The Problem of Baloch Insurgency

By Muhammad Suleman Khan – Research Associate

April 16, 2019

Balochistan has been in turmoil since Pakistan’s creation. A desperately underdeveloped region that makes up nearly half of the country, Balochistan province has seen insurgencies for almost 70 years, with the first round beginning following the accession of the ‘State of Kalat’ with Pakistan in 1948. The province has undergone four phases of insurgency in the past (1948, 1958, 1962, and 1973). And a fifth (and current) phase is ongoing. Several insurgent groups such as the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), Baloch Liberation Front (BLF), Baloch Republican Army (BRA), and United Baloch Army (UBA) have managed to perpetuate low-intensity insurgency, targeting government installations like electric pylons, railway tracks, etc and ambushing security forces convoys in the mountainous regions. Successive governments have suppressed the uprisings with the use of force and sometimes with attempts of negotiations with the indignant Baloch leaders.

The Shujaat-Mushahid sub-committee made a number of recommendations to the federal government, but they were never implemented.

The First Phase (Apr 1948-Sep 1948): The first phase of insurgency was triggered by the accession of the State of Kalat with Pakistan. In April 1948, Pakistan sent in the army to force Mir Ahmed Yar Khan – the Khan of Kalat – to sign the instrument of accession after the Khan had expressed desire for Kalat to remain free of a central rule. The Khan’s brother Abdul Karim who was the governor of Mekran fled to Dhadar area of Balochistan and later in May 1948 launched a separatist movement from his base in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Karim was finally arrested along with 142 of his followers in Sep 1948. They were condemned to 10 years in prison and fine.

The Second Phase (1958-1959): Seeing the political turmoil in the country, the Khan of Kalat sought to avenge the loss of his state’s independence and declared revolt against the central government in Oct 1958. The revolt was instantly crushed by military operation and the Khan was arrested. However, Khan’s close aide Nawab Noroz Khan fled to the mountains and started a guerilla insurgency for the restoration of the former Kalat State and release of the Khan of Kalat. In the battle with the security forces, the insurgents suffered heavy losses and Noroz Khan and many of his followers were arrested. They were tried in a military court and sentenced to life in prison. Noroz died four years later in Kohlu prison.

The Third Phase (1962-1969): Following the arrest and trial of Noroz Khan, Baloch insurgency subsided temporarily and a period of relative calm ensued in Balochistan. However, the political temperature shot again after the federal government removed the traditional tribal leaders of the major Baloch tribes such as Marri, Bugti, and Mengal and replaced them with its handpicked ones in 1962. The move was extremely resented by the Baloch who took it as an insult to themselves and their Sardars. They murdered the chieftains installed by the government and took up arms against the government. Consequently, the government launched a military operation to subdue the uprising which was led by Sher Mohammad Marri.

This phase of the insurgency witnessed the formation of the Baloch Students Organization (BSO) in educational institutions and the induction of Baloch youth in insurgent groups. In the meanwhile, the insurgents continued their sabotage activities, bombing railway tracks, ambushing security convoys, and looting police posts. The government adopted a dual policy of force and reconciliation to deal with the problem. Many Baloch leaders were released from prisons. But the insurgency problem persisted. However, in 1969, the Baloch insurgency began to subside due to the changing political scenario in the country and the end of the One Unit. Balochistan was given the status of fourth province of Pakistan in 1970.

The Fourth Phase (1973-1977): During the early 1970s, Pakistan was going through a period of unprecedented crisis triggered by the breakup of the country in Dec 1971. The country was in a state of shock. In Balochistan, the political landscape was dominated by the National Awami Party (NAP) led by prominent Baloch leaders. The NAP demanded greater say in provincial matters, while the newly elected President, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, refused to talk to NAP leaders.

Subsequently, Bhutto removed Balochistan’s chief minister and governor along with some members of the national and provincial assemblies. This rather autocratic move angered the Baloch who started agitation against the federal government. Bhutto employed force to calm the situation which backfired and finally the government had to launch a full-fledged military operation in 1973-74 to control the situation. The operation led to heavy casualties on both sides. The insurgents withdrew after Bhutto was overthrown in a military coup staged by General Zia-ul-Haq. Zia imposed martial law which marked the end of the fourth phase of Baloch insurgency.

