Baloch nationalists fight Pakistan at polls

Stuck between bullets and ballots, residents of Balochistan are caught between separatist fighters and state forces.


    Quetta, Pakistan - As in most other parts of the country, the Pakistani government - both national and provincial - has been lambasted for failing to deliver basic governance and services to the people of Balochistan.

    In this province, however, citizens have a more pressing complaint against the state: the lack of provision of basic rights to the provinces’ ethnic Baloch (and Brahui) residents, and a sustained campaign of disappearances and killings of Baloch rights activists, allegedly carried out by the government’s intelligence agencies and the military.

    More than 2,200 Baloch citizens - Balochistan’s “disappeared” - have gone missing without a trace since 2005, says the Voice of Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP), a Baloch rights group. The bodies of more than 400 more have been found dumped, often on the side of the road, in various parts of Balochistan since 2009, the group says.

    As the country gears up for a general election, though, Baloch nationalist political parties have once again decided to enter the fold of electoral politics, after boycotting the last such polls in 2008.

    “We are accused that we do not work within democratic politics, and are simply trying to break away from the State,” Dr Jehanzeb Jamaldini, senior vice-president of the Mengal faction of the Balochistan National Party (BNP-M), told Al Jazeera. “So to try and dispel that impression, we are coming forth to take part in the elections, to be a part of the democratic process.”

    Jamaldini accuses the country’s civilian and military establishment of having created a “fake leadership” in Balochistan, to occupy seats in the provincial and national assembly and rubber stamp the State’s policies. He holds these politicians - many of whom are Baloch tribal leaders - responsible for the fact that Balochistan currently has the worst infrastructure and lowest indicators for social development (such as health and education) of any province in the federation

    There does appear, however, to be a contradiction at play in the BNP-M’s stance on these elections. On the one hand, party activists and leaders say they are determined to pursue the issue of Baloch rights through parliamentary democracy, but, on the other, leaders like Jamaldini also say they have no expectation that “the real controllers” (his term for the military and state intelligence agencies) will ever change their mindset.

    “Our establishment is deaf and dumb to the reality of the outcome of their policies,” he says. “They didn’t learn when East Pakistan gained independence as Bangladesh [in 1971], and they aren’t learning now

    “I remain pessimistic about the establishment changing its mindset. They want to bring a ‘controlled parliament’, and they especially want to squeeze and marginalise the BNP, in order to destroy its image among the people.”

    Between a rock and the rebels

    There are also two strains of Baloch nationalists: those who are operating political parties, and those who have been fighting an ongoing armed rebellion against the state since 2005, and reject the idea of elections outright.

    Baloch student activists organise at the University of Balochistan in Quetta [Asad Hashem/Al Jazeera]

    “[Armed rebel groups] have said to the political parties that they would not allow the Pakistan government to, in the name of elections, again deceive us. And we request and appeal to [the nationalists] not to take part in the elections,” says Abdul Hakeem Lehri, a central leader of the Baloch Republican Party (BRP), one of the main political parties fighting for separation from the state.

    “Of course, there is a war. In the war, there will be violence. [...] We want peace, but not at the cost of slavery,” he told Al Jazeera, when speaking of the threat posed to Baloch nationalist parties by those “in the mountains”, as the local euphemism for the numerous armed groups goes.

    “Our party believes in the independence of Balochistan. The Baloch people want to be independent and want an independent country. Because we are slaves here,” he says. “Elections are not our problem. That is Pakistan's problem. Our problem is that Pakistan must leave from here and give the power and independence to the Baloch.”

    Jamil Bugti, the son of Baloch tribal leader Nawab Akbar Bugti, who was killed (allegedly by the state) in 2006, agrees with that assessment, and feels nationalist parties have been “tricked” into accepting the writ of the state by taking part in elections.

    “Even if they form a government - I don’t think that will happen, but hypothetically speaking, let’s say it does happen - even then Balochistan’s issues will not be resolved, because […] power will not be transferred. It will be in the same hands as it has been in the last 65 years,” he told Al Jazeera. “This will be a show, to show that nationalists have come into the Baloch government through ‘free and fair elections’.

    “I have told my brother - who leads his faction of the Jamhoori Watan Party (JWP) - the same thing, that you are being trapped. That the issues will not be resolved.”

    (Talal Bugti, the brother in question, whose JWP is taking part in the polls, when asked by Al Jazeera if he agreed with his brother’s assessment said that he, too, had “no expectation that things will change for the Baloch”. “I am,” he said, “just waiting for a miracle.)

