Saturday, April 18, 2009

Balochistan: Authority stamped? By Syed Shahid Husain

Balochistan: Authority stamped? By Syed Shahid Husain [Former Chief Secretary Balochistan]. Welcome to a generous selection of articles from DAWN's Weekly Magazine. This page is updated every Sunday. . This article appeared in 2006.

Late. Sardar Akbar Bugti

Akbar Bugti’s death may provide satisfaction to some vengeful souls, but they know not what is afoot. The nawab may have been guilty of many crimes, including murders, but he died a brave man fighting and has left an indelible mark on the psyche of the people of Balochistan as a leader who fought for their rights against an exploitative establishment

They hunted him down and killed him mercilessly. Circumstances are getting murkier by the day. Killing one’s own people and bowing before foreign powers make the pillar of our state policy. Nawab Akbar Bugti, even when he was an octogenarian, was a major political player. Balochistan is afire, and how long this fire will take to burn out is anybody’s guess. But the supreme ruler can congratulate himself that he has removed one-third of the impediments in the way of progress by taking care of one of the three sardars. Now Dera Bugti will march ahead into the 21st century.

I remember having met Mr Bugti for the first time in 1997 when I went to call on him after assuming the charge of the provincial chief secretary. It was on the chief minister’s advice that I had called on him. He received me very cordially at his residence in Quetta, which appeared to be a fortified and well-protected place. Even the streets were closed for reasons of security. He had a large number of enemies. We sat on the neatly-carpeted floor. We had about an hour’s conversation. I found him very articulate, forthright and candid. His was an impressive figure and his white hirsute face added to his almost royal bearing. He told me that before the provincial government agreed to my appointment, the federal government had sent three names including mine. Mr Ilahi Bukhsh Soomro called Mr Bugti asking him to choose Mr Hasan Bhutto, one of the panelists. Mr Bugti refused without a minute’s hesitation. When Mr Soomro insisted that the officer had great merit, Mr Bugti said he would never accept a Bhutto, whatever his merits. Mr Soomro assured him that he had no relation with the famous man, but Mr Bugti was not moved.

It was Nawaz Sharif’s government that had come with a heavy mandate at the Centre which showed a welcome change in the attitude towards smaller provinces. Unlike all his predecessors, Mr Sharif decided to take along with him the ‘nationalist leadership’. Mr Akhtar Mengal, who headed the coalition in the provincial assembly of which Mr Bugti was a part, was allowed to form the government despite misgivings in powerful quarters. Soon after, the coalition partners fell out on something or the other and Bugti and Mengal started a media war. Since I got frequent opportunities of meeting the chief minister, I advised him to hold his punches and not to get into something that could go beyond the point of no return. But Mengal, relatively a young man, insisted on confronting Bugti head-on because, according to him, Bugti was a bully and deserved to be treated as such. I told him that any rift in the coalition partners will help the insidious forces to play their dirty games and install someone incompetent and corrupt to do their bidding and represent them rather than the people of Balochistan. Not long afterwards the inevitable happened and the government was dismissed.

Mr Sharif, as soon as he assumed office, travelled all the way from Islamabad to Dera Bugti on prime minister’s jet along with important members of his government and some senior civil servants to call on Bugti. The gesture did not seem to impress Bugti much who appeared to take it into his stride. After all, this was not the first time that he had been wooed by the mighty and the powerful. The plane landed at the Jacobabad airport and one was surprised that Mr Bugti was not waiting at the tarmac to receive the prime minister. The delegation then boarded the helicopter and took off for Dera Bugti. There was no Mr Bugti to receive the prime minister even at the helipad. The delegation then drove to the Bugti House. He was not there even at the outside gate. It was only after the prime minister and his delegation had entered the house that Mr Bugti emerged to receive him at the entrance to the hall, which was to be the venue of the meeting. The delegation was made to sit in the Balochi tradition on the floor and everyone could share the company of the prime minister and Mr Bugti. For a few minutes the two men went to a separate room to talk. Lunch was served and since Mr Bugti ate very spicy meals, he served the guests the same kind of food. Those who were careful chose to pass up the dishes and relied on yogurt and bread to avoid unpleasant consequences.

Before lunch was served, Mr Bugti called one of his underlings to bring a present for the prime minister. This looked like an ordinary stick and was perhaps hand-carved. Mr Bugti ordered his underling to present the stick to the prime minister that he graciously accepted. The chief minister told me afterwards that Mr Bugti’s gesture violated the traditional Balochi courtesy because not personally handing over the present to the prime minister implied that he treated him not on a par with himself, but at a level lower than himself. Otherwise in the Balochi tradition, if he had treated the prime minister as his equal, he would have presented the carved stick with his own hand. That was Bugti, arrogance incarnate.

When he resigned as governor of Balochistan, he did not address Mr Bhutto as prime minister. Mr Sher Baz Mazari has quoted in his book, A Journey to Disillusionment, an instance: when Bhutto visited him at the Governor’s House and showed some annoyance at children playing on the lawn, Bugti ignored the protest and told the prime minister that it was natural for children to play.

Mr Bugti was a very canny character and a tough negotiator. He knew better than any Baloch sardar how to squeeze his opponent to the limit. The Pakistan Petroleum Limited running Sui Gas fields and the OGDCL running some other wells in the area were made to pay through their nose for their presence in those areas either in terms of rent/lease for the land or the employees who had to be given jobs. Some agreements between Mr Bugti and the OGDCL read like treaties between two sovereign entities. His demands easily qualified as extortion.

