On August 26, Pakistan’s volatile Balochistan province marked the third death anniversary of its slain leader, Nawab Akbar Bugti, amid widespread violence. Ten people were killed; several gas pipelines blown up and electricity pylons destroyed across Balochistan by Baloch insurgents who challenge the authority of the Pakistani state in the province.

Nawab Bugti, a 79-year-old ex-chief minister and a governor of Balochistan, was killed in a military operation ordered by the Pervez Musharraf regime. He had emerged as a leading voice in the province against the federal government on several issues, including control over the natural resources in the province. The killing of the aged Baloch leader gave birth to a new martyr, sparked an unprecedented wave of anti-Pakistan feelings and fanned the embers of an organised separatist movement in Balochistan.

Three years after the Bugti killing, seen as nothing less than an assassination, Balochistan poses what is widely seen as a near- East Pakistan-like threat to Islamabad. While Bugti continuously negotiated with the federal government on the issue of maximum provincial autonomy, his young followers now spurn dialogue and coexistence with the federation. Some are fighting for an “independent Balochistan,” with Bramdagh Bugti, a grandson of the slain Bugti, the fiercest face of the insurgency. Pakistan accuses India of backing the 28-year-old Bramdagh Bugti for his secessionist movement while allegedly operating from Afghanistan. The young commander brushes aside these “accusations” saying they are meant to discredit the indigenous Baloch struggle intended to get rid of exploitation by the Punjab-dominated federation.

Internally divided

Currently, Baloch society is internally divided between the political forces that wish to live with Pakistan and the armed groups that advocate the cause of an independent Balochistan, even if violence has to be used to achieve this. Many would trace the momentum that the separatist movement in Balochistan has today to Bugti’s killing.

With Musharraf’s exit, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government extended an apology to the Balochs about the past military operation and vouchsafed negotiation with all annoyed factions of the province in order to permanently end the conflict. In return, three armed Baloch groups — the Baloch Liberation Army, Baloch Republican Army (BRA) and Baloch Liberation Front — unilaterally announced a ceasefire in September 2008.

Nonetheless, they demanded withdrawal of security forces from Balochistan, release of hundreds of political workers and ‘missing persons’ and an end to the construction of military cantonments in Balochistan as confidence building measure (CBM) from the government side.

The PPP government failed to reverse the polices of Musharraf as the state agencies continued to whisk away dozens of political workers from the pro-independent Balochistan parties such as the Baloch Republican Party (BRP) and the Baloch Students’ Organisation (BSO).

Defining moment

However, the defining moment in the shattering of the Baloch-PPP relationship came in April this year, with the abduction and subsequent murder of three important Baloch leaders with a massive following, including Ghulam Mohammad Baloch, chairman of the Baloch National Movement (BNM).

Eyewitnesses said they saw personnel of the federal paramilitary Frontier Corps storm a legal chamber and whisk away the Baloch leaders whose decomposed dead bodies showed up a few days later. A judicial committee was appointed to investigate their killings but its findings have not been made public yet.

The killings of Baloch leaders led to an intensified campaign of target killing by Baloch insurgents against Punjabi settlers in the province, mainly of school teachers and government servants. Baloch militants warned that no school across Balochistan should hoist the Pakistani flag or play the national anthem. The threat was taken seriously only after half of a dozen Punjabi principals and teachers were murdered in broad daylight.

Baloch activists burned Pakistani flags and hoisted the flag of an independent Balochistan on major educational institutions, including at the University of Balochistan. The underground Baloch groups have threatened to kill anyone who removes these Baloch flags or resumes singing the Pakistani anthem at schools. Now even elite grammar schools in Quetta have stopped playing Pakistan’s anthem.

All this has engendered an atmosphere of fear. The Balochistan Residential College in Khuzdar district, for instance, has been shut for more than two months since the killing of its principal. When the issue was raised at Balochistan Assembly, the Education Minister expressed “utter helplessness.”

“Now that the killings have already started, we can not simply describe it as a ‘threat’ only. It is a reality that our teachers are facing and being killed. The government should take notice of this dire situation before the teachers give up their jobs because of fear,” was his only response.

A considerable number of teachers in Balochistan are Punjabis, and most of them have applied with the Education Department for their transfer outside Balochistan for security reasons. The Education Ministry says the number of such applications is too high to be entertained.

Reluctance to stay

Punjabi officials in other government departments are equally reluctant to stay on in the province fearing they could become targets. According to Daily Aaj Kal, 10 government officials from Punjab agreed to serve in Balochistan only after they were offered double salaries, a four-month leave per year and promotions to the next grade.

Furthermore, Baloch separatists have warned the fellow Baloch to give up their jobs at the Pakistan Army, the Frontier Corps (FC) and the police. The underground Baloch Republican Army recently kidnapped 22 policemen in Nasirabad district. Once their demands to the government of releasing all the Baloch detainees were not complied with, they killed all these 22 policemen and threw away their dead bodies with a clear threat of more such operations in the future.

In a fresh overture, the federal government has constituted a parliamentary committee whose 15-point proposals were recently approved by Prime Minister Gilani. The recommendations of the committee are reported to include initiation of a political dialogue, the release of political prisoners, expediting the recovery of missing persons and a judicial enquiry into the recent murder of three Baloch leaders.

Raza Rabbani, the chairman of the committee, recommended that the government must pay attention to financial issues such gas royalties, and money allocation to the province by the National Finance Commission, as well take administrative measures such as withdrawal of forces from the gas-rich Sui area.

It may not be difficult to make the mainstream Balochistan National Party and the National Party sit at the negotiating table. These two relatively moderate parties have formally demanded the inclusion of “international guarantors,” such as the United Nations, the European Union (EU) or the Amnesty International, in talks with Islamabad so that the Balochs are not cheated again. But even if the BNP and NP agree to cooperate with the government, it is questionable if they have the capability to persuade the more militant Baloch to clam down and stop the killings and bombings.

A few days ago, Jamil Bugti, a son of Nawab Bugti, filed a petition at a Sibi District Court asking it order the filing of a murder case against former president Pervez Musharraf, ex-prime minister Shaukat Aziz and other top functionaries from the previous regime. Asma Jahangir, chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), has promised to appear before any court that hears murder charges against Musharraf. She insists that currently the army, not the elected provincial government, fully controls the affairs of Balochistan.

Against the background of the bleak ground situation in Balochistan, and only getting bleaker by the day, the prospects of the PPP government’s efforts for reconciliation with the Baloch people are uncertain. But with most Baloch holding Musharraf responsible for bringing Balochistan to this pass, a good starting point for the PPP government may be to show some sincerity in bringing the former ruler to justice for the killing of Nawab Bugti. ( The writer is Balochistan bureau chief of Daily Times : maliksiraj @dailytimes.com.pk)

Correction

The first sentence of an article “Balochistan situation getting bleaker by the day” (Op-Ed, September 2, 2009) was “On August 29, Pakistan’s volatile Balochistan province marked the third death anniversary of its slain leader, Nawab Akbar Bugti, amid widespread violence.” The correct date is August 26.

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