IN MEMORIAM: THE END OF AN ERA

Published September 12, 2021
Sardar Ataullah Mengal | Photo by White Star
Sardar Ataullah Mengal | Photo by White Star

Balochistan politics has been on a ventilator for quite some time. It has not only disappointed common people in the province but also its stalwarts, who witnessed it slipping into a coma a long time ago. One of these stalwarts was Sardar Ataullah Mengal, who died last week at the age of 92 in Karachi.

Karachi was the city of lights where Sardar Ataullah Mengal first showed the light of his political charisma as the future leader of Balochistan. In Lyari, a predominantly Baloch settlement in Karachi, the crowd in its Kakri Ground welcomed the sardar from Balochistan as a fiery speaker in 1962. Unbeknownst to most of them, he was present to bash the military government of Gen Ayub Khan against the ‘One-Unit Scheme’, despite the fact that he had been elected to West Pakistan National Assembly. He charged up his Baloch brethren, most of them youngsters, to the extent that he was arrested on the charges of sedition — for delivering an anti-government speech.

It did not stop there. The Ayub regime went to the extent of removing him as the sardar of the Mengal tribe, one of the largest Baloch tribes. He had been elected sardar by his tribesmen back in 1954, at the age of 25, but the regime installed his cousin Karam Khan Mengal in his place after he was arrested.

In Baloch tribal hierarchy, leaders or sardars are unanimously and collectively elected by the tribesmen themselves. The then government usurped the right from the Mengal tribe, but the newly installed Sardar Karam Khan was murdered in his sleep within 12 days. This led to the Ayub regime once again putting Sardar Ataullah Mengal, along with his father Rasul Baksh Mengal and other tribesmen, behind bars.

But Ataullah Mengal’s fiery speech had given him a taste for people’s politics. He became the talk of the town as the new Baloch political face. Political discussions in tea shops and in political circles in several parts of Lyari as well as Balochistan began to revolve around him. Ramazan Baloch, a prolific Urdu author from Lyari, writes in his book Baloch Roshan Chehray, that Sardar Ataullah’s impressive Kakri ground speech, like his personality, “reverberates in our minds to this day, so much so that then there was hardly a Baloch house in Lyari that did not have his picture on its wall.”

With the death of Sardar Ataullah Mengal, Balochistan’s first chief minister, on September 2, an era of Baloch politics also comes to an end

In Baloch politics, Sardar Ataullah was known as a “different kind of breed”, who was hard to grasp, because he had his own principles to abide by. Although he was introduced to politics by Mir Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo, who is known as the grandfather of politics in Balochistan, Sardar Ataullah’s politics did not resemble even a little with his political teacher.

Profiling Sardar Ataullah Mengal, renowned American author Selig S. Harrison writes in his 1981 book In Afghanistan’s Shadow: Baluch Nationalism and Soviet Temptations: “Lean and wiry, with blazing black eyes and a carefully preened black beard, Ataullah Mengal is a more ‘typical’ Baluch than his two colleagues [Nawab Khair Bakhsh Marri and Mir Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo]. He speaks in the straightforward and often fiery manner traditionally esteemed in Baluch culture, looking you directly in the eye. Less sophisticated in his educational background than Marri or Bizenjo, he shuns their intellectual and ideological pretentions.”

Although separatism was boiling in Balochistan, it had not yet erupted until the 1970s. Baloch nationalists, including Sardar Ataullah Mengal, joined the National Awami Party (NAP), which had emerged as the country’s first major leftist political party after its formation in 1957, in order to give it a last try and strive for Baloch rights within the federal framework of the country.

In the 1970 elections, NAP won a majority of seats in Balochistan and the then North-West Frontier Province (NWFP, now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa). As a result, NAP constituted provincial governments in Balochistan and NWFP with the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam. Despite the secession of East Pakistan, there was a gleam of hope for both Baloch and Pakhtun nationalists to strive for their rights within the domain of Pakistan’s federal set-up, peacefully and democratically.  

Sardar Ataullah became the first Chief Minister of Balochistan in May 1972. In mainstream media, sardars have been portrayed as anti-development, anti-education, and anti-progress to this day, who do not want to give up their sardari [tribal] system. However, after forming the government, the first thing Sardar Ataullah attempted to do was to abolish the sardari and outdated tribal systems through legislation in the assembly, despite the fact that he himself was a sardar. Instead, although he passed a resolution in the provincial assembly, it did not become a law, largely because the government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the centre — under whose domain the sardari system was since colonial times — sat on it and consigned it to cold storage.

Additionally, Bhutto — whose party constituted the central government — dismissed the democratically elected NAP government led by Sardar Ataullah Mengal in Balochistan in February 1973 under false pretences. Seasoned politicians, including Sardar Ataullah and Governor Bizenjo, intellectuals and writers were put behind bars under the so-called Hyderabad Conspiracy Case. In a show of solidarity, the NWFP government also resigned. It triggered the fourth armed conflict in Balochistan, which continued for five years, ending only with the ouster of Bhutto’s government through a military takeover in 1977 by Gen Ziaul Haq.

The above-mentioned episodes radicalised Baloch nationalists, including Sardar Ataullah. After his release from jail by Gen Zia, he went into self-exile in London. He remained disillusioned with Pakistan despite his return to Balochistan from exile in the 1990s. Nevertheless, he founded the Balochistan National Party (BNP) in 1996. It soon emerged as Balochistan’s largest political party, but he handed over the party to his son, Sardar Akhtar Mengal. BNP formed the provincial government in Balochistan in 1997, headed by Chief Minister Akhtar Mengal. However, this government too, was toppled by the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, after only 16 months in 1998.     

Sardar Akhtar Mengal still heads the BNP in Balochistan, and he himself is currently a member of the National Assembly while his party members hold provincial and national assembly seats.

Sardar Ataullah was buried in a desolate area of Wadh, situated in Khuzdar district in central Balochistan, which is his ancestral town. To many mourners and journalists, it was surprising as to why Sardar Ataullah was being buried in such a desolate area, several kilometres away from Wadh, even though the cemetery is situated near the town. There is only one bungalow in the area, which belongs to Javed Mengal, the eldest son of Sardar Ataullah Mengal, who lives abroad in self-exile.

Sardar Akhtar Mengal informed mourners and journalists that the place used to be his father’s favourite place for a reason. “It is said that this is the place [Baloch statesman] Mir Nasir Khan Noori used to camp,” he explained. Noori is known in Baloch history for unifying Baloch by virtue of his extraordinary skills and qualities. “As per my father’s will, who used to visit this place often and liked it, he is to be buried here.”

With the death of Sardar Ataullah Mengal, an era in the political history of Balochistan has come to an end, as his former colleagues, Mir Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo, Nawab Khair Bakhsh Marri and Nawab Akbar Bugti are already dead. His death reminds me of an old African proverb, “When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.”

Similarly, with the death of Sardar Ataullah Mengal, a library of a political era has come to an end, unexplored. He never wrote his autobiography. When his son Akhtar Mengal once asked him to write it, Akhtar recalls him saying that “For writing an autobiography, truth has to be written, and I do not know how to lie.”

The writer is a member of staff. He tweets as @Akbar_notezai

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 12th, 2021

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