The Fifth Phase (2004-present):  The fifth and current phase of insurgency was initially led by Akbar Khan Bugti and Mir Balach Marri. On Sep 22, 2004, Akbar Bugti presented 15-point demands to Tariq Aziz, Secretary General of the National Security Council and President Musharraf’s personal aide, to address the grievances of Balochistan. Some prominent demands included provincial autonomy, Baloch ownership and management of natural resources, greater control over province’s executive and financial matters and revenue, shifting of Balochistan mega projects to provincial authority especially the Gwadar Port, end of further planning for military cantonments in the province, etc. By 2004, an estimated 500 Chinese nationals were working on the construction of the Gwadar Port. The Baloch fear the influx of foreigners to Gwadar would turn the local Baloch population into a minority. In May 2004, the BLA killed three Chinese workers in Gwadar. Few days later, the Gwadar Port was attacked with rockets.

The federal government made efforts to address the concerns and grievances of the Baloch people by forming committees to take up the issues with the Baloch. In Sep 2004, a sub-committee headed by PMLQ leaders Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and Mushahid Hussain Syed were tasked to negotiate with Baloch leaders notably Nawab Akbar Bugti whose area was worst-hit by insurgency. Another sub-committee, headed by Waseem Sajjad, was to deliberate on the question of provincial autonomy. The talks covered a number of subjects from confidence building measures to provincial autonomy and other grievances. The Shujaat-Mushahid sub-committee made a number of recommendations to the federal government, but they were never implemented.

Consequently, armed conflict resumed once again and Baloch militants began attacking military and civilian targets. On Dec 14, 2005, the Baloch insurgents fired rockets at a gathering in Kohlu where President Pervez Musharraf was addressing an audience of local leaders and state officials, though everyone remained safe. Earlier, the deputy chief of the Frontier Corps, Saleem Nawaz, was injured after his helicopter was fired at by militants in the same district. Another issue in Jan 2005 that served as fuel to the fire was the allegation that an army captain had raped a female doctor Dr. Shazia Khalid who worked at a hospital in Sui area of Balochistan. The government set up a fact-finding tribunal to resolve the issue. However, it could not pacify the Baloch who demanded justice for Dr. Shazia. Talking to BBC, Akbar Bugti accused the government of pressurizing the victim into silence in order to save the officer.

The insurgency intensified as the government and the Baloch leaders failed to reach a consensus over the former’s demands. On August 26, 2006, Akbar Bugti along with 37 other rebels was killed on the hills of Dera Bugti in a military operation. The province witnessed a severe backlash to Bugti’s death, as violent protests spread on the streets across Balochistan. In Nov 2007, Balach Marri, a Baloch militant leader who had fled to Afghanistan following Bugti’s killing, was also killed mysteriously in Gramshar, Afghanistan. Balach was thought to be the head of BLA. Like Bugti’s death, the killing of Balach intensified sabotage activities by Baloch insurgents.

Pakistan has repeatedly accused New Delhi of fomenting unrest in Balochistan from Afghan soil. Many Pakistani analysts believe the plethora of Indian consulates in Afghanistan is used to support the Baloch rebels. Pakistan’s stance gained credence after India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a reference to the Baloch insurgency in Pakistan during his independence day speech on August 15, 2016. Pakistan responded by saying that Modi’s statement confirmed India’s role in Balochistan. Foreign Affairs Advisor Sartaj Aziz said, “PM Modi’s reference to Balochistan, which is an integral part of Pakistan, only proves Pakistan’s contention that India through intelligence agency RAW has been fomenting terrorism in Balochistan”. On the other hand, the United States refused to support Narendra Modi’s position on Balochistan. On Sep 15, 2016, US State Department spokesman John Kirby said the United States respects the unity and territorial integrity of Pakistan and does not support independence for Balochistan. Earlier in March 2016, Pakistan had also arrested an Indian intelligence operative Kulbushan Jhadav from Balochistan. Jhadav confessed to having been involved in subversive activities in the province. Following Jhadav’s arrest, Pakistan army spokesman General Asim Bajwa said, “there can be no clearer evidence of Indian interference in Pakistan”.

