Apparently in reprisal for what has been projected as firing of rockets by unidentified elements at a helicopter carrying Maj. Gen. Shujaat Zamir Dar, the Inspector-General of the Frontier Corps, and at a public meeting addressed by President Pervez Musharraf at Kohlu during his visit to Balochistan last week, the Pakistan Army has launched since December 18, 2005, a military-cum-para-military operation in the Kohlu area of Balochistan, which is the stronghold of the Marri tribe.
The reprisal attacks have involved the use of at least three Brigades-strength of the Army and the Frontier Corps and about eight helicopters .At a time when the Pakistan Army has been complaining to the UN and the international community about the shortage of helicopters for quake relief in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK) and the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), it has diverted eight of its own helicopters, which were being used for quake relief in the POK, to Balochistan for being armed and used as helicopter gunships. In addition to the use of helicopters, there have been at least two air strikes on suspected strongholds of the Marri tribe.
While details of the casualties suffered by the Marris are not yet available, reports from reliable sources in Quetta say that at least 60 members of the Marri tribe have been killed.
The members of the Marri, Mengal and Bugti tribes have been in the forefront of the revived indepedence struggle, which has been going on in Balochistan for nearly two years now. The first War of Independence of the Balochs launched immediately after the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971, was ruthlessly crushed by the late Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto, then in power, with the help of the Pakistan Army and the Air Force. The first War of Independence was fought largely by the Marri tribe led by Khair Bux Marri and the Mengal tribe led by Ataullah Khan Mengal. The Bugti tribe, led by Akbar Khan Bugti, did not join the first War of Independence.
Taking advantage of the lack of unity among the various tribes, the Pakistani Army and Air Force managed to crush the post-1971 uprising after killing hundreds of Baloch youth through air strikes. The survivors led by Khair Bux Marri and Ataullah Khan Mengal crossed over into Afghanistan and took shelter there. They returned to Pakistan after the overthrow of President Najibullah and the capture of power by the Afghan Mujahideen in April, 1992. The returnees gave up their uprising and returned to the national mainstream.
The civilian governments headed by Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif made overtures to the Baloch nationalists and managed to persuade them to give up resort to violence, despite continuing differences between Islamabad and the Baloch nationalists over questions such as genuine political autonomy for Balochistan, larger allocation of central tax revenue and development funds for Balochistan and payment of inadequate royalty for the gas found in Balochistan and taken to Punjab to sustain its economy.
The return of the Army to power under the dictatorship of President-General Pervez Musharraf on October 12, 1999, led to a gradual deterioration of the situation in the province. Amongst the reasons for this were: the traditional grievances of the Balochs over the lack of political autonomy, inadequate royalty payment for gas and lack of economic development; the construction of the Gwadar port by the Army with Chinese assistance without the involvement of the Baloch people and their government in Quetta in the decision-making relating to the port; the award of all major contracts relating to the construction of the port to companies based in Karachi and Lahore; and the re-settlement of a large number of ex-servicemen from Punjab and other parts of Pakistan in the Gwadar and the surrounding areas on the Mekran coast in order to assure the security of the new port. The fact that Pakistan's nuclear-testing site was located at Chagai in Balochistan also aggravated the grievances due to fears of long-term environmental and health damage.
This led to an organisation calling itself the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) launching a second War of Independence. For the last two years, the province has been in a state of increasing ferment due to the revived independence struggle. The BLA has been successfully indulging in tactics such as attacks on gas pipelines, electricity transmission lines, posts of the Pakistan Army and the Frontier Corps etc.
In response to the growing instability in the province, Musharraf decided to create more cantonments in the province. This aggravated the feelings of anger of the Baloch nationalists, who saw this as the prelude to a determined military attempt to suppress them.
Whereas the first Baloch War of Independence was triggered off largely by political grievances, the second War of Independence has been triggered off by a mix of political, economic and social grievances. Since the construction of the Gwadar port with Chinese assistance has been one of the important causes of the current uprising, part of the Baloch anger is also turned against the Chinese, who are perceived as collaborating with the Pakistan Army in its attempts to subjugate the Balochs.
