The Balochistan Quagmire

BanerjiPakistan’s largest province, Balochistan, spanning a total area of 347,190 square kilometres and having land borders with Afghanistan and Iran, has forever proven to be Pakistan’s soft under-belly. Its longest running insurgency, which spouted in 1947, is still simmering and poses difficult problems of reconciliation, which have been conveniently shrugged off by stoking the canard of “the ubiquitous Indian hand”.

Baluch nationalism, rooted in demands for a separate status from colonial times, has seen severe repression during five phases of ethnic insurgency – in 1948, 1955-58, 1973 and now, since 2006. The Pakistani military establishment has ruthlessly suppressed Baloch nationalism while offering carrots to co-opt Baloch feudal elites into governance.

Immediately following Partition, Mir Ahmed Yar Khan, the Khan of Kalat, the ancient town in Balochistan, claimed independence and refused to join Pakistan. After many attempts to negotiate a diplomatic solution, the Pakistan Army marched on Kalat, on April 1, 1948. The younger Kalat prince, Abdul Karim took up arms and fled to the mountains across the border in Afghanistan with 700 men. After a few months of guerrilla warfare, he was persuaded to return and agreed to lay down arms. The government broke the amnesty agreement, captured and imprisoned Karim. This was the first of many broken agreements between the government of Pakistan and the Baloch people.

The second outbreak of violence in Balochistan occurred in response to 1955 “One Unit” plan – the merging of four unwieldy sections of West Pakistan into one. The Baloch saw this as an affront to the little remaining power they enjoyed at the provincial level and revolted. In October 1958, the Pakistan Army once again marched on Kalat. Nauroz Khan, Sardar of the Zehri tribe led a guerrilla war, which enjoyed wider support. The insurgency grinded on for over a year. After talks, Nauroz Khan agreed to lay down arms in exchange for amnesty. Again the government reneged and arrested, then hanged for treason Nauroz Khan along with his son and five of his commanders.

In 1960, the Pakistan Army increased its cantonments in Balochistan, which triggered a fresh flare up. Sher Mohammad Marri led this phase of the insurgency, raising a guerrilla army consisting of Marri, Mengal, and Bugti tribals, who controlled 117,000 square kilometres of land in their respective tribal areas.

In 1969, General Yahya Khan rescinded the “One Unit” policy. As a result, the fighting died down. Sher Mohammad agreed to a ceasefire in 1970 and the status of a “Province” was given to Balochistan.

The bloodiest of uprisings occurred from 1973 until 1978. The National Awami Party (NAP), which had been banned earlier, won the 1972 elections in Balochistan. However, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto soon dismissed the NAP government on charges of alleged collusion with the Soviet Union, publicising the capture of weapons and ammunition from the residence of an Iraqi military attache in Islamabad as evidence. Nawab Akbar Bugti was appointed governor of the province, driving a wedge between the Bugtis and the numerically more populous Marris and Mengals.

Khair Baksh Marri organised Baloch resistance under the banner of the Baloch People’s Liberation Front (BPLF). By 1974, the insurgents had control of most of the ground lines of communication entering the province from the east, including the railway, which connected Balochistan with Punjab.

Pakistan Army troops, numbering 80,000, moved into Balochistan during the peak of this counter-insurgency operation, which was led by General Tikka Khan, newly appointed army chief and his local deputy, Lieutenant General Azmat Baksh Awan. Elite commando units of the Special Services Group (SSG) used heavy-handed tactics to find and destroy the insurgents, causing significant collateral damage. A decisive battle was fought in Marri territory on the plains of Chamalang in the northeast, using AH-1 Huey Cobra attack helicopters supplied by Iran. The Baloch fought valiantly but were forced to retreat to the mountains when they ran out of ammunition. The insurgency suffered a major setback but conservative accounts assessed the army took 3,300 casualties and the Baloch lost 5,300 fighters.

Indiscriminate killing of both Baluch and Punjabi settlers in the provinces began to occur with sickening frequency during the early 21st century. This included Hazara pogroms by Sunni fanatics, to which the state seemed to turn a blind eye. When Habib Jalib Baloch, a prominent Baluch National Party activist and former senator was shot dead by unknown gunmen in Quetta in July, 2010, perceptive analysts in Pakistan ruefully recalled poetry penned by his more famous namesake, Habib Jalib, who migrated from India and suffered long incarceration during Zia ul Haq’s Martial Law: “Mujhe jang-eazadi ka maza maloom hai/Baluchon par zulm ki inteha maloom hai/Mujhe zindagi bhar Pakistan mein jeene ki dua na do/Mujhe Pakistan mein saat saal jeene ki sazaa maloom hai” (I know the thrills of fighting for independence, I know of the extremes of atrocity foisted on the Baloch; Do not pray that I live for ever in Pakistan, as I know what punishment living for 60 years in Pakistan has been for me!)

The Afghan Tribune | Rana Banerji | Published: November 02, 2015 05:18 PM

The author is former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India.

This article originally appeared on  The Mumbai Mirror.

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  • Nov 3, 2015 at 1:46 pm

    Very nice always follow suit.