Balochistan's history of insurgency

November 30, 2006

Pakistan's south-western province of Balochistan has been the site of an intense struggle for self-determination against the federal government. Despite the province being rich in natural resources, the Baloch remain economically marginalised and receive little benefit from development in Balochistan. In its efforts to counter the Baloch struggle, Pakistan's government has employed summary executions, disappearances, torture and indiscriminate bombing and artillery attack. The first part of this article was published in GLW #692.

The end result of the expropriation of Balochistan's natural resources and the marginalisation of Baloch from development projects is the province's low standard of living. It is the poorest province in Pakistan. According to the Social Policy and Development Centre (SPDC) in Karachi, Balochistan has the highest levels of poverty in Pakistan, nearly double that of the Punjab. Over half the population subsists below the official poverty line, less than 50% have clean drinking water, only 50% of children attend primary school and only 33% of children up to two years old have any form of immunisation. Women's literacy is the lowest in Pakistan, standing at just 7%. The federal government's 2003-04 Labour Force Survey shows urban unemployment of 12.5% in Balochistan compared to 9.7% for Pakistan as a whole. Electricity is supplied to barely 20% of the population.

The Musharraf regime has long blamed the nationalist leaders for Balochistan's underdevelopment, arguing that they are "anti-development". However, research conducted by the SPDC in 2001 shows those areas under control of nationalist leaders, such as the late Nawab Akbar Bugti, Nawab Khair Mari and Sardar Attaullah Mengal, were often better developed. A number of indicators, such as road networks, primary school enrolments, access to clean water and irrigation are often ranked higher than areas aligned to the federal government.

Balochistan's history of struggle

The Baloch have a long history of struggle against impositions by the Pakistani state. Their history, however, pre-dates the formation of Pakistan. The Baloch lay claim to a history reaching back 2000 years. In the 12th century, Mir Jalal Khan united 44 Baloch tribes; in the 15th century the Confederation of Rind Laskhari was established and the Khanate of Balochistan in the 17th.

During the British Raj, Britain annexed a strip of land adjoining Afghanistan ("British Balochistan") but beyond that did not interfere in the affairs of Balochistan so long as the Baloch allowed the British Army access to Afghanistan. The Baloch campaigned for independence during the final decades of the British Raj but were compelled to join Pakistan in 1947.

The government in Islamabad sought to subsume Baloch identity into a larger Pakistani identity. Part of its strategy was an attempt to destroy the power of the tribal chiefs and concentrate all authority in the central government. This strategy continues to this day. Even the first two constitutions of Pakistan did not recognise the Baloch as a distinct group.

Since independence, Islamabad has come into open conflict with the Baloch on four occasions — 1948, 1958, 1962, and, most bloodily, from 1973 to 1977, when a growing guerrilla movement led to an armed insurrection that ravaged the province.

Within 24 hours of the creation of Pakistan in 1947, the Khan of Kalat (the largest "princely state" in Balochistan) declared independence. On April 1, 1948, the Pakistani army invaded and the Khan capitulated. His brother, Karim, continued to resist with around 700 guerrillas but was soon crushed.

Islamabad merged the four provinces of West Pakistan into "One Unit" in 1954. This was a bid to counter the strength of East Pakistan (which later became Bangladesh) and the possibility of the minority provinces (Balochistan, North-West Frontier Province, Sindh) uniting with the east against the Punjab. A large anti-One Unit movement emerged in Balochistan.

To crush this movement the Pakistan army again invaded. The Khan of Kalat was arrested and large-scale arrests were carried out. Nauroz Khan led a resistance of 1000 militia that fought the army in pitched battles for over a year. In May 1959 Nauroz Khan was arrested at a parley with the army and died in prison in 1964, becoming a symbol of Baloch resistance. Five of his relatives, including his son, were hanged.

Following a 1973 visit of President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to Iran, where the Shah warned him against allowing nationalist movements on Iran's border, the elected government of Balochistan was dismissed. The provincial government, led by Sardar Ataulah Mengal, had been seeking greater control in areas of development and industrialisation. The pretext used for dismissal was that a cache of 350 Soviet submachine guns and 100,000 rounds of ammunition had supposedly been discovered in the Iraqi attache's house and were destined for Balochistan.

The Pakistani army invaded Balochistan with 78,000 troops supported by Iranian Cobra helicopters and were resisted by some 50,000 tribespeople. The conflict took the lives of 3300 Pakistani troops, 5300 tribespeople and thousands of civilians. In 1977 the military staged a coup and overthrew Bhutto, declared "victory" in Balochistan and withdrew.

There are distinct similarities between the period immediately prior to the 1973 insurrection and the current situation. After the 1962 conflict Baloch nationalists began planning a movement capable of defending their national interests.

Under the leadership of Sher Mohammed Marri what would later become the basic structure of the 1973 insurrection was created. In July 1963, 22 rebel camps were set up covering large areas of Balochistan, ranging from lands in the south belonging to the Mengal tribes to those of the Marris in the north. This structure later became the Baloch People's Liberation Front (BPLF) and initiated the 1973 insurrection.

The current insurgency

The groupings that underpin the current Baloch national movement emerged gradually after the 1973-77 conflict.

The Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) is a clandestine militant group that was formed in the early 1980s. It is believed to be headed by Khair Bux Marri of the Marri tribe. It has taken responsibility for most of the attacks against the Pakistan military. The BLA calls for the creation of a Greater Balochistan, including the Baloch territories in Iran and Afghanistan.

The Baloch National Party (BNP) is an amalgam of moderate forces that concentrate on winning political support for nationalism amongst the Baloch. It calls for extensive provincial autonomy, limiting the central government to control of defense, foreign affairs, currency, and communications.

The Balochistan Students Organisation (BSO) campaigns for a multinational Pakistan and for the revival of Baloch nationalism. It generally represents the aspirations of the educated but underemployed Baloch middle class. It calls for the continuation of quotas and for the recognition of the Baloch language as a medium of instruction in the province.

The Bugti tribe, formerly led by Nawab Akbar Bugti, fields a force of some 10,000 tribal fighters. The Dera Bugti district has been the site of intense operations by the Pakistan military in 2005-06.

As well as the Bugti tribe, the Mengal (the second largest tribe in Balochistan) and the Marri are in open revolt against the government. The conflict is not, however, limited to these tribal areas but spread throughout the province. There is conflict between the tribes but they are united against the Pakistani army.

Between December 2005, when the Pakistan military launched its most recent assault on Balochistan, and June 2006, more than 900 Baloch have been killed, 140,000 displaced, 450 political activists (mainly from the BNP) disappeared and 4000 activists arrested.

In late 2005-early 2006 the Pakistan military laid siege to Dera Bugti, attacking with artillery and air strikes. Many civilians were killed and 85% of the 25,000-strong population fled. The town of Kohlu also came under siege from Pakistan forces around the same time, virtually imprisoning the 12,000 inhabitants for weeks.

As well as the military attacks, the Frontier Corps (FC) has been responsible for indiscriminate rocket, artillery and helicopter gunship attacks on civilian areas. There has been widespread destruction of civilian infrastructure, including schools and houses, particularly in Dera Bugti and Sui districts. Military operations occur throughout the province.

The insurgents, however, strike back on a daily basis. Targeting military and FC personnel, gas and oil pipelines, communications infrastructure and police barracks, the insurgents launch rocket, grenade and mortar attacks. Some areas are heavily mined by the nationalist fighters.

On Pakistan TV on January 10, 2005, President Pervez Musharraf told the Baloch nationalists: "Don't push us … it is not the 1970s, and this time you won't even know what has hit you." Unfortunately for the president, it is beginning to look exactly like 1973 as the insurgency gathers strength and ties down Pakistan army divisions in guerrilla warfare.

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