The Baluchi battlefront

Maruf Khwaja
1 February 2006

Is Pakistan's western region of Baluchistan burning? Are its bitterly contested gasfields aflame? Are fuel supplies to Pakistani cities, which rely wholly on the national Sui gas grid, being cut off?

Baluchi insurgents manning half a dozen websites, and some of their Indian propagandists, claim it is so. Reports of attacks on the major port project at Gwadar on the Arabian Sea coast – whose principal funder is (who else?) China – spread. Pakistanis say it is "another little local difficulty" and they are dealing with it. Gas supplies are being maintained despite the attacks. The huge plant at Sui, smack in the centre of "hostile" Bugti territory from where the rest of the country gets more than 60% of its gas, is apparently intact and "well protected".

From outside Pakistan not much can be seen past the usual smokescreens that governments under siege always put up. And if he isn't under siege, President Pervez Musharraf will have to redefine the dictionary meaning of the word. He has only one "fire-brigade" and perhaps a dozen fires to put out hundreds of kilometres apart. On 30 January, reports the Karachi-based Dawn newspaper, "45 rockets were fired that exploded in different areas of the Pir Koh gasfield" while a powerful explosion rocked Hub, an industrial plant forty-five minutes' drive from Karachi. The target was a court building.

Among Maruf Khwaja's writings on openDemocracy:

"The suicide of fundamentalism" (August 2001)

"The past in the present: India, Pakistan, and history" (August 2002)

"Becoming Pakistani" (August 2004)

"Terrorism, Islam, reform: thinking the unthinkable"
(July 2005)

"Muslims in Britain: generations, experiences, futures" (August 2005)

"Pakistan's mountain tsunami"
(October 2005)


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The upsurge and extension of the violence in Baluchistan is causing jitters even among Americans. A United States congressman has reportedly written to secretary of state Condoleezza Rice expressing his concern "at the all out assault in Kohlu and Dera Bugti" using all types of sophisticated weaponry against people "merely demanding their rights" and more than the 12.4% royalty on the gas taken from their territory. He demanded a cessation of the campaign and return to negotiations.

But President Musharraf is having to open yet another battlefront. In Baluchistan he is doing exactly what his predecessors did. The first confrontation with warring tribes was in 1948, when Pakistan was barely a year old; the second came in 1958-59 when Ayub Khan – freshly empowered by Pakistan's first army coup – unleashed his army on the "unruly" tribesmen of eastern Baluchistan. He thought he had tamed them but had to repeat it all in 1962-63 when rebels regrouped, aided and abetted by a Soviet-Afghan-Indian tripartite alliance. There was enforced silence till 1973 when the hydra-headed "monster" rose again and was again crushed, this time by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

Direct news from the front is scarce. But a score of Baluchi "liberation" organisations and several "retired" Indian civil servants suggest that outright rebellion by well-armed Baluchis is well underway. That and Musharraf's response will severely test yet again both his and his country's resolve to survive another decade of struggle and strife.

The sardars' cage

Pakistani Baluchistan (there is one in Iran too) is home to only 7% of its population, but contains more than half of its territory and most of its mineral resources – the gainful exploitation of which is at the root of the Baluchistan problem. It's a challenge to daunt the most ruthless and well-resourced despot, and Musharraf is neither. His army of more than half a million is seriously overstretched. Containing or suppressing yet another rebellion is a tall order for a fighting force stuffed with mullah types more loyal to their own kind than to a whisky-guzzling, dog-loving modern general.

Baluchi tribes, centred around the eastern hills of the region, have been at it since the days of the British Raj when musket-toting tribals, getting in the way of 19th-century colonial wars, were more amenable than today to bribery in cash and kind and other inducements to civilised behaviour. But those were cheap days – pennies bought sardari loyalty that a million wouldn't today, and the British weren't looking for oil or protecting gas pipelines from trained, determined saboteurs.

