Harried by the Taliban on one side and the State on the other, Balochis remain hunted in their own land, reports Qurratulain Zaman
IF YOU want to know what is happening in Pakistan’s troubled province of Balochistan, just go to Sariab Road, in its capital, Quetta. Most people who live on its 6-km stretch are Baloch. For the Hazaras, Punjabis and Pashtuns — the other groups in this multi-ethnic city — Sariab Road is ilaqaghair (a no-go area).
After crossing the railway tracks that separate Sariab Road and Quetta Cantonment — or “Pakistan”, as the Baloch nationalists call it — the first thing you notice is an army tank to welcome you, next to a chauki or fortified post. Nationalist slogans and the emblems of banned militant organisations such as the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) and the Baloch Republican Army (BRA) adorn the walls: “We want freedom from Pakistan!” “No to Gwadar port!” “Red salute to the martyrs of Balochistan!”
Vehicles of the paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC) are parked on both sides of the road. Opposite Sariab Road police station stands the new red brick building of Asaap newspaper. “Asaap” is a combination of the Balochi words for “fire” and “water.” “Our commitment to the land is so strong, we’ll cross both fire and water,” is emblazoned next to the entrance. Below, in bold letters: “If you want to know, understand, think or speak Balochistan, read Asaap.”
The building is quiet and empty. There is no furniture or human presence on the ground floor. On the first floor, Asaap’s editor, Abid Mir, is sitting in a small corner room. He is reluctant to talk. “We closed down the newspaper because of tremendous tremendous pressure and intimidation from the Pakistan government and security agencies.” The last edition of the newspaper came out on August 18. But Abid Mir still comes to the office everyday. One of the most influential Urdu newspapers in the province, Asaap has been denied government advertisements for the last four years. As there is little commerce or industry in Balochistan, few advertisements come from the private sector. Once, Asaap would publish Baloch writers and run stories about missing people. Now, Abid Mir the proud Baloch earns a living by teaching Pakistan’s national language, Urdu, at the nearby Balochistan University.
The university, which was closed for two months because of the “law and order situation,” reopened recently after Eid. Amjad, a 24 year-old former president of the Baloch Student Organisation (BSO) is one of the few students who has returned. “You feel you’ve entered a garrison, not a university,” he remarks, adding, “The FC took away 26 Baloch students last week. My friend Mujeeb was among those kidnapped. Pakistan’s security agencies have left no political option for us. They have turned all liberal forces into radicals by torturing them.”
According to him, the BSO serves as a nursery for nationalists who are in hiding or fighting in the mountains. The student leader’s father was an active member of the established Balochistan National Party (BNP), which has traditionally stood by Pakistan, demanding more rights for the Balochis. But he and his brothers advocate a “free” Balochistan. “We have convinced our father after many long fights and arguments; today, he is a radical like me.”
Amjad remembers when he was a patriotic Pakistani. As a teenager, he proudly put up a poster of Kargil war hero Captain Karnal Sher Khan. “Pakistan needs to reflect upon what made me hate Pakistan,” he says. “They make us feel like slaves. If I wear western clothes, I can move freely in Quetta city. However, if I wear my baggy Baloch salwar, I am sure to be strip-searched.”
FRIENDLY AND polite, law student Shahzeb Baloch says he was picked up by the intelligence agencies in March. “They tortured me everyday,” says Shahzeb. “During interrogation, my hands were tied and I was blindfolded. They kept accusing me of being a RAW agent and insisted that I had provided weapons to militants. Their aim is to terrorise Balochis, but after this episode I have no fear left in me. Earlier, I had 80 percent hatred for them; after my return, it’s 100 percent.” The Baloch students say that the Pakistani authorities have no idea how to tackle the militancy and that is why they started picking up politically aware students who demanded more rights.
“The BSO is a progressive student organization,” says Shahzeb. “We have no connection with militant organisations like the BLA or the BRA, but we do support them politically. That is why many of our leaders are detained by security agencies. They are trying to weaken the movement and kill the idea of azadi (freedom).”
The BSO has an active women wing, with 700 registered female members. For the offence of treason, 25-year-old Karima Baloch was fined Rs 150,000 and sentenced to three years in jail by an antiterrorist court; her appeal is pending. “Baloch women have come out to fill the gap created when our men were taken away or killed,” says Karima, who has been campaigning for missing Balochis. Her own family members have disappeared.
Advocate Kachkol Ali’s house is also on Sariab Road. Ali is well known in Quetta. He was the opposition leader in the last Provincial Assembly and represented another moderate party, the National Party (NP). In April 2009, three of his clients — well-known Baloch separatist leaders — were abducted from his office in the town of Turbat. Five days later, their mutilated corpses were found. Ali accuses Military Intelligence (MI) and the ISI of the abduction. Today, he is bitter. “We hate Pakistan so much that it is better we separate.’’
HOWEVER, A host of moderate Baloch political parties advocate more autonomy and more rights for Balochis over the huge natural resources in their province. All of them boycotted the 2008 elections. Possibly the most influential of them is the BNP’s Mengal group, which has boycotted parliamentary politics for the last decade.
