NON-FICTION: BALOCHISTAN'S NARRATIVE CONUNDRUM

12 Jul 2020

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Supporters of the Jamhoori Watan Party hold pictures of their leader, tribal chieftain Nawab Akbar Bugti, as they protest in Karachi on the second anniversary of his death | Reuters
Supporters of the Jamhoori Watan Party hold pictures of their leader, tribal chieftain Nawab Akbar Bugti, as they protest in Karachi on the second anniversary of his death | Reuters

For the last 15 years, Balochistan has been experiencing perpetual conflict between Baloch nationalists and Pakistan’s federal governments. The causes and the drivers of this conflict are often debated, with conflicting opinions. One line of thought is that the current situation in Pakistan’s largest province is driven only by the interference of hostile foreign powers, such as India and Afghanistan among others, and aided by an ‘anti-development’ tribal system. Another line of thought is that Balochistan has been systematically deprived since the inception of the country and the causes of conflict are largely internal.

Normally, Baloch nationalists are the ones who believe in the internal cause theory and federalists blame foreign intervention for all the troubles. It is very rare to find some voice that acknowledges the point of view of both sides and comes up with a balanced approach.

Balochistan: A Conflict of Narratives is one such book. The author, Fida Hussain Malik, is presently a two-star general in the Pakistan Army, who has served in Balochistan. He has made an effort to present a balanced study, evident from the fact that he has interviewed nationalist politicians such as Sardar Akhtar Mengal, Senator Hasil Bizenjo and member of provincial assembly Sanaullah Baloch, as well as federal minister Zubaida Jalal, former governor of the province Owais Ahmed Ghani and ex-corps commander Quetta Lt Gen Alam Khattak.

Malik’s book covers the topic of the sense of deprivation among the people of Balochistan in detail and he states that this is one of the primary causes of the conflict. After briefly describing the accession history of the province, the author explains that Balochistan was a semi-autonomous region at the time of Partition and was integrated into Pakistan with the promise of fundamental rights — a promise that was not honoured. Malik even terms Balochistan as a “victim of state neglect.”

The aforementioned statements are fair and balanced causes of the strife, as echoed by impartial commentators on the subject. This makes Balochistan: A Conflict of Narratives a worthy read because it does not ignore or reject the sense of deprivation and state neglect as causes of the prevailing problems.

A serving general presents a largely fair and balanced view of Pakistan’s ongoing issues in its largest province and suggests a way forward to address them

Malik also discusses foreign intervention by hostile actors in Balochistan. The book contains passages commenting, with reasonable detail, on how India and Afghanistan are exacerbating the situation in the region. Being a military man who has served in Balochistan, the author possibly has first-hand information about this issue. However, he does not claim that foreign interference is the only reason for all the troubles — a line adopted by some hawkish elements who, in their belief that eliminating foreign interference will bring an end to all problems, are always pressing for military operations in the province. This different approach is what makes this book a fairly reasonable read as far as the causes of the Balochistan conflict are concerned.

Like other books on Balochistan, this one also discusses the role of the sardars, or tribal leaders, and criticises the tribal system as one of the many things wrong with the region. There cannot be any disagreement with this conclusion because the tribal system is undoubtedly holding Balochistan back. For example, sardars are elected on the basis of tribal clout and hence are not accountable to the public based on their performance in the government. There is rampant nepotism and every effort is made to keep the tribal people uneducated so that the common man cannot challenge authority. This is the case with a substantial number of sardars. However, the author makes an interesting prophecy about the fate of this system. He writes that, with the passage of time, as the common man in Balochistan gets empowered, the power of the tribal structure will erode automatically.

In a separate chapter titled ‘The Roots of Nationalism’, the author has termed existing Baloch nationalism in Pakistan as an expression of political marginalisation. At the same time, he claims that Baloch nationalism is not potent enough for a long-lasting political struggle because, in substance, it is nothing more than the affection of belonging to a tribe. He also sheds light on the internal tribal differences among the Baloch that have prevented the establishment of a common Baloch nationalist party.

The comments of the author about the usefulness of Baloch nationalism as a means for political struggle are debatable because, although Baloch nationalists have not been united in politics and have not scored decisive victories, they have been present in almost all assemblies of the province. The Baloch nationalist vote bank is a reality and will continue to exist as long as the sense of deprivation of Balochistan is not addressed. However, the author is still correct to the extent that Baloch nationalist parties cannot score a significant political victory in the near future as there are multiple competing nationalist parties and, as a result, the vote bank is divided. Secondly, the trend of nationalistic voting is also gradually decreasing because these parties have failed to provide relief to people after winning elections.

Various events in Balochistan’s history will always be subject to controversy depending on who is writing about them. The same is the case with the story of the accession of the Kalat state — the forerunner of modern-day Balochistan — with Pakistan. According to the version put forth by this book, at the time of Partition, Kharan and Lasbela were independent states and not under the control of the Khan of Kalat. When these states acceded to Pakistan, the Khan — ruler of the princely state of Kalat — had no choice but to follow suit. Meanwhile Baloch nationalist politicians and authors believe in a completely different story, where the Khan was forced to accede to Pakistan.

Likewise, the book also presents a one-sided picture of the assassination of Nawab Akbar Bugti — the incident which triggered the current armed conflict between the state and Baloch nationalists/separatists. There are many claims and counterclaims about the circumstances that led to the death of the former governor and chief minister of Balochistan in a cave in Kohlu district in August 2006. This book largely supports the government’s version and the primary quoted source of the incidents of that period is an interview with former governor Owais Ahmed Ghani. But an official who was serving at the topmost office in Balochistan during that period cannot present an impartial picture of the situation.

The book contains a plethora of useful information that can prove very useful for researchers. At the same time, there are a few inaccuracies that also need to be pointed out. For instance, the author criticises the paramilitary Balochistan Levies force, based on the uninformed opinion that Levies personnel are hired and controlled by tribal chiefs when, in fact, the force is under the full control of the provincial government through deputy commissioners of the district concerned.

Secondly, the book contains tables listing the total strength of the various tribes present in the region. A cursory analysis of those figures proves that they are not accurate and neither does the book mention a source for those figures. Moreover, in one chapter, the author uses the term “Baloch-Hazaras” and “Baloch-Pakhtuns” for the Hazara and Pashtun ethnic communities respectively. This, again, is not correct because the Hazara and Pashtun are separate ethnic denominations and not part of the Baloch ethnic community.

The book contains suggestions on how to move forward for resolving the conflict in Balochistan, but it asks for extraordinary measures to neutralise seven decades of neglect in the province. Malik suggests a grand reconciliation drive and national dialogue with all stakeholders to discuss the problems and find a solution for the ongoing conflict. He also emphasises on the need for a free electoral process in the area, which will be key to reconciliation and dialogue. These are very relevant suggestions and almost all independent researchers and commentators on Balochistan have made similar points to resolve the problems in Balochistan.

The reviewer is an independent journalist and researcher

Balochistan: A Conflict of Narratives
By Fida Hussain Malik
Lightstone, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9697160716
225pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 12th, 2020