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The Baluchi insurrection

Irfan Husain
3 September 2006

Flying over Baluchistan, one has the impression of traversing a lunar landscape. Flat plains rise into barren hills and rocky crags. Temperatures can hit 130 degrees in the summer, and rains are rare, even in the monsoons. Mile after mile of pitiless terrain roll below as the traveller wonders how life can be sustained in such a hostile environment. This is the province of Gedrosia of the Achaemenid empire (c550-330 BCE) where Alexander's army suffered terrible losses to heat and thirst on its way home. But below the harsh, unforgiving surface lie huge reserves of gas and unexploited minerals that are at the heart of the dispute that has erupted into open warfare between Baluchi nationalists and a Punjab-dominated federal government.

Irfan Husain is a columnist with Dawn newspaper in Pakistan.

Also by Irfan Husain in openDemocracy:

"Kabul vs Islamabad: a war of words"
(16 March 2006)

"Musharraf's own goals" (27 March 2006)

"The state of Pakistan" (22 May 2006)

"Hell in Helmand"
(18 July 2006)

"Lebanon: the view from Pakistan"
(7 August 2006)

It was in a cave in the bleak Bhambore Hills that 79-year old Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti met his end under violent but mysterious circumstances on 26 August 2006. Chief of the Bugti tribe, he had been the most vocal symbol of Baluchi nationalism. Fearing arrest, he had sought shelter in the desert, accompanied by his fiercely loyal bodyguards. For months now, fighters of the shadowy Baluchistan Liberation Army (BLA) have been attacking gas pipelines and other government assets. The demands of the Baluchi nationalists include more royalties from the gas the rest of the country has been drawing from the gas fields of Sui; a halt to the construction of new army garrisons; and a review of large development projects.

Driving this agenda is demographic reality: although Baluchistan comprises over 40% of Pakistan's land area, it has only 5% of its population. There is a well-founded fear that if federally directed and funded projects like the construction of a modern port at Gwadar continue being built, they will attract non-Baluchis into the province, thus converting the locals into a minority. They have seen the fate of their Sindhi neighbours, whose province has been flooded with workers from Punjab and the North-Western Frontier Province drawn to the port city of Karachi.

Between Islamabad and Quetta

Seen from Islamabad, the Baluchi attitude does not fit in with its strategy of constructing a gas pipeline from Iran that would possibly extend to India. Other plans include pipelines from central Asia across Afghanistan and Baluchistan, terminating at Gwadar, from where they would be exported. Thus, the province is a key to Pakistan's future energy plans. But instead of negotiating seriously with the Baluchis, Pervez Musharraf has tried to bulldoze them. Now Bugti's death has provided them with a martyr, and it is likely that their guerrilla attacks will escalate.

Historically, Baluchistan has always been a difficult province, with 80% constituting tribal areas where the federal government's writ barely runs. In 1973, an uprising was crushed with great ferocity by the Pakistan army, and the Baluchis have nursed a sense of grievance ever since. This has been sharpened by the perception that they are being deprived of their mineral resources by a rapacious Punjabi-dominated establishment.

A further source of tension is the changing ethnic composition of the region. The ethnic Baluchis are the majority in the south, while Pushtun tribesmen populate the north. This demographic balance was disturbed during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (December 1979-February 1989) that drove hundreds of thousands of Pushtun tribesmen into Baluchistan.

Meanwhile, the very existence of autonomous tribal areas inhibits private investment: businessmen feel they are at the mercy of tribal chiefs who extort a large percentage of their profits for operating on their land. Schools, especially for girls, are at the mercy of tribal elders. Indeed, female literacy in Baluchistan is by far the lowest in the country, as is the turnout of women in national, provincial and local elections. Nawab Akbar Khsn Bugti boasted of killing his first man when he was 12 years old. To this day, murder is not a capital crime under tribal law, and honour killings are common.

Small wonder, then, that Baluchistan has the lowest per capita income in the country. Given the long distances and the harshness of the terrain, the federal government was content to leave the province well alone, apart from subsidising the provincial budget to the extent of 90%. But over the last few years, as the need for ensuring alternative sources of gas has become more pressing, there has been a concerted effort to develop the infrastructure.

Thus, the Chinese government has helped in building a modern port at Gwadar, near the Iranian border. A modern highway linking Karachi to Gwadar was completed in 2005, and a survey has been conducted to link the new port to the national railroad system. But all these initiatives have been resisted by Baluchi nationalists. Several Chinese engineers have been killed, and a series of rocket attacks carried out against gas pipelines and other facilities.

Clearly, tribal chiefs and elders have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Currently, they literally have the power of life and death over poor, uneducated tribesmen. Many of these leaders have made common cause with nationalists, some of whom are demanding independence. Musharraf has accused India of fishing in these troubled waters by arming the BLA. In addition to the ongoing uprising, the tribal areas have long been at the crossroads of a vast smuggling network along which heroin, guns and people are moved to Iran and the Gulf. Part of the profits maintains tribal chiefs in luxury, while another portion goes towards sustaining Baluchi guerrillas.

Also on the Baluchi troubles in openDemocracy:

Maruf Khwaja, "The Baluchi battlefront" (1 February 2006)

Bugti's dangerous corpse

One consequence of its fractured demographic and tribal mix is that Baluchistan has no large political parties. Rather, it is run by a mosaic of small groups that form shaky coalitions in the provincial capital of Quetta. Currently, out of a house of sixty-five members, around half are ministers. This distribution of portfolios is a way of bribing members to support the ruling coalition in which the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), an alliance of clerics, is a major partner.

In an area where the concept of tribal honour and traditions has deep roots, Musharraf's bungled handling of Bugti's death and its aftermath has caused a wave of revulsion. Initially, the government claimed that he had been killed when the army fired missiles at a cave from which they had taken fire. The resultant explosions had caused the cave to collapse, killing Bugti and his companions.

This story was soon changed, and an army spokesman later claimed that officers entered the cave to "negotiate" with the nawab. Seconds later, a "mysterious explosion" occurred, causing the rockfall and the death of all under it. When Bugti's body was recovered a week later, it was buried in a locked coffin in Dera Bugti, rather than being handed over to his family in Quetta. Now Jamil Bugti, his oldest surviving son, is claiming that the buried body is not his father's.

The whole operation has been widely condemned across the political spectrum in Pakistan. A number of former army and intelligence chiefs have joined this swelling chorus. Musharraf has not heard the last of his foe: a dead Akbar Bugti might be a more potent opponent than he was in his remote cave.

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