A century and a half ago the Bugti ancestor of one of the three big sardars (tribal chiefs) now taking on Musharraf was the first to be lured into modern civilisation with a mere knighthood. When they couldn't win over a key "troublemaker", the Brits simply bypassed his fiefdom leaving the tribe and its sardar alone to conduct their usual pursuits of raiding settlements, highway robbery, contract murder and kidnapping – their main and sometimes only source of income. Their modern Pakistani successors are not so flexible and look upon such perpetrators as enemies of the country.

As a result partly of their remoteness in relation to central India, Baluchi tribes (including today's principal troublemakers – the Bugtis, Marris and Mengals) took little or no part in the sub-continent's freedom struggle. The Khan of Kalat, ruler of the largest fiefdom covering the southern half of the province (Kalat was once synonymous with Baluchistan and extended well into eastern Iran) wielded the greatest influence; but when he demurred it needed the personal intervention of Pakistan's founder to ensure that he took the whole region into Pakistan. The astute Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan's father and first leader, quickly contained the turmoil this involved.

Although Presidents Ayub (1958-69) and Yahya (1969-71) Khan each had a go in their own special ways at taming the "tigers" of Baluchistan, it wasn't until Bhutto came into power that the attempt assumed what some call genocidal proportions. Nearly 100,000 troops were deployed in the 1973 crackdown. Critics say that this assault is perhaps responsible for the fact that the Baluch nationalist movement is stronger today than it was then. But it has to be said that before unleashing the troops, Bhutto tried other ways to assimilate the fierce, insular tribes – including abolishing the sardari nizam, the age-old feudal system that gave the tribal sardar absolute power over his people. Sardars made their own laws; indeed, their word was the law.

A few weeks after the abolition, Bhutto's propagandists invited a posse of us journalists to see at firsthand how the system had operated. What we saw turned our blood cold. On sheer rocky cliffs were holes closed by iron grilles where a sardar could encage his enemies for as much of their life as he willed – sometimes all of it. The prisoner would boil in the summer and freeze in the winter for crimes as momentous as failing to pay the sardar his tax dues or marrying without his permission.

We dutifully interviewed a few liberated prisoners and even published a story or two. It was a painful experience. Many "convicts" had stumps where limbs used to be, without tongues or with mutilated ears or noses. Some had simply been driven mad.

Between tradition and liberation

Bhutto had naively attempted to change overnight an ancient socio-political structure formed in antiquity. It resembled his other reforms – over-ambitious, legally flawed and poorly or selectively implemented – and went the same way. For it provoked the sardars into momentarily giving up their internecine warfare to form a united front against change. Bhutto tried hard, within the limits imposed by his enormous ego, to win them over: appointing a governor and a chief minister from their ranks, raising oil and gas royalties (which went straight into the sardars' foreign bank-accounts) and increasing Baluchi job quotas.

It was all for nothing. Sardars insisted on even more concessions; one demand met would be replaced by ten more. So it went on until Zia ul-Haq took power in 1977, hanged Bhutto, and played his Islamic card. The sardari struggle went more or less underground, and its leaders dispersed. Khair Bakhsh Marri, the most militant and uncompromising among the bigger chiefs (and a cardboard Marxist to boot) went into exile in Moscow – sulking, planning, and raising anti-Pakistan propaganda with the help of the communists and (according to Pakistan) his Indian sponsors. Ataullah Mengal ensconced himself in a comfortable London flat. Akbar Bugti spent most of the Bhutto era commuting between his palaces and Bhutto's prisons.

The sardari campaign to protect their "tribal identity" and "traditions" went on to assume the form of an all-out liberation struggle that echoed the circumstances surrounding the break-up of Pakistan in 1971. The terminology of the "freedom fighters" at the height of Bhutto's crackdown included talk of "Punjabi exploitation", of Baluchis being swamped by Pakistani "foreigners", of a threat to a culture and the danger of mineral wealth being stolen. The grievances multiplied, from denial of lucrative jobs in the gas industry to lack of educational facilities and hospitals.

