By Salman Rafi Sheikh
At least 24 people were killed few days ago in an attack on a bus in Mastung, Balochistan. Almost 20 labourers were also killed in another attack near Turbat almost a month ago. Turbat is a city situated almost a hundred miles away from Gwadar — Pakistan’s strategically most important sea port. The Pakistan Army was reported to have retaliated by killing perpetrators of the attack in Turbat. Pakistan’s Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) was reported to have reiterated the Army’s resolve to wipe all types of “terrorism” off Pakistan’s socio-political landscape.
Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province in terms of territory, the richest in terms of natural wealth it possesses, has the longest coastal line which is going to play a central role in China-Pak Economic Corridor. It is also the poorest in terms of economic development, literacy rate, access to basic facilities, and in terms of its participation in the mainstream politics of Pakistan.
The above cited two incidents are, by no means, exceptional, nor have these attacks occurred in isolation. These attacks are connected to the fifth insurgent movement the Baloch have launched over the years to secure what they call “Independent Balochistan.” A lot of such incidents have occurred in recent past, adding fuel to the fire of ethnic conflict in Pakistan. However, these two most recent incidents are especially notable because people of other ethnic groups were specifically targeted. In the earlier Turbat incident, laborers from Punjab and Sind were killed. This is because they were working under Frontier Works Organization — which serves as an active-duty military administrative (non-combatant) staff corps for road construction. People from Pashtun ethnic groups were specifically targeted in the Mastung bus attack.
These two attacks reflect, apart from the intensity of insurgency in Balochistan, ethnic-rivalry as the prime motivating factor guiding Baloch insurgents. It is, in a way, symptomatic of the huge increase in inter-ethnic enmity in Balochistan specifically, and in Pakistan generally. Targeting ethnic-minorities has been a special feature of the long-running current phase (since 2005-06) of the insurgency in Balochistan. From the Baloch perspective, the state of Pakistan has deliberately sent people from other ethnic groups, especially Punjabi, to settle in Balochistan in order to reduce the Baloch majority into a minority in their own province. This has led to the specific targeting of settlers. However, it is an astonishing fact that the Pashtun targeted in Mastung bus attack were not settlers, nor had they been active in any form of anti-Baloch activity. The fact that local residents were targeted speaks volumes about the graveness of the situation.
However, the insurgency, or “fifth war of independence” as the Baloch call it, is neither a strictly homogenous movement, nor does it have a unified command and control system. It is a house divided against itself. This internal division — a feature of this phase of insurgency — was quite evident when one insurgent group claimed responsibility for the Mastung bus attack while the other group condemned it.
Despite such divisions and the number of groups fighting on the ground, the ultimate goal that gives them a unity of purpose is the creation of an “Independent Balochistan.” This insurgency, moreover, is not only the longest running, it is also markedly different from prior four insurgencies that preceded it. Most notably, it enjoys substantial support among intelligentsia and students and its base of operations has expanded considerably over time. It also appears that almost all major militant groups have their own loosely defined areas of operation. All of these groups are banned in Pakistan.
For instance, Baloch Liberation Front (BLF) Led by Dr. Allah Nazar Baloch, claimed responsibility for the murder on April 11 of 20 labourers in Turbat. Unlike other insurgent leaders who happen to have Sardari (Tribal Chief) background, Allah Nazar belongs to a middle class family. This fact alone has considerably enhanced his status as the most prominent insurgent leader in Balochistan. BLF`s area of operations stretches largely across Awaran, Panjgur, Washuk, Turbat and Gwadar districts in southern Balochistan.
Another prominent group in Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA). Led by the son of late Khair Bux Marri, an ideologue of Baloch nationalism, BLA operates in Khuzdar and Bolan districts. The leader of this group, Hyrbyair Marri, lives in self-imposed exile in London. In 2013, it claimed responsibility for killing 13 non-Baloch labourers. The Baloch Republican Army (BRA), another major group, is led by Brahamdagh Bugti who happens to be the grandson of Akbar Khan Bugti. As a matter of fact, it was Akbar Khan Bugti’s death at the hands of Pakistani Army in 2006 that greatly intensified the current phase of insurgency. This phase of insurgency actually began in 2005 due to the alleged rape of a woman doctor by a Pakistani Army officer in Sui, Balochistan. The BRA’s leader is currently based in Kabul in neighboring Afghanistan.
The United Baloch Army,(UBA) led by another son of Khair Bux Marri, is an off-shoot of Baloch Liberation Army. UBA claimed responsibility for the Mastung bus attack, while BRA and BLA condemned it. Until the recent attack, the deadliest attack claimed by the UBA had been the bombing of a Rawalpindi-bound train at Sibi station in April 2014, which killed at least 17 people.
Another of the most prominent and, perhaps, most important groups is the Baloch Students Organization (BSO). The group was founded in 1960s. Since then, it has been at the forefront of political mobilization in Balochistan. Many of the Baloch leaders, including Balochistan’s current chief minister, are among its former members. BSO has at least two major factions.
Separately, there is also the BSO-Azad group. Led by Allah Nazar Baloch, the leader of BLF, BSO-Azad preaches a philosophy of armed struggle for an independent Balochistan.
With the insurgency`s fifth iteration also finding support among educated youth, many members of BSO-Azad have been the target of the Pakistani state`s “kill-and-dump” tactics in the province. Thousands have disappeared and, locals claim, there is hardly a day when dumped and mutilated bodies aren’t found in Balochistan. As a matter of fact, just a day after the army took credit for killing the perpetrators of the Turbat attack, the five mutilated bodies of missing persons were also found near the Turbat civil hospital. And, just a few days before Turbat attack, local sources say they found another 20 mutilated bodies.
The overall scenario offers a window on Pakistan’s internal situation. Balochistan has practically turned into a full-fledged war zone. However, the current conflict between Balochistan and Pakistan has never occurred in a vacuum. It has its own history and a major part remains untold.
Any close observer of Pakistan’s internal politics will confirm that very little is taught about Balochistan’s political history in the post-1947 period is taught in Pakistani schools. Many Pakistanis are still unaware that Kalat State (Balochistan) was an independent state, just like Pakistan, from August 15 1947 to March 27 1948. They are also unaware that it had its own bicameral parliament and constitution. In an agreement signed on August 11, 1947 between Pakistan and the ruler of Kalat, Pakistan did recognize Kalat as an “independent and sovereign” state. Similarly, many aren’t aware of the fact that the Kalat State parliament had unanimously rejected the proposal to join their state to Pakistan. Faced with stiff opposition from Baloch political leaders, Pakistan resorted to “divide and rule” and forced the ruler of Kalat to sign an instrument of accession that allowed Balochistan to become part of Pakistan. This forced accession was followed by the first armed resistance, led by Prince Karim, brother of the ruler of Kalat, in 1948. Since then, the Baloch people have been fighting for their rights. They have resorted to armed resistance at least five times: in 1948, 1958-59, 1963-64, 1973-77, and from 2005 onwards.
That many in Pakistan are simply unaware of the core reasons of this conflict comes as no surprise since this history is simply not taught in Pakistani government- sponsored/approved text books. Pakistani history text books are, many believe, a classic example of how not to teach history. The root of the problem lies in Balochistan not being given its rightful status in Pakistan. Following the forced union with Pakistan, Baloch leaders accepted the situation in later years. They contested elections to Pakistan’s central and provincial assemblies. They also expressed their resolve to work for the progress of Pakistan. However, local leaders were never allowed to run their province, even in the case of elected majorities in elections. They were also frequently arrested on false charges.
The end result is that Balochistan’s entire political history after 1947 has been heavily overshadowed by political conflict, followed by armed resistance and military operations. This has also led to foreign involvement. During the 1973-77 Baloch conflict, Iranian forces became involved. As a result of such repeated interventions into Balochistan, what started as an armed resistance of a very limited scale in 1948 has now grown into a fully-fledged insurgency, threatening Pakistan’s territorial integrity once again.
Whatever the nature of this threat, the fact remains that the state of Pakistan’s historical opposition to allow political accommodation has led to the current state of affairs. Even more problematic is that instead of trying to compensate to the damage done to Balochistan during last 67 years, Pakistan continues to blame India for exacerbating the Baloch problem. this not only exposes Pakistan’s hand washing of the issue, it also sheds light on the state of Pakistan’s mind-set vis-à-vis Balochistan. No wonder, the Baloch question remains unresolved. As long as it is, democracy in real terms cannot take root, let alone flourish, in Pakistan. “Indeed,” as one scholar from Pakistan puts it, “Balochistan remains the biggest test of our (Pakistan’s) fledgling democracy.”
Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics.
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