The BNP demands only that which Pakistan demands for Kashmir: “We want the UN to conduct a referendum here,” says party general secretary Habib Jalib. “The people will decide whether we want to stay with Pakistan or not. We don’t demand anything from Pakistan. They have made us into a colony. But unfortunately, some Balochis are working with the colonial rulers.”
After the 2008 elections, the provincial government has been headed by the Pakistan People’s Party, with a Baloch, Aslam Raisani, as chief minister. “Separatist leaders keep demanding independence for Balochistan, just like it was demanded for Bangladesh, but we won’t let it happen,” says Suraya Ameeruddin, PPP senator from Balochistan. “Our president Asif Ali Zardari asked for forgiveness from the Balochis for the murder of Akbar Bugti and other slain leaders. It is a fact that the Balochis have been deprived of their rights. But how can we give away such a big province with so many national resources?” The PPP government has promised to bring development to the impoverished province. Says Ameeruddin, “Once these frustrated young Baloch get jobs and facilities, they’ll stop joining the ranks of the BLA or the BRA. They will stand with us.”
The Baloch Republican Party (BRP) is considered to be the political face of the underground, separatist BRA. Hundreds of BRP activists have disappeared. Party chief Brahamdagh Bugti, a grandson of Akbar Bugti, is in hiding. For many youngsters, the handsome 28-year-old Brahamdagh is a Che Guevara-like figure. Officials say he is in Afghanistan and have accused India of supporting him through its consulates there. But party leader Dr Abdul Hakeem Lehri rubbishes all claims that the movement is run by a “foreign hand”: “If Pakistan had any real evidence that India supports us, would they have spared us? Every Baloch household has a reason to fight with them. The story of a foreign hand is just to satisfy the Pakistani elite.”
Like many Baloch separatist leaders, Lehri is disillusioned and bitter. “Our fight is with the establishment in Islamabad. They think they have seven lakh soldiers. But Russia had 20,000 warheads. Do they think this rotten nuclear bomb is going to work for them? Someone is going to steal it soon anyway!”
To add to this, the Afghan Taliban’s central command is reported to be in Quetta. While the Pentagon is sure enough of their presence there to mull drone attacks on them, Pakistan has officially denied any Taliban presence in the province. However, a top security official in Quetta admits that the Afghan Taliban leaders are relaxing there. “They are in the opposition these days in their country, so they are here. If Karzai could live in Quetta for ten years, what’s wrong with it? They are not a threat to us until and unless we disturb them. American drone attacks will only provoke them,” he warns.
Malik Siraj Akbar is the bureau chief of the English national newspaper Daily Times and is intimately familiar with Balochistan and its people. He says that Islamabad has always focused on curbing Baloch nationalism and the separatist movement in the province and has ignored the influx of Taliban. “For Islamabad, a Baloch is a trouble maker and a Talib is a friend. They have always been protecting the Taliban and Afghan refugees in order to create a demographic imbalance.”
However, let alone the Baloch, local Hazaras and even Pashtuns are perturbed by the strong presence of the Taliban. Hazaras are mainly Shiites and came to Quetta because they were persecuted in Afghanistan. Now, regular targeted killings of Hazaras in the city have intimidated them.
‘If I wear my traditional Baloch clothes in Quetta city, I am sure to be strip-searched,’ says a student
One Hazara who is working with an NGO in the city says, “We can easily be identified as Hazaras by our appearance. Sunni extremists kill us because we are Shias. Every morning, I set out for work, not knowing if I will return home in the evening.”
Slain Baloch leader Nawab Akbar Bugti’s son Talal Bugti, who heads his father’s Jamhoori Watan Party (JWP), says, “The Taliban are outlaws and dacoits. I am in favour of drone attacks on them but they have been given protection by the army’s Corps Commander, Quetta.” Contrary to his nephew, the guerrilla fighter Brahamdagh, Talal Bugti and his party are agitating for more autonomy within Pakistan and a higher rent for the Bugti land under which the massive Sui gas fields lie. He however, believes that the Baloch issue will not be solved under the current dispensation. “Their bosses and godfathers in the intelligence agencies have not given them the authority. It is beyond their power to talk about our interests,” says Talal.
‘How can we give away such a large province with so many natural resources?’ asks a Pakistani senator
MUKHTAR CHALGIRI is regional director of the Strengthening Participatory Organization (SPO), a leading Pakistani NGO. “No one is as frightened by these target killings as we are, because they are targeting the educated, enlightened and progressive voices of Quetta. Some people don’t want progressive thought in Balochistan. So far, 35 intellectuals have been killed in Quetta city.”
Chalgiri says security forces and intelligence agencies have strong economic and political interests in Balochistan. And they still believe they can manage the situation. “The ISI and MI are overconfident. They say that they broke the USSR and played well in Afghanistan,” he says.
Even after a year and a half of democracy in Pakistan, Balochistan is still waiting for President Zardari’s promises to be fulfilled. The Balochs still feel that they are governed by the army and treated as second-class citizens. Their hatred for the centre and the big brother Punjab is growing. The divide between the various “nationalist” parties is being bridged by their radicalization. The calls for an independent Balochistan are getting louder, not only from feudal sardars but from the educated middle and lower middle class. But in Islamabad nobody seems to hear them as Pakistan is pre-occupied with its war in Waziristan.