The death of Balochistan’s most powerful and defiant Baloch tribal elder, Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, continues to unleash riots, nationwide strikes and public processions across Pakistan, as the country’s military president, General Pervez Musharraf, pursues a hard-handed strategy that has so far resulted only in increasing violence.
Bugti, known as the “Tiger of Balochistan,” met his death at the hands of Pakistani military forces on 26 August in his hideout in the remote hills of the province.
The government says Bugti and some of his loyalists were killed when the cave they were hiding in collapsed after a massive explosion during clashes in the Baloch district of Kohlu.
“We did not want to kill him, but the cave collapsed during the shootout,” said military spokesman Major General Shaukat Sultan.
Observers and the Baloch people doubt the official version of the story, and the fact that the military took its time, seven days, to evacuate the chieftain’s body from the cave, only added fuel to the fire.
Only about 30 Bugti tribesmen attended the funeral at the ancestral graveyard in the town of Dera Bugti, some 245 kilometers southeast of the provincial capital, Quetta. Bugti’s family members were prevented from holding their own funeral, and refused to attend the state-organized funeral.
Cleric Maulana Malook, who led the funeral prayer under tight security, was later found dead, presumably killed by his fellow Bugti tribesmen for leading the funeral prayer on government orders.
Jamil Bugti, one of Nawab Akbar’s five sons, told ISN Security Watch in Quetta: “The body should have been handed over to us so that we could lay him to rest with honor.”
Some 10,000 mourners joined the funeral procession in Quetta city.
Bugti claimed to spearhead a militant movement to win decades-old demands for autonomy and a greater share of the province’s vast natural resources.
Spread over 350,000 square kilometers, Balochistan remains extremely underdeveloped with only marginal access to education and health facilities, even in the major towns. This is despite the fact that the strategically placed energy-rich province, bordering Afghanistan and Iran, meets 40 percent of the entire country’s natural gas needs.
Today, a sense of deprivation has taken hold of Balochistan, and appears directly proportionate with development taking place in other parts of the country, especially the most populous and neighboring Punjab province.
Over the last couple of years, a renegade army, the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), has consistently attacked gas facilities, infrastructure and security forces.
The situation took a turn for the worse when scores of rockets were fired at General Musharraf’s helicopter in the Kohlu area on 14 December last year. In response, the increasingly unpopular Musharraf, who had already escaped three attempts on his life, ordered a large-scale military operation in the volatile Baloch districts.
Ironically, Bugti’s death at the hands of the Pakistani military could very well unite more moderate Baloch politicians and the extremist BLA as both fight for rights they believe the Pakistani government has denied them for decades.
From mainstream to mountains
The 79-year-old Bugti started his political career in 1946 when he voted for the creation of Pakistan. Immediately after Pakistan was founded as an independent nation in 1947, Bugti was appointed adviser on Baloch affairs to Pakistan’s agent to the provincial governor-general.
Bugti became a formal leader by being elected to the National Assembly in May 1958. His federal credentials went a notch higher when he became minister of state for interior in the federal cabinet of then-prime minister Sir Feroz Khan Noon, but only for a few weeks.
Bugti’s first transition from the national to the nationalist began when he was arrested and convicted by a military court in 1960 for the alleged murder of a close relative. He was sentenced to death and later pardoned, but was disqualified from holding public office and prevented from contesting the 1970 general election.
After being ousted from the national political scene, Bugti decided to rehabilitate himself politically at the provincial level. To create space for himself at this level, he joined hands with then-prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, helping to remove Bhutto’s political nemeses in Balochistan. In February 1973, Bhutto appointed Bugti as governor of Balochistan, deployed the army and began a crackdown on the opposition there.
Bugti quit power acrimoniously in January 1974, heralding his slide into political hibernation by returning to the tribal system. In February 1989, he was elected the chief minister, but only to deal with a hostile leader in the center, then-prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
Bugti’s disillusionment with the federation set in when the governor dissolved the provincial assembly in August 1990, but his influence remained with caretaker provincial chief minister Humayun Khan Marri, his son-in-law.
Later, in 1993, he was elected to the National Assembly, but again the lower house of parliament was sacked by then-president Ghulam Ishaq Khan. The Oxford-educated tribal chieftain had lost faith in federation as well as politics of pragmatism.