The grievances of the Baloch are as old as Pakistan itself. Right after the accession of the State of Kalat with Pakistan, the Baloch took up arms and demanded the restoration of the independent status of the former Kalat State. For the obvious reasons of national security and territorial integrity, the federal government rejected the insurgents’ demand. The independent and semi-independent princely states were left with little choice but to join either Pakistan or India in the wake of British withdrawal in 1947. In India, the security forces invaded the independent State of Hyderabad and forced the Nizam to sign the instrument of accession in Sep 1948.

The initial periods of Baloch insurgencies revolved around the restoration of the State of Kalat. However, later these demands morphed into calls for provincial autonomy and greater control over the province’s natural resources. During the early 1970s, the Baloch demanded more representation in the government which did not sit well with Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. In Feb 1973, the police seized a consignment of Iraqi diplomatic pouches containing arms, ammunition, and guerilla warfare materials. Pakistan authorities claimed these arms were en route to Baloch insurgents. Citing treason, Bhutto dismissed the provincial government of Balochistan and imposed governor’s rule. Bhutto’s autocratic approach triggered another wave of Baloch insurgency that lasted for years. After Zia-ul-Haq took over, he appointed General Rahimuddin Khan as Balochistan governor under his martial law regime. Khan announced general amnesty for the Baloch militants willing to give up arms. He also oversaw military’s withdrawal from Balochistan. Gradually, the insurgency died down.

The current phase of insurgency began with the decades-old demands of provincial autonomy, greater representation in the federation, and more control over Balochistan’s natural resources, etc. The Shujaat-Mushahid sub-committee had recommended that Balochistan be given greater share in the gas profits and more jobs in the exploration of natural resources. Likewise, it asked the federal government to pay Balochistan’s arrears amounting to $100m. The Musharraf regime, of course, implemented none of the recommendations. Instead, it took up the military option which pushed the province into more chaos and instability.

Responding to the rocket attacks in Kohlu in 2005, military ruler Pervez Musharraf had reportedly warned the insurgents that “don’t push us, it isn’t the 1970s when you can hit and run and hide in the mountains. This time you won‘t even know what hit you” Following Musharraf’s warning, Baloch leader and former Balochistan chief minister, Sardar Mengal, replied in the same tone. In an interview to the Newsline Magazine in 2005, Mengal said, “It is not the 70’s for us; it is also not the 70s for them. If there is any change, it will be for all. If we have to face severe consequences of change, then they will also not be in a comfortable position”.

In 2008, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) came into power after winning the general elections. The PPP inherited as Musharraf legacy the problem of Baloch insurgency. The elected government declared peace and reconciliation with the Baloch as one of its top priorities. The 18th Constitutional Amendment was passed that extended greater autonomy to the provinces. The PPP government promised to commit its first hundreds days to resolving the Balochistan problem through talks. In 2009, after months of deliberations, the government announced the Balochistan Package that sought to alleviate the Baloch people’s grievances.

The Package included the return of political exiles, the liberation of jailed Baloch political activists, the army’s withdrawal from some key areas, a reform of the federal resources allocation mechanism, efforts to create jobs, and greater provincial control of Balochistan’s resources. In 2010 Islamabad doubled Balochistan’s budget and immediately released an additional $140 million to the provincial government to settle outstanding natural gas revenue debts. However, the so-called Package failed to impress the Baloch. Commenting on the Package, a daily Dawn editorial of Dec 21, 2009, wrote the following,

“The belated and half-hearted olive branch offered by Islamabad’s weak-kneed political establishment has been unanimously rejected by Baloch nationalists. In fact, the crisis of confidence between the Baloch and Islamabad is one of the major reasons for the strong reaction from Balochistan with regard to Islamabad’s unattractive and impractical ‘package’. The Baloch people believe they have been repeatedly betrayed by the establishment, and there is no way to trust Islamabad’s unilateral offer without firm internal and external guarantees.”  