But Pakistanis defending their government's record in Baluchistan point to an annual toll of thousands of murders and kidnappings of soldiers, doctors, teachers, nurses, engineers and road-builders. Who would want to go and swamp such a place? Well, the homeless, jobless quake-hit victims of the October 2005 "mountain tsunami" in Kashmir might. They have been streaming towards Baluchistan in search of the livelihood they lost back home. The tribals don't want them either. As for job quotas in the oil and gas sectors, Pakistanis point out that this is a competitive industry run by foreign contractors who win exploration contracts after costly bidding, then employ only people who give value for money. Baluchi tribals, taking their cue from native Gulf Arabs whose lifestyle they envy and wish to emulate, are accused of being averse to hard labour and wanting everything for nothing. The reason for employing outsiders, the argument goes, is because they are willing to work for their money.

Pakistani nationalists also accuse the sardars of stubborn resistance to social change. This includes deliberately keeping their people, particularly women, ignorant in case modern education corrupts them with the "wrong" ideas. Ignorant people are easier to control and suppress. Democracy, then, goes against the sardari grain.

But a sardar's own immediate kin get the best education, and if it isn't available nearby he is willing to travel far for it. Akbar Bugti, Baluchistan's most influential sardar and for nearly seventy years the Bugtis' undisputed leader – he committed his first cold murder at the age of 12 – went to the same Lahore college as the cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan. Two of his kin went to my school in Karachi and so did those of Attaullah Mengal, another ostensibly leftwing "progressive" sardar. Some indeed who escaped the tribal grip became productive, responsible citizens.

A few sardars resort to wholesale deportation of their own people if they find any "rebellious" tendencies among them. The current army action in Dera Bugti apparently encouraged a 200-strong group of Kalpars, a sub-clan of the Bugti tribe, to return last week to the homes from where they had been "expelled". Five rockets landed on the ragtag caravan as they neared home, and they had to be sheltered at a government "safe" settlement.

A clash of certitudes

There are parallels with the Bangladesh breakaway but a number of factors differ from the 1971 scenario Bengalis enjoyed a homogenous culture and language, were ethnically uniform and had an undisputed leader. The people of Baluchistan are more diverse: the territory contains ethnic groups that speak languages other than Baluchi (Brohi-, Sindhi-, and Saraiki-speakers from the provincial borders, Urdu-speaking Muhajir who came from India, and settlers of Punjabi origin). These non-Baluchi speakers are better educated, like being Pakistanis and tend to dislike the "savages" from the hills.

Less numerous but more politically involved in the country's affairs than the tribals are Pashtu-speaking Pathans of northeastern Baluchistan. The Pathans and Baluchis have not always been on the best of terms, though they did find common ground during the last days of Soviet rule in Afghanistan when Islamist Pathan marauders would make hit-and-run raids on Afghan border villages whose menfolk had been conscripted by the Kabul regime to fight the Mujahideen. The marauders would return with the conscripts' womenfolk, regarded as maal ghanimat (war booty) – possessed under Islamic law by the "left hand" of the saleheen (righteous) conquerors and resold as slaves. Some would be snapped up by tribals despairing of ever being able to raise the high bride-price for Baluchi girls demanded by their own kinfolk.

Once the Taliban were ousted in November 2001, the common ground vanished and both sides returned to their mutual loathing– Baluchi tribals holding all bearded fundamentalist Pathans to be mullahs and the Pathans condemning tribals as filthy savages who paid only lip-service to Islam.

The three million or so settlers from the other three provinces and from Karachi, who bring valuable skills to the region whatever the belligerent Baluchi tribals say, cannot be ignored. The wealth of Baluchistan belongs to all of its citizens whatever their ethnic or linguistic origin. It also belongs to the rest of Pakistan where there are pockets of poverty and deprivation as bad as any in Baluchistan, and much more numerous.

No country as desperately poor as Pakistan would willingly give up oil and gas resources. The Baluchi rebels reject Pakistani sovereignty over oil and gas fields outright. They want all the revenues to go to them, but in addition the Marris among them also want to auction exploration rights for the oil they are reputedly sitting on, and to export it directly to foreign markets or by pipeline to India – and keep the proceeds. They have seen what indescribable, unimagined wealth oil has brought to a handful of wandering Bedu and they want exactly the same for themselves in exactly the same proportion. Pakistan, they say, can go to hell. Not, reply Pakistanis, if we can help it.

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