There were some incidents of violence such as explosions directed against the Chinese engineers and other personnel working in the Gwadar project. While there is reason to believe that these incidents were the work of the Uighur nationalists fighting for the independence of Xinjiang, the Pakistan Army projected them as due to the activities of the BLA. The Army allowed the Chinese intelligence to post its officers in Gwadar to ensure the security of its nationals. It also allowed the Chinese intelligence to open a monitoring station at Gwadar to collect technical intelligence about the movements and activities of the Uighur and Baloch naionalists. The TECHINT thus collected by the Chinese is shared with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).This has added to the anger of the nationalists against the Chinese, but they have not so far specifically targeted the Chinese.
The political situation in the province has been further complicated by the re-settlement of a large number of Taliban leaders and fighters and the leaders and members of Gulbuddin Heckmatyar's Hizbe Islami in the Pashtun majority areas of Balochistan and in Quetta by the ISI. The Taliban and the Hizbe Islami remnants operating from the Pashtun majority areas of Balochistan have been mainly active against the American and Afghan troops in Afghan territory. They do not pose any threat to the Pakistani Army.
For the last one year, the Pakistan Army has strengthened its military and para-military deployment in the province. In March last, it initially started a military operation in the Bugti area, where the gas production fields, which supply gas to the Punjab, are located. The operation ended in a stalemate resulting in what was described as a gentlemen's agreement between Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, the leader of the tribe, and the Army to maintain peace and vacate each other's trenches.
Fearing that the launching of a full-scale military operation in Balochistan might result in an East Pakistan-like situation in the province, a group of pro-Musharraf political leaders headed by Chaudhry Shujjaat Hussain of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Qaide Azam) set up a parliamentary committee to enter into a dialogue with Bugti and reach a political compromise. This did not lead to any satisfactory compromise. While those negotiating on behalf of this committee were prepared to recommend to Musharraf to increase the royalty payments for the gas and to pay compensation to the Bugti tribe for the damages suffered by it in the military operation; they were not prepared to concede the demands relating to the Gwadar port.
Unlike during the first War of Independence when the lack of tribal unity enabled the Army to prevail, this time it has been confronted by a united front put up by all the three tribes. But the Army feels each tribe has joined the front for its own reasons----the Bugti tribe because of its interest in getting more royalty for the gas and the Marri and the Mengal tribes because of their feelings for independence and their resentment over the Gwadar port. The leaders of the three tribes do not seem to have worked out so far a common programme of action and a consensus on what they desire for Balochistan---greater autonomy or total independence.
In the meanwhile, a group of Baloch youths, who believe that their objective should not be anything short of independence, has constituted the BLA and taken up the fight in its hands. The Pakistan Army has launched a campaign to eradicate these youth fighting for independence. It is calculating that if it does so, the tribal elders would be more amenable to reason and reach a political compromise and give up their demands relating to Gwadar.
If the Baloch elders and youth are not alert to the machinations of Musharraf and fall into the Army trap to prevail over them once again through a policy of divide and rule, they will be repeating their historic blunder of the 1970s. They should draw inspiration from the Bangladesh struggle for independence and unite not only among themselves, but also with the Sindhi nationalists, the Shias of Gilgit and Baltistan and the people of the POK, who had seen how the Pakistan Army treated them as an expendable commodity after the recent quake in order to achieve their common objectives. Their strength will be in their unity. Disunity will be fatal.
The second Baloch War of Independence poses a moral dilemma for India. The Balochs had stood by Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress Party during the independence struggle against the British. They had opposed the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan. If India had to be partitioned, they would have preferred an independent Balochistan. The Balochs were the closest to Gandhi's heart.
Due to reasons of realpolitik, we let them down during their first War of Independence. The same realpolitik would dictate painful inaction by us now too. But that does not mean we should hesitate to draw the attention of the international community to the ruthless massacre of the Baloch nationalists by the Pakistan army. We owe our moral support to them. The struggle for an independent Balochistan is part of the unfinished agenda of the Partition.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, and, presently, Director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai.