The assassination of Nawab Akbar Shehbaz Khan Bugti, the
legendary leader of the Baloch freedom struggle, in a brutal military operation
by the Pakistan Army will have serious long-term repercussions on Pakistani
politics, as a martyr is born to inspire the rebel Baloch nationalists in their
ongoing struggle for greater rights and control over their natural resources.
In his death and the barbaric manner in which it was inflicted by those who wanted to establish their stronghold in Balochistan by setting up cantonments there, Bugti has already become a martyred hero for Baloch nationalists everywhere in Pakistan, rather than the anti-state tribesman General Musharraf sought to portray him as. To the warrior Bugti tribe, he was not only the tribal head but also the latest in a long line of nationalist leaders who tried to defend the province from exploitation by the centre at the hands of the mighty Punjab-dominated military establishment.
"It is better to die — as the Americans say — with your spurs on. Instead of a slow death in bed, I would rather prefer death come to me while I am fighting for a purpose". So said Akbar Bugti in May 2006 while talking to a Time magazine correspondent via satellite phone from the mountain refuge that eventually became his grave.
The 80-year old nationalist who wanted to fight to the death got his wish three months later when the Pakistani security forces killed him in a ruthless military operation on August 26. General Musharraf, who had declared Bugti a ‘terrorist’, made no bones about fulfilling the rebel leader’s desire.
Within hours of his death, described by many as an
extra-judicial killing, Balochistan witnessed bloody reactions, leaving ten
people dead and dozens injured. Over 500 people were detained in riots
throughout the province, with many of the Baloch protesters targeting
Punjabi-owned properties and businesses in Quetta, worsening already volatile
ethnic divisions across Pakistan.
Born on July 12, 1927, Bugti attended the elite Aitchison College in Lahore and Oxford University, London before going into politics. Bugti, 80, a former Chief Minister and Governor of Balochistan, was considered an articulate spokesman for the Baloch cause for decades. Bugti was a member of the Shahi Jirga (Council) that had voted for the creation of Pakistan at the time of Partition in 1947. He became a member of the first Constituent Assembly and served as Minister of State for Interior and Defence in 1956. The gruesome murder of an avowed secularist like Bugti, who was concerned about the Talibanisation of Pakistani society, demonstrates how a so-called enlightened moderate military dictator treats his political opponents. Ironically, the Musharraf administration is negotiating with far more lethal hardline Islamist groups operating in the Waziristan tribal area.
To Musharraf and his cronies, Bugti was no more than an insurgent feudal lord who wanted to prevent development from reaching his tribesmen and who operated a ‘state within a state’. Musharraf used to describe Bugti as a miscreant, a term introduced by the British East India Company – a term which was last used widely in 1971 by the Pakistani military elite to describe the Bengali people of erstwhile East Pakistan. The General blamed Bugti for past insurgencies in Balochistan, and accused him of being a warlord running a well-organised militia, private courts and prisons, using his income from the gas fields in Dera Bugti.
The Pakistani armed forces had been carrying out an intense military operation against the Baloch rebels involving Special Services Group of the Army, tanks, artillery, helicopter gun ships and fighter jets. The security forces had succeeded in driving Bugti from his seat of power at Dera Bugti to the surrounding hills in Kohlu in March 2006, only to start resettling the rival factions of the Bugti tribe in areas that were previously under his control. Over 20,000 people of Masoori, Kalpar and other sub-tribes were transported back to Dera Bugti from different parts of Sindh and Punjab after Bugti was made to leave his hometown. At the same time, Baloch rebel leaders and their kin were made targets of a campaign of intimidation by the security forces.
On July 20, 2006, in an address to the nation, General Musharraf had said that for 40 years, three Baloch Sardars (Bugti, Mengal and Marri), who were opposed to development in Balochistan, had been pampered unjustifiably in the name of political settlement, ‘but no more’. "We are determined to re-establish the writ of the state in Balochistan by fixing the so-called Baloch Sardars. Over 16,000 sub-tribes of Bugti — Rahejas, Kalpars, Masouri — had already returned to Dera Bugti after years of repression by Nawab Bugti". He added further insult to Baloch sensitivities, stating, "But I would not call him a Nawab any more as he is on the run."
What actually prompted Musharraf to target Bugti was the firing of eight rockets in December 2005 that crashed into a Frontier Constabulary camp near Kohlu while the General was addressing a rally in the area. The rockets did not cause any casualties, but the next day a senior official of the Frontier Constabulary was injured while conducting an aerial reconnaissance of Kohlu when tribesmen fired on his helicopter. Musharraf was somehow made to believe that the rocket fire was an attempt to assassinate him. On the other hand, the Baloch rebels said that they wanted to lodge protest over the rape of a lady doctor Shazia Khalid in the Sui area of Balochistan by a captain of the Army who was exonerated by the military leadership. The rocket firing made Musharraf order a huge military operation against the Bugti tribe, accusing it of working against Pakistan at the behest of an ‘enemy country’, presumably India.
As the military operation was still on, a grand gathering, or Government sponsored jirga of Baloch tribal leaders convened in Dera Bugti on August 24, 2006, to announce the end of the sardari (chieftainship) system. The jirga declared that the sardari system of the Bugti tribe had been abolished forthwith and thanked General Musharraf for ‘emancipating’ the people of the area from the atrocities and excesses of the former tribal chief. The Jinnah Stadium, where the jirga was held, was filled with thousands of people from the Kalpar, Masoori, Firozani, Shambhani, Mandrani, Raheja and Marhata sub-tribes, known in the past for nursing feuds with the fleet-footed Akbar Bugti.
The participants of the jirga adopted 15 resolutions that significantly endorse Musharraf’s efforts to eliminate the perceived resistance shown by the Baloch in general and the Bugti sardar in particular. One resolution asked the Marri tribe to "hand over the accused Akbar Bugti to the Bugtis, so that justice is done to them in accordance with the tribal traditions". The jirga further decided to confiscate all of Akbar Bugti’s assets and distribute them "among those who had suffered at his hands". Ironically enough, after abolishing the sardari system, the jirga reverted to the "tribal system" and declared the local elections in the area null and void because the elected administrator of Dera Bugti had been backed by Akbar Bugti.
The next day – August 25, 2006 – the Army troops intensified their operation in the highlands around the Kohlu area and asked a besieged Bugti to surrender. On August 26, the Government announced that Akbar Bugti had been killed ‘in a military raid’. However, the Engineering Corps of the Pakistan Army took seven days to retrieve the body which was laid to rest on September 1, 2006, at his ancestral graveyard in the Dera Bugti area of Balochistan. Significantly, the military authorities did not allow anyone either to offer his funeral prayers or to see the dead body. The military spokesman had already declared that, as per the Bugti jirga’s decision, only a few family members would be allowed to attend the funeral.
The Musharraf administration also rejected his family members’ demand that the body be handed over to them for the burial. This infuriated his sons who decided not to attend the funeral. Despite repeated demands by the journalists present at the time of the burial, the khakis (Armymen) surrounding the coffin did not allow them a glimpse of the face or the body because, according to the authorities, they were badly mutilated and stinking and decaying. They added that the body was identified from the watch Akbar Bugti used to wear and his spectacles, evidence that has been questioned by Bugti’s sons.
In the meantime, Akbar Bugti’s two grandsons, Brahamdad Bugti and Ali Nawaz Bugti, who were earlier feared dead, have resurfaced and issued a statement saying that they would be leading the Baloch people in a war against Musharraf, their grandfather’s "killer". The statement says the Baloch war against Islamabad would be intensified and it was the "responsibility of each and every Baloch to seek revenge for the murder".
Almost three months before his assassination, having left his Fort in Dera Bugti and shifted to the dry and treeless mountains in Kohlu, Akbar Bugti had issued a message to the Baloch nation in April 2006 -- "Message from the Koh-e-Baloch (mountains of the Baloch) by the "Sipah Salar" (commander) Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti fighting for the defence of Baloch coast, resources and identity". The memo referred to the Pakistani state and the Army as enemy of the Baloch nation and described the Baloch land as "Baloch Watan". It stated that the very hills in the Makran, Chaghi, Bolan, Kahan, Kohlu and Dera Bugti areas have become a trench offering protection to the Baloch fighters and creating fear in the hearts of the "enemy forces".
Bugti’s message was actually meant to motivate the Baloch youth to pick up the gun and fight a battle for survival in their ancestral land. The veteran Baloch autonomist was convinced that the ‘enemy’ understood the language of force alone and, consequently, the Baloch would have to battle it out to defend their 780-kilometers of coastline and riches of gas, oil, gold, silver and copper. He asked the Baloch nation to embrace martyrdom instead of becoming a minority in their own land. Bugti warned against the intrigues of fellow Baloch leaders with conduct similar to past sub-continental traitors like Mir Jaffar and Mir Sadiq. Bugti exhorted his Baloch nation to seek inspiration from the Iraqi Kurds, who braved Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons and offered immense sacrifices to win freedom. The symbols highlighted in Bugti’s message and its tough language left little doubt in one’s mind that he had finally embarked on a path of armed confrontation with Pakistan’s mighty military establishment. To him, the time for staging peaceful protests, holding negotiations and sitting in parliamentary committees was a thing of the past. Instead, he sought to inspire the Baloch youth to join the armed struggle that he had been leading from the front.
In line with Bugti’s message, the Government of Balochistan in Exile (GOBE) has called upon the Baloch nation to honour the death of the nationalist leader by preparing themselves for the next battle of the long and arduous Baloch War of Independence against the enemy force. Mir Azad Khan Baloch, General Secretary of the Government in Exile, has maintained in a statement that the only crime the slain nationalist had committed was that he wanted the oppressive Pakistani establishment to treat the oppressed Baloch people equitably.
Pakistan’s military rulers have, since Independence, ignored the fact the country is multiethnic and multi-religious, and unitary policies of an excessively centralised military order cannot work. The lack of democracy since Musharraf’s military coup in 1999 has only increased the sense of alienation among Sindhis, Pashtuns, Urdu-speaking Muhajirs and a host of smaller nationalities. Successive military rulers have failed to grasp the essentials of political management of the federal structure, and have consistently preferred to deal with the local issues through force, instead of working out a fair relationship with the provinces. Hussain Haqqani, a Washington-based Pakistani scholar, rightly notes that the repeated intervention of the Army in national politics has created an unfortunate situation where Army has been responsible for killing more Pakistanis as enemies of the state than it has eliminated foreign troops with whom Pakistan has gone to war.
Killing political opponents is undoubtedly a signal of a Musharraf’s growing weakness and desperation. For many Pakistanis, Bugti’s death is another thread torn loose, as Pakistan’s dangerous political and social unraveling under military rule continues. Bugti’s death has further fanned Baloch nationalism, and will strengthen the separatist sentiment in the province.
With Bugti’s heroic death, the Baloch rebels have lost a charismatic leader, whose dogged resistance in the face of the military might was a source of inspiration. The Baloch have very genuine grievances: the natural gas being explored from the trouble-stricken province for decades was not available even in Quetta, the provincial capital, until the 1980s – and then only because an army cantonment needed it – despite the gas having reached far-flung towns in Punjab by that time. The gas from Balochistan meets 38 per cent of national needs, yet only 6 per cent of Balochistan’s 6.5 million people have access to it. The Balochis have almost no representation in the civil and the military bureaucracy, in part reflecting their province’s dismal educational infrastructure.
Independent analysts believe that resolving the Balochistan issue requires more than settling a single issue, such as the exploitation of its natural resources, the setting up of new cantonments, or the continuing hostility surrounding natural gas reserves. They are of the view that the use of brute force will only alienate the people further, leaving them with little option but to fight for economic and political justice.
Bugti’s exit does, however, make it much easier for the Army to buy off, play off or bump off other feudal leaders, as it has always done to keep the province under control. Since Akbar Bugti had outlived many of his sons and grandsons, the Baloch rebellion faces a leadership vacuum at its highest echelon.
Does this mean the end of the Baloch insurgency? Or will the deep-seated feeling of alienation among the Baloch further intensify the armed struggle in Balochistan?
Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti had addressed this question in his May 2006 interview to Time magazine, a few months before his death: "We, the Baloch people believe that the best way to die is to die fighting. We Baloch are the masters of our own destiny. And if that is taken away from us, then life doesn’t really matter".
Amir Mir is former editor of Weekly Independent, and is now affiliated with Reuters and Gulf News. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal