By Amir Mateen

QUETTA: Violence is no longer an abstract word in Balochistan’s capital city. It is a dreaded reality and one so close and deadly that you can see it writ large on the faces of people in the bazaars of Quetta, what to speak of other areas which were never known for any admirable writ of the state.

Walking through the markets here one cannot help noticing that people no longer look into the eyes of another for the fear of the unsaid, the unknown, the deadly. Nobody even strikes a real conversation without first judging the other’s ethnicity, sect and political ideology. Violence has impacted life in every way, right down to what you wear. Trousers are out, because anyone wearing one would be deemed as a settler or Punjabi and more likely to be gunned down than someone sporting a traditional shalwar qameez. People are painfully careful about the choice of words and delivery of their dialect in a clear attempt to protect their identity. Festivity on weddings and other social occasions has become a rarity, if ever. People avoid gatherings lest they become targets of bomb explosions.

Quetta’s bowl-like geography is such that a firing or explosion in one part of the city can, in most cases, be heard all over the city. This in turn unleashes rumour factories that push the city’s panic button. Mothers can be seen rushing to schools, fathers back home to protect their families, shutters come down like clockwork while the legions of the young unemployed youth get out to watch or to be part of some action of tyre-burning or stone-pelting. Meanwhile, in the nearby Quetta Cantonment, the officers, particularly those likely to be promoted as generals at the Staff and Command College, receive calls from families and friends pleading them not to send children into the wilderness outside their safer confines.

For the rest of the country, particularly in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi, such events happening here merit a mere single-column news on inside pages, a momentary blot or a crawling scroll on news channels and life goes on as this picture is not reflected in the national news media as much or as often as it should. One big reason being the ‘small’ local journalists’ fear of writing too much about it. They can name names of the people involved in most crimes but only in private. Almost all journalist colleagues requested anonymity while talking about the issue. A senior journalist in Quetta was candid enough to say: “You can afford to write or talk about this because you don’t live here whereas we can lose a limb or life for saying a lot less.”

In most schools in Quetta’s Baloch localities, Pakistani anthem is not allowed to be recited or the national flag to be hoisted. Many have been forbidden from teaching Pakistan Studies as a subject. Only recently, five Baloch youngsters turned up at the St. Mary’s Convent to burn the national flag, and it’s happening all over. Anti-Pakistan separatist slogans are chalked on walls anywhere you traverse in the northern parts in what is known as Jhalawan or the southern Baloch territory of Sarawan.

Yet, many believe that while the situation may be dreary it still cannot be compared with earlier Baloch insurgencies. “Most of the action is sporadic symbolism than concrete political realities on ground,” says analyst Noor Kakar. “It is more anarchy than an insurgency.” The present spate of violence is different from the earlier insurgencies in many ways. One, the present phase does not have the class of leadership in terms of experience, organisation, unity and respect. The first three Baloch conflicts in 1948, 1958 and the 1960s were relatively smaller than the major insurgency of the 1970s but the leadership then was revered by the insurgents.

Prince Abdul Karim Khan had the credentials to gather nationalists of those days for the ‘greater Balochistan’ after his brother Mir Ahmad Yar, the Khan of Kalat, signed accession that the nationalists claim was forced on him. In the end it took no more than a small army battalion to quell the rebellion.

In the 1958 insurgency, Nawab Nowroze Khan was highly revered by his followers who took up arms against the formation of West Pakistan as one unit. In the end, five of his family members were hanged for killing Pakistani troops and the Nawab also died in captivity. Sher Mohammad Marri was perhaps the ablest Baloch leader to lead the insurgency from 1963 to 1969. The initial provocations for the insurgency were the army bases that were built in the Baloch area but later ballooned into a larger movement for the Baloch rights on mineral resources and independence. General Sherov, as he was called, raised parallel posts across the 445 mile Baloch belt giving the Pakistani establishment tough time until General Yahya Khan abolished the One Unit.

The Parrari movement of the 1970s is listed among the top 10 wars in the 20th century in terms of the casualties that the Pakistan Army suffered at the hands of the Baloch insurgents led by Nawab Khair Bux Marri. He had the support of most major Baloch leaders of the time, except Nawab Akbar Bugti who, nationalists believed, stabbed the movement in the back by becoming the governor after Sardar Attaullah Mengal resigned in protest against the dissolution of the National Awami Party government in NWFP (now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa).

The present conflict is hardly a comparison by any standard. The most prominent leader of the Balochistan Republican Party and its militant wing, Brahamdagh Bugti is too young and inexperienced to match his predecessors. He has to first get himself accepted from his own Bugti tribe as a tribal chief and from his rival cousins and uncles. He may have gone too far in his relationship with the Indians and in times that are different from the 1970s. The Baloch leadership stands divided on the issue. Khair Bux Marri stands on one extreme in his support for armed insurgency. The incorrigible Nawab is too old and isolated to lead. While Balaach Marri died in mysterious circumstances, none of his other sons have an iota of their father’s charisma. Attaullah Mengal may support the movement morally but he stayed out of action even during the 1970s insurgency. His son, former Chief Minister Akhtar Mengal, is angry for being imprisoned and tortured by the previous regime but his faction of Balochistan National Party is still reluctant to support the separatists openly. Others like the National Party led by Dr Maalick too remains committed to work within the federation of Pakistan.

The rebel groups in the field are such a hotchpotch that it is as difficult to keep a track of them as to know who is sponsored by whom. A hotchpotch of rebel groups exists including Baloch Liberation Army, Baloch Liberation United Front and Baloch Massallah Daffah Army. They seem to all work on their own agendas, often at variant with each other. The organisation, unity and the support in the masses are no match to the earlier insurgencies.

Most important, times may have changed a lot. The Pashtun factor and the rise of the clergy in Balochistan cannot be ignored. A sizeable section of Baloch nationalists, even if they are angry over what they believe is the exploitation of Islamabad, will agree that an independent Balochistan or new states are not possible in this day and age. Afghanistan may be harbouring Brahamdagh but it is not like the Afghanistan support of the insurgency in the 1970s. “All we want is a better and a fairer deal from the establishment,” says JWP Secretary General Rauf Khan Sasoli. “Is this asking for too much?”.

For a change, unlike the 1970s or even the Musharraf regime, Islamabad is more receptive to the demands of Balochistan. The problem is that Islamabad has no idea who to give what and how to appease the angry nationalists. There are serious flaws in the administrative and political set-up to execute the agenda even if every demand of the nationalists is accepted. Politicians need to do more than issue statements and the army more open minded than it has been so far. (continued).

The News

July 26, 2010