    Government response

    The government rejects accusations of having suppressed the Baloch or Baloch rights, with the provincial home secretary Akbar Durrani telling Al Jazeera that “99.9 percent of Baloch are patriotic to Pakistan […] and 0.1 percent want to take them hostage”.

    “They always say it is a handful of people [who are fighting for independence],” says Jamil Bugti. “If that is the case, why don’t you hold a referendum, under the UN? Because if you do, you’ll see that it is the other way around: 99 percent want to opt out of Pakistan.”

    “Elections,” he says, “are not the solution to the Baloch problem. The solution lies in a re-demarcation of the province”, with Pashtun-majority areas in the north allowed to decide their own fate, and those in the southern and eastern Baloch belt (including parts of present-day Punjab and Sindh provinces) allowed to choose their own path. It is a view shared by several nationalist activists Al Jazeera has spoken to.

    Between a lack of faith in the electoral process, and continuing threats from armed Baloch nationalists to those seen taking part in the elections, particularly in rural areas, a low voter turnout is expected in these polls, residents of several districts told Al Jazeera.

    “The people of Balochistan have now decided that they will not accept anything: only independence,” says Lehri, the BRP leader. “It's not just my party. The whole of Balochistan is refusing it. Either the people who are resisting, in the mountains and the cities, the Baloch Liberation Army, Baloch Republican Army or Baloch Liberation Front, or so many other groups, fighting against them. They will not recognise it.”

    Lehri lays the blame for the armed conflict squarely at the door of the state, and its policies in the province. “They say that the Baloch are fighting against Pakistan. We are not fighting against Pakistan, Pakistan is fighting against us.”

    Lashkari Raisani, a Baloch tribal leader and candidate for the provincial assembly, however, rejects that idea, instead terming the armed groups campaign of targeted killings of non-Baloch citizens in the province a “genocide”.

    Raisani, who resigned from his Senate seat last year over the issue of Baloch rights, accuses the leaders of the armed struggle for independence of being “protected” by the United Kingdom and Switzerland, and terms them “so-called nationalists”.

    “[The armed groups] are threatening us have been violating human rights conventions, they are war criminals. They are involved in the genocide of settler Balochistanis,” he told Al Jazeera at his party’s campaign office in Quetta, the provincial capital.

    “Democracy is the only way that we can come out of these crises,” he said. “We are striving towards establishing a democratic tradition. Victory has always been through a democratic and peaceful struggle. The terrorists always lose.”

    Trust deficit

    Whether democracy or the way of the gun are the routes to Baloch rights, however, all parties in the province agree that the Baloch have been deprived of their share of development, and that the situation needs addressing.

    “We are hoping some change comes with the nationalist parties,” says Hashim Khan Baloch, a 25-year-old Baloch student activist from the town of Noshki, “but we don’t see it. Even now, people are being disappeared in Makran division. In my own area I have seen people be detained by unidentified people just for electioneering.”

    Khalid Baloch, 25, a Baloch Students Organisation (BSO) activist from Kharan, says that there is some hope that, if nationalist parties win enough seats in the provincial assembly, things could “cool down”.

    “They are at least representative of us,” he said. Several activists said they were also concerned at the threat posed by armed groups to those who took part in the elections, however.

    “Before, we knew our enemies were external,” says Khan Baloch, referring to the state’s intelligence and security services. “Now the enemies are even within our midst.”

    “Those in the mountains,” says Khalid, “They don’t accept Pakistan at all. And on fundamental issues, I agree with them. Today, no Baloch has received justice from the state. Several of our students have been disappeared from outside their classes by the [paramilitary] Frontier Corps. So why would people accept Pakistan?”

    All agree, however, that it is the issue of the disappeared people, and those whose bodies have been found, that drives a push towards the armed groups’ point of view.

    The armed campaign against the state, and the state’s suppression of it, has created an atmosphere of distrust and unease, residents of Quetta and other districts alike say. Ultimately, it is this trust deficit that all nationalist forces - whether armed, taking part in the elections or boycotting them - can agree on.

    “There is a trust deficit here,” says Jamaldini, the BNP-M leader. “The government has used the Quran to bring people out to negotiate, and then killed or captured them.

    “Someone would have to be crazy to come down from the mountains to speak to them.” Raisani, Lehri and both younger and elder Bugti all endorsed that view.

    As one shopkeeper on Quetta’s Saryab road - known locally as “Gaza”, for the frequency of disappearances and violent incidents that occur in the area - put it, when asked what he thought of the nationalists’ chances at the polls this year: “I can’t speak about it. I don’t know if you are with the intelligence agencies ... and you don’t know if I am.”

    Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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