Despite efforts by Islamabad to alleviate the grievances of the Baloch people, the issue of insurgency continues to date. In recent years, the Baloch have expressed concerns over the Pakistan China Economic Corridor (CPEC) – the trade route that culminates in Gwadar Port of Balochistan. Baloch insurgent groups have been attacking laborers and construction sites, creating delays and issues in the completion and safety of the project. On Nov 23 2018, BLA attacked a Chinese consulate in Karachi in which three policemen and two civilians were killed. No Chinese national was hurt in the attack. The government has responded to the Baloch insurgency largely with force. Little meaningful efforts have been made to bring the disgruntled Baloch to the mainstream. The issue of missing persons lingers on. Though the government recently released many suspected militants who had been missing for years, yet the whereabouts of many more are still unknown. The province is rich in natural resources, yet one of the most backward in South Asia.

Balochistan’s former chief minister, Dr. Abdul Malik, has been credited for making reconciliatory efforts to address the Baloch people’s grievances. He was of the view that civil military authorities must work together for peace in Balochistan. He also urged for the resolution of missing persons and the rehabilitation of people who were displaced due to military operations. According to Dr. Malik, he was in contact with Baloch leadership abroad throughout his tenure as chief minister. It is believed that at some point Dr. Malik almost convinced Brahmdagh Bugti, the grandson of Akbar Bugti and an insurgent leader, to end his self-imposed exile in Switzerland and return to Pakistan. However, he did not return and later reportedly sought asylum in India.

Political issues have political solutions. Balochistan has a political problem and should be resolved politically. Currently, there is a crisis of trust between Islamabad and the Baloch people. The government must go beyond statements and lofty promises and take practical steps to address the genuine grievances of the Baloch people. The province must be given just and rightful shares in the natural resources. The formula for gas royalties must be updated to reflect the current values in the market. Besides, the federal government and the military establishment should refrain from intervening in the political affairs of the province and let the people of Balochistan elect their leaders through free, fair, and transparent ballot.

In addition, the fruits of the multi-billion dollar China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) must reach the people of Balochistan.  The Baloch must be taken on board with regard to the CPEC mega projects. The government should practically assure the Baloch that the project will not undermine the local population and the local population will be given priority in terms of jobs in the projects in Balochistan. Training and skills development programs should be introduced to enhance the skills of Baloch youth so as to make them eligible for the demands of the job market.

The Balochistan government expressed outrage recently over the findings of its Planning and Development Department that two of the largest projects under CPEC – the Quetta Mass Transit and the Quetta Water Supply scheme from Pat Feeder canal – were to be financed by the Balochistan government. Originally, the two projects were supposed to be funded under the CPEC. On the other hand, the Orange Line Metro Train in Lahore was included in the high-priority CPEC projects. Such discriminations in the CPEC projects would undoubtedly widen the trust deficit between Islamabad and Balochistan.

Pakistan has been branding the CPEC as a game changer for the country and the wider region. Balochistan constitutes the most critical part of the corridor as the “jewel of the CPEC” the Gwadar Port is situated here. The project can transform the lives of the Baloch people and alleviate poverty in the region. The local population should no longer be a mere bystander in the CPEC-related economic activities. They must be made active stakeholders. The labor force for the mega projects should be drawn from within the province. And most importantly, the federal government must address the longstanding grievances of the Baloch people and bring the insurgents to the mainstream by giving them amnesty and jobs. If the government can contemplate a plan for the mainstreaming of the religious extremists, why a similar plan cannot be worked out for the Baloch insurgents who shun violence? Pakistan expects a positive economic transformation once the CPEC is completed. However, with trouble continuing in Balochistan, it would be challenging to realize the dream of the promised economic prosperity.

– Image credit: Reuters

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