It was a sunny day, as I recall, on August 27 exactly ten years ago. I had just finished breakfast and was sitting with my cousin in Pasni, in Gwadar District, when we heard the relentless chants of protesters in front of the Pasni Police Station. Pasni is a coastal town mostly inhabited by fisherman, where literacy is only about 30 percent and 40 percent of the people live below the poverty line. National politics were never a concern there, but that day an outraged crowd of men, women, and children were out en masse to protest the killing of Baloch nationalist Nawab Akbar Shahbaz Khan Bugti the day before. Bugti was killed in the bombing of a cave in Kohlu where he had taken to living, about 150 miles east of Balochistan’s capital of Quetta. This was enough to galvanize the people of Pasni to rail against the government and then-dictator General Pervez Musharraf for engineering the death of Bugti, the former governor and chief minister of Balochistan, as well as chief of the Bugti tribe.
Bugti’s death brought Balochistan to a crossroads. It reshaped the political and security arena of the province, the most impoverished in Pakistan, yet the richest in natural resources and therefore vital to sustaining the other three provinces. Balochistan has always strongly objected to the exploitative practices of the federal government, but the government prefers to view this objection as emanating from a troublesome segment of the population (ie the insurgency) that seeks complete independence – and the potential loss of national resources Islamabad is so dependent upon.
The killing of the 79-year-old chief of the Bugti tribe brought on the fifth and longest-lasting phase of the insurgency in Balochistan. It began in the rugged, mountainous region of Dera Bugti and Sui, and established a strong foothold in most of the Baloch districts, even the Makran Division, which was not directly involved in previous insurgency movements.
Akbar Bugti studied at Oxford University in London, and voted in the favor of the creation of Pakistan in the Shahi Jirga held in 1947 in Quetta. At that time, there was ongoing discussion as to whether Balochistan should accede to Pakistan or not, and Bugti favored accession. But while a staunch Pakistani, he was at the same time a Baloch nationalist. His targeted killing cemented his image as pro-independence in the eyes of many, which he was not from the beginning.
With his whitish beard and mustache, Bugti had a pensive look about him. He spent his entire life working on his own Balochi code of conduct and principles. He had a very humble personality when it came to dealing with the common people. He would rise and greet them warmly. His straightforwardness and remarkable oratory tone distinguished him from other politicians.
In 2004, he called for the establishment of a single, unified Baloch Nationalist Party and tried to unite all Balochs. But Islamabad’s intervention in Balochistan’spolitical, social, and economic matters prevented this from happening. Islamabad-Baloch relations only worsened. In 2005, General Musharraf essentially declared war on Balochistan, and specifically on Bugti. Forces came to Balochistan and besieged Derag Bugti and Kohlu.
Circumstances deteriorated even more after an attack on Musharraf on December 14, 2005. Indiscriminate bombing started in early 2006 in Dera Bugti, and a missile hit Bugti’s homewhen he was attending a jirga (public gathering). After that, the proud old Baloch moved to the mountains where he defended his homeland until August 26, when he was killed in the bombing of the hilly mountains and caves that were his hideouts, his resting places, and his defense outposts.
“Bugti was not opposed to negotiation, nor was he against the federal government, nor was he pro-independence. But it was the uncompromising attitude of the establishment that showed it was not ready to resolve the issue,” Akram Dashti told me. Dashti served as the speaker of the Balochistan Assembly in Bugti’s cabinet.
Speaking to a journalist, Bugti said in January 2005: “How can negotiations on political issues continue with the government in this situation? A military operation and negotiations cannot continue side by side. If the authorities launch an operation, then with whom will they hold negotiations?”
Senator Mushahid Hussain, who was a member of the team sent to negotiate with Akbar Bugti, once said in an interview with Al Jazeera:
We found Nawab Bugti very reasonable, amenable to negotiate, willing to discuss, willing to settle, but unfortunately, there is a mindset in Pakistan, in the Pakistani establishment, that mindset is unwilling to concede the legitimate rights of the smaller provinces, like Balochistan. I do remember the conversation with General Musharraf, when were about to clinch the settlement, there were some impediments. And he said how can we trust Bugti and how can we believe [his] intentions? I said this is not the question of intentions, it is the question of getting the things done.
However, insurgency is something that does not depend and never depended upon one individual being killed. Though it is true that Bugti’s killing marked a turning point, the insurgency had begun long before that. But his death increased the pace and gave birth to the fifth phase of the insurgency. The previous four insurgency movements were in 1948, 1958, 1968, and 1973, but ideological support increased during fifth phase.
Consequences of Bugti’s Killing
There is a huge gap between the fourth and fifth phases of insurgency in Balochistan. The fourth phase, from 1973 to 1977, did not last long. The fifth phase began in 2005-2006 and is still ongoing. More importantly, by 2006 the new generation had forgotten about past insurgent movements, but Bugti’s killing re-kindled the fire. It permeated towns and cities, extended to districts, and then to divisions.
Dashti added his unique perspective: “Baloch youth became inspired by Bugti. A big chunk of those educated declared him their hero.There is no denying the fact that during his life Bugti never spoke of independence. but his assassination nonetheless promoted it. Many young people believe that if people like Bugti,who was loyal to the state, can be killed,then who will be spared? This thinking has spread among the youth.”
Now the insurgency is not under the direction of any sardar or nawab. Instead, Makran, the intellectual hub, has become the epicenter of the insurgence, which was not the case with previous movements.
The current insurgency also views Baloch political parties like the National Party as ineffective. Political parties that believe in following parliamentary procedure have come under attack, and political figures who promote parliamentary politics have been labeled as traitors and targeted.
How to De-escalate Tensions in Balochistan
To the date, security measures only seem to exacerbate the problem because the old techniques of suppression used by the Musharraf regime continue to be used against the insurgency. The sudden “disappearance” of vocal activists (who later turn up dead) does not discourage activism; it only serves to enrage.
Ten years after the targeted killing of a man who only sought to improve the lot of his people, a better approach might be for both sides to take a lesson from Bugti and acknowledge how he lived his life – the insurgents honoring him by dropping demands for independence, and the government learning from his approach of listening to the genuine grievances of the Baloch and working to resolve them equitably. As noted journalist and president and CEO of the Balochistan Institute, a Baloch think-tank in Washington DC, Malik Siraj Akbar, suggests when contemplating the safe haven for different Taliban and extremist groups that Balochistan has become in recent years: “Baloch nationalists can be an ally in the fight against religious extremism instead of the government treating them as enemies.” And such a reasoned approach might begin to break down the paranoia that underlies government thinking, and even lead to changes in foreign policy, which could bring stability to the entire region.
Remembering the protest of the people of Pasni over the killing of Bugti ten years ago and the drastic changes the people now face in Gwadar, the epicenter of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, I can only think of Dashti’s warning and advice: “Ignoring the Baloch grievances will further escalate the tensions. CPEC is a golden opportunity for the state to prosper while addressing the complaints of the Baloch.”
Shah Meer is a fellow of the Swedish Institute and the Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations (Germany). He graduated from NUML in International Relations and researches South Asian politics, Balochistan issues, and human rights. He is from Pasni, District Gwadar, Balochistan.