Islamabad's brutal attempts to crush ethnic Baloch nationalism have met with fierce, escalating resistance - and have laid bare the strains that threaten the founding idea of Pakistan. Madiha R Tahir reports from the rallies, homes and hospital rooms of the fifth Baloch rebellion.
A child is fiddling with a poster of a mustachioed man, a missing political worker who may be his father or his uncle, and who is in all likelihood, dead. He draws my immediate attention, this child, because out of the thousands seated around him in row upon neat row inside the open-air tent, he is the only one not focused on the stage, the blazing lights, the young man holding forth in angry punctuated bellows.
Two days earlier, on January 15, the Pakistan army’s Frontier Corps had opened fire on a student protest in south-eastern Balochistan, killing two students and injuring four more – the latest casualties in an escalating war between the state of Pakistan and nationalists in Balochistan, the country’s largest and most sparsely populated province, where the fifth sustained rebellion against Islamabad since 1948 is seething.
Zahid is the secretary-general of the largest student movement in Balochistan, a fierce opponent of the central government and the more mainstream Baloch parties. At this twilight gathering in Lyari, home to a sizeable Baloch community, he delivers a verbal blow to the waffling nationalist parties. “The Baloch are the enemy of the National Party! The Baloch are the enemy of the BNP-Mengal!” The crowd has heard itself affirmed. Wild applause erupts, a release.
The next speaker is Abdul Wahab Baloch, the scruffy and soft-spoken, white-bearded head of the Baloch Rights Council. Midway through his talk, he switches abruptly from Balochi into Urdu. “Tonight, we have a foreign journalist among us who is here to report the Baloch cause, and we welcome her.”
I turn around to hunt for a foreign face, eager to find another female journalist – and find the crowd watching me. The realisation blooms. Oh. You mean me. Here in Karachi, the city of my birth, I am suddenly a foreigner. I wave nervously, unsure of how to respond. How many among the crowd will talk to me when they realise I am a Punjabi, the politically and numerically dominant group in Pakistan, and the eternal target of Baloch nationalist ire?
A caterwauling rises up from the semidarkness, and then a rallying cry. “Pakistan murdabad!” “Die Pakistan!”
Outside, my taxi driver has been waiting uncomfortably, ringing my phone every so often as darkness descends in a plea to hurry it up. An ethnic Pashtun, the two groups have an uneasy peace, and Lyari, a large ghetto with a million residents is nowhere to be after dark. As I get into the car, he asks, “Everything done?”
“Good.” He sounds relieved that I will not be directing him elsewhere. “Let’s get out of here.”
Nearly half of Pakistan’s land mass, Balochistan is a voluminous desert, a bone-dry expanse unfurling into sinuous cliffs set on a rilled desert floor. In the south along the Makran coast, weathered Baloch fishermen extract their livelihood from the coruscating waters of the Arabian Sea. Further inward, sheer bluffs give way to date palm groves and patches of green farm.
To the west and north, the province is bounded by Afghanistan and Iran, each of which has its own Baloch population; the Pashtuns who predominate in the northern part of the province also spill across international borders. The province’s location at this explosive geopolitical crossroads – as well as its vast mineral resources and valuable coastline – have focused the anxieties of international powers near and far, suggesting that a new Great Game may take Balochistan as its target. Tehran worries about what conflicts in Balochistan will mean for its own Sistan-Balochistan province, whose Baloch population has been brutally suppressed by the state. The Americans are concerned about the Taliban who have taken refuge in the province’s Pashtun belt and the leaders of the Afghan Taliban long believed to be operating out of Quetta. Washington is also concerned about China’s increasing involvement in the area, most visibly the deep-water port at Gwadar, built with Chinese investment and intended to provide an Indian Ocean foothold for Beijing.But for the government of Pakistan – and particularly for its army – Balochistan is first and foremost the epicentre of a stubbornly secular Baloch national rebellion whose endurance poses a threat to the state’s ideological and geographical coherence.
Balochistan is a looking glass for Pakistan today, reflecting the tortuous struggle to imagine a national community. How the state handles the rising tide of Baloch nationalism will also determine the future of Pakistan’s nationalist project.
So far the tidings are poor. Over the course of six decades Islamabad has failed to come to terms with Baloch nationalism; the province has almost always been under the effective control of the army or the intelligence services. During the 1970s and the 1980s, the threat of secular Baloch nationalism provided one rationale for the Islamicisation policies of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Zia ul Haq, who hoped that a resurgence of Islamist-nationalist sentiment would undermine the appeal of Baloch nationalism. Ironically, the government routinely attempts to discredit the Baloch separatists internationally by associating them with the Taliban. More recent reports have alleged that American funds intended for use against the Taliban have been diverted to the war on Balochistan’s secular militants.Before its accession to Pakistan, parts of modern-day Balochistan were ruled by the British; other parts comprised the princely state of Kalat. As Pakistani nationalism crystallised around the idea of a homeland for a religious minority, Baloch nationalists stressed their ethnic identity as the basis for an independent state. They cast Pakistani nationalism, underwritten by religion, as a ruse for Punjabi dominance, but under pressure, the Khan of Kalat acceded in March 1948, triggering the “first rebellion”, which was quickly put down by the army. Two more rebellions rose up in the 1950s and 1960s, paving the way for the bloody confrontation that stretched from 1973 to 1977, pitting some 55,000 Baloch against more than 80,000 Pakistani troops. Hundreds of Pakistani soldiers and 5,000 Baloch died before the insurgency was finally suppressed. One of its initial leaders was the militant nationalist and sardar, Nawab Khair Baksh Marri.
When I go to meet Marri in his Karachi home, a man carrying the most enormous brown rooster swings the gate open and tells me to wait. As we head down the garden path, I hear more roosters crowing; Marri is well-known as a lover of cockfighting. A line of men sit in the neat garden, huddled in quiet conversation. Marri is seated in the veranda wearing an impeccable Baloch-styled peach salwaar kameez and Baloch cap listening attentively to a man with a bright turquoise ring and a peak cap. They’re speaking in Balochi flecked with English; the occasional word or phrase can be overheard: “ideology”, “human rights”, “NGOs”.Marri was an apolitical youth, but he was radicalised by the army’s merciless campaign to put down the “second rebellion” in 1958; he emerged from several prison stints as a Marxist-Leninist and a hardline nationalist who rejected Baloch participation in parliamentary politics. “The rules are theirs, so you can’t win a match,” he tells me. In his telling, the very structure of the state is illegitimate: “We were Muslims already,” he says. “We were Baloch already. The British grouped all the conquered people together [into Pakistan]. That’s not a justification: grouping people together just for being Muslims.”
Marri has been linked to the ongoing armed struggle, and his Moscow-educated son, Mir Balaach Marri, was killed as he waged guerrilla warfare in 2007. His son’s death spurred Marri, usually reclusive, to argue more publicly for Baloch independence, but his manner remains deceptively soft, like a knife cloaked in silk. The Baloch, he says, can draw inspiration from the Vietnamese resistance to America: “Vietnam wasn’t an atomic power,” he concludes. “That’s why we have to do the same thing: Punjabi sons will die.”Though the stakes today are higher than ever, most of the Baloch grievances are now decades-old. The province, whose gas reserves are among the largest in Asia, accounts for half of the country’s gas production, with the lion’s share forcibly exported to Punjab. Balochistan’s resources produce roughly a billion dollars annually for the central government; the Balochis receive pennies in return. The local population remains gut-wrenchingly poor, living in sparse shanty towns with little in the way of infrastructure outside of multiplying army encampments – only one reason why local discontent, especially among young Baloch, has found its outlet in increasingly militant Baloch separatism.
During the tenure of General Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in 1999, the army again took a leading role in the administration of the province, and the government proceeded apace with the construction of army garrisons and other mega-projects that the Baloch regarded as inimical or irrelevant to local interests, like the massive Chinese-funded port at Gwadar. These became targets for attacks by guerrilla groups like the Baloch Liberation Army.The “fifth rebellion” began in earnest in 2004, and grew more intense after the rape of a Baloch doctor who worked at the province’s largest gasfields. After the army refused to allow the police to interrogate the suspects, one of whom was an army officer, massive protests erupted, led by the ageing nationalist and tribal leader Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti.
“Don’t push us,” Musharraf warned Baloch militants during an interview in January 2005. “It isn’t the 1970s when you can hit and run and hide in the mountains. This time, you won’t even know what hit you.”Bugti, who once worked with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to oust more hard-line rivals from the provincial government, went underground to lead an insurgency with 5,000 of his tribesmen. Helicopter gunships pounded Bugti’s tribal areas, and on the morning of August 26 2006, the snow-bearded Bugti was killed while hiding in a cave in Kohlu. Islamabad hoped that this would be the final blow, but it gravely miscalculated. Rioters burst onto the streets, burning cars and smashing windows in the immediate aftermath. Shopkeepers went on strike. The central government deployed the paramilitary Rangers, arrested over 450 people and imposed an indefinite curfew, but the violence spread to Baloch neighbourhoods in Karachi where protesters rallied and burnt tires. The assassination was roundly condemned as a major political blunder. Bugti was, after all, a leader who had been open to dialogue with the state. His death provided yet another blood-soaked example to consolidate Baloch nationalism and awaken younger Baloch to the futility of dialogue.
