Parliamentarians, and successfully contested for the Khuzdar provincial seat from its platform. In 2010 he joined the PML-N. “It was his ambition to become chief minister that was the main factor in him joining the party,” said journalist Siddiq Baloch. “He felt it was his due.”

How far that sense of entitlement goes is the subject of much discussion; it is part of a dark family history, replete with long-running feuds among the Zehri clans, sub-clans and even immediate family members. Sources tell of multiple murder charges that were once on the books against Mr Zehri — including the murder of his own elder brother Rasool Bakhsh Zehri which took place during a meeting to reconcile the two estranged siblings. These charges, it is said, were quashed by Zafarullah Jamali when he became chief minister.

Certainly, the family is no stranger to violence. As a close friend of the Zehris put it, “No male member of that family dies in his bed.” Shortly before the 2013 election, Mr Zehri’s son, brother and nephew were killed when his convoy was bombed near Anjira. Although the attack was claimed by the Balochistan Liberation Army, there was much speculation about the perpetrators. According to a source close to Mr Zehri, “Allah Nazar [of the Baloch Liberation Front] came to Sanaullah Zehri’s house personally to tell him that he and his group were not involved.” In the FIR filed after the attack, Mr Zehri named a number of individuals, including Attaullah Mengal, Akhtar Mengal, Javed Mengal, Hyrbyair Marri and Brahmdagh Bugti. He has only recently withdrawn those charges against them.

Published in Dawn, December 12th, 2015