Mr Sharif, known to be a man in great hurry, wished to make some amendments to the Constitution for which he had the necessary numbers in the National Assembly, but not in the Senate. Mr Bugti had five senators and so did the MQM. The need for these 10 votes acquired special significance whenever an amendment had to be carried through — and that too in a hurry. The provincial government was totally helpless in ensuring the presence of Mr Bugti’s senators in Islamabad. His five senators would hide and prove to be elusive and inaccessible unless some personal representative of the prime minister had spoken to Mr Bugti and fulfilled his demands; most of them relating to payments which Mr Bugti thought were due to him. Not unlike the World Bank, which has begun insisting on compliance of conditionalities upfront before signing a loan, he wanted payment upfront. Some deputy secretary of Fifinance Department would travel from Islamabad carrying loads of cash before Bugti ordered his henchmen to travel to Islamabad and vote appropriately.

Mr Bugti was a shrewd man. He also knew his limits. Therefore, before he died, he made it known that a stand-off between him and General Pervez Musharaff could be resolved on the basis of proposals made by a committee constituted by the regime. But General Musharaff wanted his precise location in the mountains so as to establish the writ of his government. This he seems to have accomplished by executing Bugti in a military operation involving ground troops, helicopter gunship, missiles and whatever, including satellite monitoring of his presence.

Balochistan is at a standstill; Quetta is under curfew; flights have been cancelled; and rail and road links cut off; university hostels have been vacated; hundreds of students arrested; and property worth millions of rupees damaged. Writ indeed!

Akbar Bugti’s death may provide satisfaction to some vengeful souls, but they know not what is afoot. Mr Bugti may be guilty of many crimes, including murders, but he died a brave man fighting, and has left an indelible mark on the psyche of the people of Balochistan as a leader who fought for their rights against a exploitative establishment. He is a Shaheed in the popular sense and every political leader of Balochistan will have to champion his cause under his rubric and in his name. He ranks next to the Mari Nawab in tribal hierarchy, but his political standing has now surpassed all others.

The future is frighteningly bleak. The situation is reminiscent of 1971 when a military junta was confronting the combined might of public opinion in a particular province only to avoid transferring power to the people.

A turbulent Balochistan hardly suits the United States, which is fighting its war ‘against terror’ in this region by occupying Afghanistan through Nato forces. The statement of the American government spokesman that it “would like to see the Balochistan dispute settled within the framework of strong and united Pakistan” is ominous. Declassified US papers bear close resemblance to the US government position on East Pakistan. The outcome is there for everyone to see. They had Gen Yahya Khan provide Henery Kissinger a safe passage to China and here we have another general fighting their war on terror. Americans are never very squeamish about principles, least of all about democracy.

Balochistan may have slipped out of hand and it is not unlikely that gas supply to the cities of Pakistan may suddenly be disrupted with the government feeling totally helpless.

In such circumstances the United States might have to dust off some of the think-tank reports proposing realignment of boundaries. The Gwadar port has become a hotly contested issue between China and the United States. Pakistan is in no position to upset either side. If the United States offers the lure of independence to the Baloch leadership, they would be happy to hand over Gwadar as well as some districts, say Kharan, for stationing American troops to control the region.

As things stand today, a dead Bugti is far more dangerous to the writ of the government than when he was alive. One could do business with him. His intransigence was calculated and diacritical. But now ...?

Two sons, one of whom would be a Sardar, survive Mr Bugti; but both lack his competence, stature or charisma and would not be able to carry forward his legacy. Senator Shahid Bugti, his son-in-law, may perhaps represent him, but only for a while, because he lacks tribal roots. People ask, what was Mr Bugti fighting for? The answer is implicit in the question. He was not asking for the moon. Once the state turned its guns on him, made him homeless and forced him to flee into the mountains, he was left with no choice but to present himself as a spokesman for the Balochi people and their rights, and put up a brave fight. The picture of the prickly proud Sardar sitting in a chair in front of a cave somewhere in the mountains would stick indelibly in the minds of the people. Sardar Atta Ullah Mengal and Khair Bukhsh Marri have kept a low profile. Mr Bugti articulated his views on provincial autonomy including the rights of the province to choose mega projects, which the federal government always boasted as its gift to the province, forgetting that the poor province of Balochistan has been subsidising gas all over the country for the last half-a-century.

The province is in a virtual state of occupation with about 100,000 Frontier Constabulary sleuths and army troops. The provincial government does not have any say whatsoever in any matter. It is usually selected by the establishment and installed through devious means. Most of the choices are incompetent and corrupt. Akbar Bugti was the best chief minister Balochistan had besides Mr Mengal; and about others, the less said the better.

What is ahead? What needs to be done? Instead of overcoming tribalism, the state has descended into tribalism. Nothing better illustrates the point than the end of the stand-off between the ruler and the Nawab. The only answer is immediate and unconditional withdrawal of the armed forced from politics, the restoration of full and unguided democracy even if it throws up tribal leaders the military doesn’t like as members of assemblies, the thinning of troops in the province and the equitable as well as fair distribution of resources.

The greatest danger to the federation is the lack of provincial autonomy, and the greatest threat to provincial autonomy is the military, which rules the roost. Some people in the province holding a monopoly over patriotism glibly allege the leadership of smaller provinces of lacking patriotism. That is utter nonsense. The people of the smaller provinces are as patriotic, if not more, as anybody else in Pakistan.

Bugti’s death, particularly the circumstances surrounding it, has created a very dangerous situation, which only genuine representatives of the people can address. One has to read the newspapers to see that Balochistan has been crippled by strikes and violence. If immediate steps are not taken, we may live to rue the day. As the Americans say, “you ain’t seen nothing yet.”

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