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Silencing the Moderate Voice in Balochistan

by Rashed Rahman, 25 July 2010

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The Indian Express, 16 July 2010

The assassination of the moderate nationalist, Secretary-General of the Balochistan National Party-Mengal (BNP-M), Habib Jalib Baloch, in broad daylight in Quetta reflects what may be an emerging pattern in the conflict-ridden, largest but poorest province of Pakistan. Three days before Jalib’s death, the assassination of another moderate nationalist leader, Maula Bux Dasti of the National Party, proved to be a portent of things to come.

Balochistan exploded in the aftermath of Jalib’s death, enveloped in protest, clashes with police, and followed by a complete shutter-down strike. The BNP-M has declared 40 days of mourning and a three-day strike in memory of their martyred leader.

Balochistan has been subjected to military suppression since Pakistan came into being. The 1948 accession of the province to Pakistan was obtained under duress from the Khan of Kalat, the head of the Baloch tribal confederacy. Revolts took place in 1948, 1958-62, 1963-69 and then in 1973-77. The last insurgency, like the others, ended in a military stalemate, general amnesty for the rebels and political compromise with the Centre. In its wake, the moderate tendency amongst the Baloch nationalists, of which Jalib was a part, won the day and dominated the nationalist discourse for the next 25 years, having convinced the Baloch people that armed struggle was not the way and that the parliamentary road would yield better results by fighting politically for the province’s rights within the federation. However, the results of this peaceful political engagement only led to greater frustration, despite moderate nationalists being elected to the Provincial Assembly and even forming governments. None of the issues agitating Balochistan since 1947, foremost amongst them being control of their natural resources—gas, arguably undiscovered oil, coastal potential and minerals—were even remotely addressed, except as lip-service.

Frustration amongst a new generation finally boiled over and a fresh guerrilla struggle broke out in the mountains of Balochistan in 2002. This low level, sputtering insurgency, the fifth since 1947, received an exponential fillip when Nawab Akbar Bugti, a pro-federation chief of the Bugti tribe (one of the two largest tribes, the Marris and Bugtis), was killed by the Musharraf regime. Following this development, Balaach Marri, the son of longtime nationalist leader and chief of the Marri tribe, Nawab Khair Buksh Marri, was also killed in suspicious and unexplained circumstances near the Afghanistan-Balochistan border. His body was never recovered, while that of Bugti was buried hastily in a sealed coffin without even being shown to his family. These killings came against the continuing backdrop of ‘disappearances’ of nationalist dissidents, who form the bulk of the ‘missing persons’ conundrum currently before the Supreme Court in a case that promises no closure because the intelligence agencies, suspected of responsibility for these disappearance, refuse to cooperate or divulge the whereabouts of the thousands of ‘disappeared’.

One such prominent but moderate dissident was Habib Jalib, who emerged as a student leader during the 1970s. He was subsequently forced into exile in the erstwhile Soviet Union because of the repression of the Zia-ul-Haq military dictatorship. Upon his return after Zia met his maker, Jalib practised law with emphasis on human rights law and the question of the ‘disappeared’. He was a thorn in the side of the authorities in Balochistan for his impassioned oratory and courageous advocacy of the ‘missing persons’ as well as the rights of his people.

His death is a grievous blow to the moderate nationalist cause, apart from being a tragedy of great proportions.

Jalib’s assassination is likely to strengthen the appeal of the insurgents and the armed struggle school amongst the Baloch nationalists. If the pattern of disappearances (reports of torture camps and worse have been filtering into the Pakistani media sporadically) and now, assassinations, of prominent Baloch nationalists becomes a fact, even moderate nationalists will be compelled to revisit their faith in parlia-mentary politics to wrest their rights within the state of Pakistan. Militant trends, including armed struggle, will probably achieve greater resonance amongst the Baloch youth, and separatist sentiment, which was not universally the anthem of the nationalists, may overtake all other political tendencies in the province.

The logic of repression and the inability of the state to address the essentially political problems in Balochistan in a political manner rather than through heavy-handed military means will ensure the destruction of the bonds that still tenuously bind Balochistan to the rest of the country, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, and all in the name of saving Pakistan. A classic short-sighted case of cutting off the nose to spite the face, this.

The author is the editor-in-chief of Daily Times, Pakistan.