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Balochistan after Bugti

By Alok Bansal
Last updated on: August 29, 2006 14:04 IST
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The recent reports that nationalist leader Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti was killed by Pakistani troops in a fierce operation that resulted in the death of 37 Baloch nationalists and 21 elite commandos of Pakistani security forces in Kohlu District of Balochistan in the early hours of August 27 does not augur well for the restive province.

The reaction to his killing has been strong and violent. Over five hundred people are reported to have been arrested. An indefinite curfew has been clamped on Quetta, and Karachi is reported to be tense. There is no doubt that the Sardar of Bugti tribals commanded large-scale support in his traditional stronghold, even though a government sponsored assembly of leaders of various Bugti sub-clans had just the other day declared the end of Sardari system in Dera Bugti.

But as is apparent now, this government sponsored show made no dent to the popular support enjoyed by Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, the leader of the largest Bugti tribe – popularly known as the 'Tiger of Balochistan'. A strong proponent of Baloch autonomy, he is believed to have said, "I have been a Baloch for several centuries. I have been a Muslim for 1400 years. I have been a Pakistani for just over fifty."

British-educated Nawab Akbar Bugti, who was in his 80s and had played a major role in the politics of Balochistan for five decades, was relatively a late entrant to the cause of Baloch nationalism and till his recent falling out with the Pakistani establishment; he had been one of the pillars of Pakistani government in the region.

He was not only the first Baloch to be nominated to the Pakistani cabinet, but also a former chief minister of the province. He had also been the governor of the province and Islamabad's point man during the last major conflagration in Balochistan from 1973 to 1979.

He was reported to have been ruling his subjects with a firm hand and had been accused of operating private jails and running a feudal justice system in his area. His running feud with Kalpar Waderas, the hereditary head of one of the Baloch sub-clans had led to the forced migration of over 10,000 Kalpars from Dera Bugti. He was also the leader of Jamhoori Watan Party, which has representation in the provincial assembly as well as in the parliament.

He had been attempting to get all Baloch nationalist parties under one umbrella. Of late, he had been in the limelight during the ongoing anti government resistance and Dera Bugti district his traditional stronghold has been the scene of most pitched battles fought between security forces and the Baloch nationalists.

In January 2005, after a Sindhi lady doctor was allegedly raped by an army officer in Sui, Bugti tribesmen had stormed the Pakistan Petroleum Limited Complex at Sui and the four day long running battle resulted in rebels firing more than 14,000 rounds of small arms, 436 mortar and 60 rockets. The pitched battles at Sui gave a severe jolt to Pakistani economy and in the immediate aftermath Karachi Stock Exchange lost almost half its net worth.

The security forces had tried to eliminate him earlier in March 2005, when they had shelled his ancestral house at Dera Bugti. Although 17 shells hit his residence, he survived. The day-long shelling claimed 67 lives, including 33 Hindus, who inhabited the neighbouring Hindu ghetto and eight Frontier Corps men. It also resulted in injury to over 100 people and severe damage to a number of houses and temples.

Bugti had to flee Dera Bugti early this year and take refuge in the mountains surrounding Dera Bugti and Kohlu districts, from where he had been coordinating the Baloch resistance.

The killing of Nawab Bugti seems to have galvanised the Baloch nationalists. There were protests all across Balochistan and protesters burnt vehicles, banks and petrol pumps in Quetta, established roadblocks by burning tyres, and an indefinite curfew had to be clamped in the city.

In Kalat, 150 km South of Quetta, a government building was bombed and a telephone exchange set alight. Baloch nationalists have called for a total strike throughout Balochistan today. In Karachi, the largest city of Pakistan, there was rioting in Baloch dominated areas.

The killing was been criticised by almost all political parties who are constituents of Association for Restoration of Democracy (ARD), as well as by Muttahida Majlis e Amal (MMA) and even by Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which is a key constituent of the federal government as well as the Sindh Government.

The widespread criticism has forced the government to refute original reports that satellite phone trackers were used to locate Nawab Bugti, thereby implying that he indeed was the target.

According to the latest version from the government, the area was targeted after an Army helicopter came under fierce attack from the rebels while over-flying the region. The ensuing battle led to the caving in of the mud bunker where Bugti along with his men had taken shelter. The fact that over 20 elite commandos were killed by the rebels indicates that the rebels gave the security forces a tough fight before they capitulated.

Despite the government's attempts to paint him as an autocratic feudal despot, Sardar Akbar Khan Bugti, on account of the circumstances and the manner of his death, is destined to become a martyr of Baloch nationalism like Nauroz Khan before him.

By killing Bugti, General Musharraf has now permanently alienated a significant section of Baloch population. He has apparently underestimated the Baloch nationalism which has led to four major insurgencies since Pakisan came into being.

A spokesman of the neighbouring and equally recalcitrant Marri tribe reported that over 140 people from the Bugti and Marri tribes had been killed in the air and ground operations.  He said that it was a major operation in which both sides suffered losses, but he went on to add that despite the death of Akbar Bugti, their struggle would continue.

Maybe Nawab Bugti's death will help him to achieve what he failed to achieve during his lifetime -- the unity of all Baloch nationalist groups.

Alok Bansal is a Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. The views expressed are his own.

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