Separatist insurgency in Balochistan is heating up again. This is the fourth such insurgency in the region.
Balochistan was absorbed by Pakistan as a province in March 1948. It is the country’s largest province in terms of area, but smallest in terms of population. The region also has a significant Pakhtun population. The inclusion of Balochistan in Pakistan was not smooth. Not all Baloch stakeholders were in its favour.
This became apparent in 1958 when a leader from the Zehri tribe, Nawab Nauroz, and his followers picked up arms against the state in a bid to undo the ‘One Unit’ scheme that was introduced in 1955 and which clubbed all four provinces of the country into one province, West Pakistan.
But by 1960, most of Nauroz’s fighters had been killed or executed. Nauroz himself died in jail. The fight was then picked up by Sher Muhammad, a leader from the Marri tribe. He demanded that Balochistan receive an equal share from revenues generated by the natural gas fields located in the Baloch-majority area of Sui. The military hammered and dismantled his militant camps and cells.
In 1957, a group of Baloch nationalists had become part of the left-wing National Awami Party (NAP), which was a grouping of Sindhi, Pakhtun and Baloch nationalists, and of former members of the Communist Party of Pakistan. During the 1970 elections, NAP performed well in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (former NWFP). It became part of provincial governments in the two provinces. Baloch nationalists in NAP headed the provincial set-up in Balochistan, in an attempt to use parliamentary democracy as a way to address ‘Baloch grievances.’
The ongoing insurgency in Balochistan is unlike previous insurgencies and requires a complete re-think by the state. But this needs an experienced government at the centre and a truly representative set-up in Balochistan
But the move collapsed when the Z.A. Bhutto regime — whose main centres of support were Punjab and Sindh — accused the Balochistan government of conspiring with the USSR, Afghanistan and Iraq, to tear Balochistan away from Pakistan. The dismissal of the NAP regime in the province triggered a violent insurgency which began in 1973, and lasted till 1977. Large military units were sent to the region to battle the insurgents. Hundreds were killed in the commotion.
Most of the insurgents belonged to the Marri and Mengal tribes. The insurgency came to halt when Bhutto was toppled by Gen Zia in a right-wing military coup in 1977. Baloch leaders, though self-proclaimed Marxists, were released from jails by Zia and allowed to go into exile in Afghanistan and Europe. Balochistan remained relatively calm across the 1980s. A Baloch middle class also began to take shape. It challenged the hegemony of Baloch tribal chiefs and formed its own Baloch nationalist parties.
These parties decided to, once again, take the democratic route to address the lingering grievances of the Baloch people, who still believed they were being exploited by the state. But this attempt crashed as well when the country’s second experiment with parliamentary democracy was terminated by the 1999 military coup.
In 2005, chiefs of the Bugti and Marri tribes claimed that military personnel were humiliating Baloch women and getting away with it. They also raised concerns about some major developmental projects in Balochistan initiated by the Gen Musharraf dictatorship. They lamented that the Baloch were not consulted and the projects were planned to enrich Punjab and countries such as China.
Fighting broke out between Bugti tribesmen and security personnel, in which the Bugti chief was killed. According to S.A. Wani, in the September 2016 issue of Asian Survey, the developmental projects did not bring any improvement in the lives of the Baloch. On the other side, the state continued to insist that it was the tribal chiefs who were to be blamed for the pitiable condition of the Baloch people.
According to Wani, thousands of troops began to be stationed in Balochistan, and the policy of ‘enforced disappearances’ was intensified. This time, those who ‘disappeared’ were not only tribesmen, but also middle- and lower-middle class Baloch youth. To Wani, this has only intensified the current Baloch insurgency.
Editorial: Renewed insurgency?
The state is still using tactics that it used in the 1970s. But according to Wani, the dynamics of the current insurgency are different compared to past insurgencies. The traditional tensions between tribes are eroding, and so are differences between tribal chiefs and middle class Baloch.
Past insurgencies in the province were the handiwork of one tribe or the other. There were also tribes who had opposed armed uprisings, working with the state to curtail the activities of opposing tribes. Secondly, an emerging Baloch middle class had begun to lay its own course, after continuously falling out with the tribal chiefs.
Therefore, it was simpler for the state to contain Baloch militancy by exploiting such divisions. On the other hand, these divisions complicated the task of bolstering Baloch separatism by foreign powers. Not anymore.
In the past, there was evidence of the involvement of ‘foreign hands,’ mainly the USSR, Iraq and Afghanistan. Currently, according to the military, India is ‘funding’ the insurgency, and the insurgents have ‘safe havens’ in Iran and Afghanistan. This, despite the fact that Afghanistan now has a supposedly ‘pro-Pakistan government.’
India hasn’t really denied its involvement. Yet, this does not mean that the Baloch have not been dealt a bad hand. However, it does signify the utter failure of Pakistan’s foreign policy manoeuvres. These manoeuvres miscalculated the consequences of aiding the Taliban in capturing Kabul. The policy has also failed to contain tensions with India and Iran.
The Taliban do not seem to be interested in eliminating camps in Afghanistan housing anti-Pakistan Islamists and Baloch insurgents. Also, the tactic of forming artificial Baloch parties, such as the Baloch Awami Party, has only compounded the problem.
This tactic is akin to the manufactured mandate handed in a most controversial manner to an inexperienced party to run the federal government. This government’s politics are no more than a manifestation of simplistic middle class drawing room banter.
The ongoing insurgency in Balochistan is unlike previous insurgencies. The solution lies in a complete re-think. But the new strategy has to have an experienced government at the centre and a truly representative set-up in Balochistan, unlike the one being headed by an artificial construct.
Read more: Growing security concerns
There were and still are Baloch nationalists who want to take the democratic route to address the issues faced by their people. They proved this when they contested the 1970 elections and then did so again across the 1990s.
Published in Dawn, EOS, February 13th, 2022