Balochistan is once again in the midst of a full fledged violent confrontation.
When Pakistani security forces moved into Kohlu district on December 18 to start their long awaited operations in Balochistan, they broke a tenuous peace that had lasted for nine months since the violent confrontation in Dera Bugti, which had claimed over 60 lives including those of 33 Hindus.
The present operations in Balochistan started as a sequel to the December 14 rocket attacks on Kohlu town when President Pervez Musharraf was on a visit to lay the foundation stone of one of the three new cantonments -- fiercely opposed by Baloch nationalists -- to be set up in the province.
This was followed the very next day by machine-gun fire on an army helicopter that was carrying the Inspector General, Frontier Corps, Major General Shujaat Zamir Dar, and his deputy Brigadier Saleem Nawaz. Both the officers sustained bullet wounds but the pilot succeeded in landing the helicopter safely. This was probably the first incident since the attack on the Karachi corps commander when a general officer was targeted in his own area of operation.
Though the operations were ostensibly launched against Marri tribesmen in Kohlu district for their suspected involvement in rocket attacks and bomb explosions, a careful analysis of events indicate that the operation had been planned much before any of these incidents had taken place.
In fact, the operation, which was expected much earlier, was delayed due to the earthquake that hit Pakistan on October 8 last year.
Former governor of Balochistan and the head of the Jamhoori Watan Party, Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, had been declaring for quite some time that troops were being mobilised in Sui and Dera Bugti and artillery and helicopter gunships were being moved in to launch an operation in Balochistan. The matter was also raised by the opposition in the Pakistani parliament but the establishment had routinely denied that any military operation was being planned.
However, when the operations were launched, they were not in Dera Bugti district, which had been the scene of pitched battles between the security forces and Baloch nationalists in January and March, but in the neighbouring Kohlu district, which is inhabited by the most belligerent of the Baloch tribes, the Marris.
Marris have been in the forefront in past two insurgencies in the 1960s and the 1970s. Their traditional sardar, Nawab Khair Bux Marri, a fierce nationalist and a self proclaimed Marxist has had an uneasy relationship with the government. Nawabzada Balaach Marri, Nawabzada Marri's Moscow-educated son, who played major role in the insurgency in the 1970s, is believed to be leading the insurgent outfit Balochistan Liberation Army.
Despite having started in Kohlu district the conflict has engulfed most of Kohlu and Dera Bugti districts but insurgents have been challenging the writ of the State virtually across the entire length and breadth of Balochistan by targeting railway lines, gas pipelines and electricity and communication towers.
Security forces supported by helicopter gunships and artillery have been targeting Baloch strongholds in Kohlu and Dera Bugti districts. The situation is reported to be worsening, with large scale collateral damage. Baloch nationalists have claimed that indiscriminate firing by the security forces have led to large scale death and destruction, and that a number of women and children have been killed.
Opposition parties in the national assembly, the Pakistan parliament, have accused the government of carrying out genocide of 'innocent citizens' in Balochistan, using helicopters in bombing sorties and use of poisonous phosphorus gas against the 'people.' They have also deplored the way in which the air force is being utilised in the operation.
Even Asma Jehangir, the chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, was prevented from visiting Balochistan. The Commission has urged the government to stop killing Balochis in Kohlu under its military operation and wants an immediate ceasefire to resolve the issue politically.
The current insurgency in Balochistan underlines the fragility of Pakistani State more than 58 years after its creation. At Partition in 1947, the tribal areas of Balochistan were amongst the most backward parts of the subcontinent. Almost six decades later, they still are.
The tribesmen may be carrying automatic Kalashnikov assault rifles instead of ancient Lee Enfield 303s, but there has been hardly any development, the women are still not allowed to leave their homes and the girls are not sent to schools. The only law is the one laid down by the tribal chief.
Clearly, the existence of such pockets of lawless lands has helped in the spread of anarchy in Pakistan. Since the Afghan war, guns and drugs have flooded Pakistan from the tribal belt and the current conflict highlights the point: the Balochs have used missiles, anti-aircraft weapons and an array of modern and very lethal arms. In fact, the army has suffered serious casualties in its operations, and has been forced to use helicopter gunships to quell the rebellion.
Four times since Pakistan's creation, the Balochs, who -- like many Sindhis and Pathans (Pakhtuns)-- never wanted to be part of Pakistan, have rebelled, demanding greater autonomy, or even an independent state, which would reunite the five million Balochs in Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan under one flag.
Balochistan comprises 43 percent of Pakistan's area but has only five percent of Pakistan's population. It also has immense natural resources and most of Pakistan's energy resources. The Balochs joined Pakistan quite reluctantly.
The state of Kalat was a princely state of British Balochistan as against other princely states that were part of British India. the Khan of Kalat therefore sought a status similar to that of Nepal and claimed that his bid was supported by Mohammad Ali Jinnah who was also the legal advisor to the state.
After independence, both the houses of parliament in Kalat unanimously rejected the proposal to merge with Pakistan. Yet, the areas of Balochistan that had been under direct British rule were merged with Pakistan and the proposal was ratified by the municipality of Quetta, a body that was overwhelmingly dominated by non Baloch settlers.
Subsequently, the Khan of Kalat was forced to sign the merger document and Kalat was annexed. This led to the first armed insurgency in 1948 led by Prince Karim, Khan's brother. From then till the current insurgency the Balochs have risen in revolt thrice and have faced the security forces in 1958, 1963 to 1969 and 1973 to 1977.
Baloch history has been an unending saga of treachery by the ruling elite in Islamabad. Though the insurgencies in the past have been crushed with a heavy hand, they have left scars which are yet to heal. Each insurgency has been more intense than the previous one and the organisational capabilities and the popular support for the insurgents continues to grow.
At the height of insurgency in 1973, 55,000 insurgents faced 80,000 Pakistani troops supported by the Pakistani air force as well as the Iranian Air force. More than 5,000 insurgents and over 3,300 soldiers were killed in the insurgency that lingered on till 1977. The Pakistani armed forces used brute force to crush the insurgency as they had to redeem their honour after their rout in Bangladesh.
In fact the Pakistani army's record in dealing with internal disorders has been far from exemplary. Its operations in East Pakistan led to the creation of Bangladesh in December 1971. Its operations in Sindh and Balochistan have created scars that are yet to heal. Recent operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas have exhibited its inefficiency where almost a division has been deployed and supported liberally by the artillery and helicopter gunships, but the militants still rule the roost. In fact the alienation of population has only grown with the passage of time.
The security forces have also created a perpetual problem in the tranquil heights of the Northern Areas. The security forces in Pakistan at this point of time are really overstretched and if violence in Balochistan intensifies, the Pakistani army will definitely be sucked into a war that will fester and bleed Pakistan.
Part II: Why Balochistan threatens Pakistan
Alok Bansal is a New Delhi-based security analyst