Bugti became vociferously critical of the military dictatorship after General Musharraf assumed power in a bloodless coup on 12 October 1999. His criticism came to a boil in February last year, after Shazia Khalid, a doctor at a mineral gas refinery plant, was allegedly raped by an army captain whom Musharraf absolved of any wrongdoing. The Baloch leader vowed to seek revenge.
But Bugti’s key legacy lies in his death, and in Musharraf’s apparent miscalculation of the tribal elder’s popularity.
The root of the violence
Under the guise of developing Balochistan, General Musharraf has embarked on a number of “mega projects” in the province, but the Baloch people suspect the true intentions of these projects are less than benevolent, and as such, they were doomed from the start.
The creation of cantonments (basically military bases) in Bugti’s Sui district and the coastal area of Gawadar sparked attacks and ambushes on army convoys and government installations by Bugti’s private militia.
The construction of a deep sea port at Gawadar, a new coastal highway and lucrative mining contracts also fell under suspicion – and eventually attack.
Many Baloch nationalist leaders fear the strategic military facilities will be used by US forces against neighboring Iran, while Islamabad would pump out the region’s natural resources, fleecing the province without returning any of the profits to the people.
Several months of fierce fighting last year finally ended in a brief ceasefire when the leaders of Musharraf’s ruling party had negotiated a deal with Bugti that would have seen the Baloch people benefit, finally, from the province’s resource wealth. However, Musharraf shot down the deal, accusing Baloch insurgents of cooperating with foreign forces (money from India and safe haven in Afghanistan).
Talks were clearly over in December when rockets were fired at a rally attended by Musharraf in the province. Musharraf responded by sending the military to attack Bugti’s village.
For the military establishment, Bugti’s death may be the end of an irritating tribal leader, rebel and traitor, but for politicians across the country, the tribal chieftain was much, much more – having accomplished in death what they could not in life: uniting the Baloch nationalists and opposition politicians across the country. Bugti, thus, has become a legend for the defiant youth of the rebellious tribes.
The political fallout
One of the most important immediate outcomes of Bugti’s death was its near unanimous condemnation by all religious and political parties. Quetta and some other parts of Balochistan have witnessed unprecedented riots since the news of Bugti’s death.
Condemning Bugti’s killing, Mir Hasil Bizenjo and other Baloch leaders say the incident has whipped up resentment against the army, and that the Baloch people will never forget what they view as an outright assassination.
“The killing of Nawab Bugti has further widened the gulf between the Balochs and the government,” the Khan of Kalat, Mir Suleman Daud, told ISN Security Watch in Quetta.
Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao told a press conference last week in Islamabad that the army operation would continue against the renegade Baloch army and other anti-state elements.
The Pakistani army refuses to deal with Balochistan on a political level, seeing it as an administrative issue that can easily be resolved by the use of force. Limited access provided to the media and human rights groups further undermines the credibility of official claims of silencing a few enemy-aided miscreants as the government seeks to embark on mega projects in the gas-rich region that are ostensibly geared toward local socio-economic development.
Though the Balochistan National Party-Mengal (BNP-M) last week resigned from the assemblies and the Senate in protest against the killing of Bugti and the ongoing military action, the political parties likely will seek more mileage, and their anger is more directed against Musharraf’s military rule in Pakistan than for greater autonomy for the Baloch people.
The bigger issues facing the Pakistani government involve elimination of isolation by provision of better infrastructure and more jobs, particularly in the so-called mega projects. In the meantime, violence could affect the country’s economic growth, as continued attacks on petroleum and natural gas pipelines are not likely to be halted by military action.
General Musharraf and his army are facing the worst ever media assault and political criticism in the wake of his aggressive sound bites coupled with miscalculated use of force. Still, there is no indication that Musharraf is ready to soften his tone and adopt a different strategy – one that would allow for a greater Baloch voice in the provincial government.
With the death of Bugti, the leadership vacuum is likely to fill up quicker than expected, particularly through the youth, and all the signs point to a rebellion that is only growing in boldness and ferocity.
Attacks have continued, unabated, and have increased since Bugti’s death. On Sunday, an attack on transmission lines cut off power supplies to 15 of Balochistan’s 29 districts. On Monday, a bomb exploded near the post office and intelligence office in the town of Kharan, damaging the buildings but resulting in no human casualties.
For the past three years, gas pipelines, productions sites, army installations and railroads have been attacked with increasing bravado as Musharraf has sought to solve the “Baloch problem” through sheer use of force.
But the bottom line is, Pakistan cannot escape “terrorism” in its own backyard without addressing its root causes.