I arrived in Quetta on a crisp January afternoon to join a throng of camera crews crowded on circular embankment to film a Balochistan National Party rally making its way down the city’s main artery.
A few thousand men – I saw no women either among the journalists or the protesters – marched purposefully, dressed in Baloch wear and light jackets, while policemen stood by, batons in hand. The BNP has traditionally participated in electoral politics, and its focus has been on greater autonomy for Balochistan and local control of natural resources; its willingness to work within the Pakistani system has brought the inevitable accusations of treachery and opportunism from more militant nationalist factions. But the intransigence of the central government seems to have alienated even the more moderate members of the BNP: when I scrambled off the concrete island to walk alongside four of the young protesters, they evinced little appetite for elections or compromises.
In the week preceding this march, targeted killings in Karachi neighbourhoods, including Lyari, have claimed the lives of 27 Baloch. Raids conducted by the police to “clean up” Lyari fanned the flames even further, leading to massive demonstrations by local Baloch. The neighbourhood had traditionally been a stronghold of the Bhutto family’s Pakistan People’s Party, but it has increasingly come under the sway of Baloch parties, who have been working hard since Bugti’s murder to inculcate ethnic nationalist sentiment – and thereby connect the Baloch scattered across the country into one force. That the murders in Karachi are being protested in Quetta is one sign that they have been successful.Three days after this march, the Frontier Corps opened fire on students in Khuzdar – sparking the protest led by Zahid Baloch that I attended in Lyari.
When I spoke to the organiser of the Quetta protest, a BNP leader named Akhtar Hussein Langau – who held a seat in the Balochistan Assembly until he resigned after Bugti’s assassination in 2006 – he pointed to the army presence as a principal cause of the alienation young Baloch feel from the state of Pakistan. “We asked them to stop building the army cantonments and they wouldn’t,” he told me over tea shortly before the rally, “but they had no problem killing [Bugti].” Four army cantonments exist in Balochistan and Islamabad is planning several more. Most of these are not where the Taliban roam, but in Baloch lands that are resource-rich and seething with rebellion. Pakistan’s Air Force has six bases here; the Navy has three. And hundreds of checkpoints dot the province. “The ground reality,” asserts Langau, “is that all of Balochistan is a cantonment.”In November, Islamabad offered to halt construction as part of a deal intended to tamp down the insurgency: touted as a historic concession, the offer outlined constitutional, administrative and political reforms for Balochistan, as well as an inquiry into Bugti’s killing, a promise for fair dividends, and the immediate release of missing political workers. The package was tabled in Parliament on November 24, but by the end of the day all the major Baloch parties had rejected it.
Islamabad’s approach is marred by inconsistency, partly because the civilian government has little to no control over the army establishment: while the state rolled out its proposed reforms, the army continued to disappear Baloch activists. Sangat Sana Baloch, a 28-year-old, was abducted only two weeks after the reform offer was announced. He had been active in the BSO as a student, and then joined the Baloch Republican Party, headed by a militant grandson of Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti. He was picked up while driving into Quetta. “They had blocked the road,” his father tells me with a face crumpling into sorrow. “They were waiting for him.”The police have refused to register Sana’s case. “They’re scared and they don’t have the nerve,” his father says. In the absence of police reports, family members file constitutional petitions in the provincial high court asking a judge to take notice. Amnesty International documented at least 600 disappearances two years ago; Baloch activists now claim nearly 6,000.
“This government doesn’t want to admit that the Baloch are human,” says Chakar Qambrani, a BRP activist who was abducted in February 2008 and held for six months and 10 days. We sit on the carpeted floor of Qambrani’s living room, an electric heater glowing orange in a corner as he recounts his time in an underground cell and the savage beatings inflicted on him after his torturers had stripped him naked. “They would curse me and they would hit me with their hands, with leather straps and with sticks. Then they would start interrogating me about my party, who gives us money, why we go on strikes.”Outside the Quetta Press Club, a group called Voice for Missing Baloch has set up a protest camp to call attention to the disappearances; a banner with bold red lettering hangs over the entrance: “UN Should Take Notice Against Illegal Abduction of Baloch Missing Persons By Intelligence Agencies.” Oversized photographs of disappeared men line the walls of the cloth tent, which was pitched by families of the missing men in late December; dozens gather here every day to hold vigil. “They claim we have courts, but the point is, we have no rule of law,” the group’s chairman, Nasrullah Baloch, tells me outside the tent. “If the agencies really think that these people have done something, then try them in court. Otherwise, what’s the point of having courts?” He adds laconically, “Just end them.”
In Tump, on the border with Iran south of Quetta, I meet Banok Karima Baloch, a 26-year-old student activist who has faced several cases in the antiterrorism courts; she was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment in absentia last year. “They claim that people are free, but that’s not true… Even students who speak against them have had cases registered in the antiterrorism court.”
Karima is light-eyed and apricot cheeked, a member of the BSO central committee and the daughter of a solidly middle-class doctor. When the court demanded that she present herself, she refused. “The agencies disappear thousands,” she says, “and even if they present them in court, [the court] never bothers to ask what happened.”
On the subject of tactics, however, she pulls no punches. “The ones who talk about autonomy and rights,” she says, referring to the mainstream nationalist parties, “have a different vision and different goal from those of us who want freedom.” For her, resistance is the only possible step. She notes succinctly, “You can’t get freedom through talk.”***********
Islamabad’s feckless, incoherent policies have amplified a strident Baloch nationalism, and even the most pliable Baloch nationalist parties are feeling pressure from young activists. These nationalists have lost faith in Pakistani overtures; the hardliners among them now view any effort at reconciliation as a ploy to muffle and then quash this resurgent Baloch nationalism.For the next generation, the only significant question is how soon Balochistan will become independent – which they now regard as the only way to preserve a distinct Baloch identity. To protect this “imagined community”, militant nationalists are willing to kill and to die. As a young, wiry activist, Abdul Qayyum Baloch, put it to me in a callow remark: “It’s just as well when they disappear and shoot people. It needs to happen, so more Baloch recognise the true nature of Pakistan.”
A day after the murder of the students in Khuzdar, the BLA launched its retaliation, killing three Punjabis in Balochistan. Rather than religion, which draws the lion’s share of attention when analysts contemplate Pakistan’s coherence, these increasingly strident ethnic divisions pose the greatest problem for the government – which cannot seem to evoke a sense of Pakistani nationhood broad enough to encompass them.“What is Pakistan?” Qayyum asked me. “I understand Sindhis, Baloch, but Pakistani?” The question of Balochistan, it seems, is really a question about Pakistan itself.
The pressures of the American war, and its overriding obsession with the Taliban, seem likely to direct Pakistan only toward unsavory answers to those questions. The billions of dollars sent to Pakistan’s army by the United States have reinforced what may be the nation’s most long-lasting problem: the dominance of a military establishment that knows no language but force, and pursues the cause of Pakistani nationalism by bludgeoning and disappearing its own citizens. Ironically, the abuses of the US-funded army – which heighten ethnic discontent and delegitimize a broad and secular Pakistani nationalism – are the thing most likely to bring the Islamists that Washington fears so to power.When I returned to Karachi, I visited Liaquat Kurd, who had been shot by the Frontier Corps in Khuzdar, and was now recuperating in a hospital bed – a film of sweat on his round face, instruments monitoring his heart rate as blood mixed with a yellowish liquid soaked through the bandaged stump of his left leg. “When they told me they had to amputate, I said just give me poison,” he recalls.
After Kurd was shot, the FC continued its rampage. Kurd’s friends dumped him in a graveyard promising they would return. Strangers found him an hour later and took him to the local hospital, which was ill-equipped to handle his wounds. By the time Kurd arrived, by road, in Karachi, too much time had lapsed: the nerves in his leg were destroyed. I asked him whether he would continue with his activism. “When you close all paths,” he said, “the youth will either leave politics or pick up a gun. Those are the only two options.”Later I went to meet Jamil Bugti, the son of Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, at his home in Karachi. I asked him who were the heirs to the towering political figures who led the Baloch nationalist movement in its earlier days. “The next generation is all in the mountains,” he replied, “And they’re not willing to talk to anyone. People like me, and others, like the different nationalist parties that are in Parliament, they don’t have any role to play. They look very good on TV. That’s about it.”
Madiha R Tahir is a freelance journalist reporting on international conflicts and currently based in Pakistan.