Sunday, September 03, 2006

Baluch freedom long overdue (September 3, 2006)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Contrary to his posthumous reputation, Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, the Baluch leader who was killed by the Pakistan army on August 26 was not your archetypal freedom fighter. A strange mix of adventurer and rascal, he always sought to leverage his position as head of the Bugti tribe for private gain. During the 1973 uprising—now described by Baluch nationalists as the first War of Independence—Bugti detached himself from the Marri and Mengal tribesmen and was appointed Governor of Baluchistan. He provided a cloak of legitimacy to the brutal suppression of the revolt. Subsequently, as Baluchistan became one of Pakistan’s strategic assets, Bugti upped his demands, rallied nearly 10,000 of his tribe and joined the other tribes in the second War of Independence. Even then, it is said that oil companies paid him nearly Rs 67 crore each year to ensure he confined his war to purely military targets.

To those with memories, the Baluchistan issue may be faintly reminiscent of a problem in East Pakistan. According to an observation by a Carnegie Endowment report, “the Baluch believe that Baluchistan today is a colony of Punjab…” This is marked by resentment over the fact that despite accounting for 36 per cent of Pakistan’s gas production, Baluchistan hasn’t tasted the fruits of development. Instead, with customary arrogance, the Punjabi elite has sought to tell the fiercely independent tribesmen that they are not pucca Muslims and should, first, receive the benefits of traditional madarsa education funded by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. The theological arguments were replenished in 2005 by a staggering use of military force that would be inconceivable in any democracy.

Despite the protracted insurgency, the Baluch struggle has remained a simmering footnote because the province is at the centre of a new “great game” involving China, Iran and, the oil companies. China is wary that a movement for independence will jeopardise its massive investments in the naval bases in Ormara and Gawadar. The Iranians are anxious to prevent Baluch nationalism from spilling over. And the oil companies don’t want to jeopardise energy production and future pipelines linking Baluchistan with Central Asia, Iran and India. On its part, the US has to balance its displeasure over northern Baluchistan being used as a base by the Taliban with the imperatives of securing Pakistan’s grudging cooperation in the war on terror.

Given these complications, India is on the right track by extending solidarity with the Baluch people. Although the cautiously worded statement of August 28 may well be seen as an example of tit-for-tat grandstanding against Pakistan, there are compelling reasons why India should extend “moral and diplomatic support” to the movement for an independent Baluchistan. Apart from whittling down Pakistan’s nuclear, naval and economic assets—reasons that should be compelling enough—the tribal insurrection in Baluchistan mark a significant defiance of Wahabi Islam, the ideological fountainhead of global terrorism. The champions of the ummah have attempted to negate ethnicity—they have been quite successful in Bangladesh—and Baluchistan offers an opportunity to force political Islam to follow a more conventional paradigm. The opportunity should not be missed, not least because a “friendly” Baluchistan will serve to restore India’s land link to Afghanistan and Iran.

Ideally, the role of India in the Baluchistan struggle should have been akin to its role vis-à-vis the Northern Alliance which played such a crucial role in removing the Taliban from Afghanistan. Unfortunately, a series of political misjudgements have led to New Delhi reposing inordinate faith in the territorial integrity of Pakistan. The NDA Government, for example, overruled military and intelligence advice and turned away from Baluchistan on the narrowest of commercial considerations. It is reassuring that the strategic community has taken the first tentative steps to rectify the errors.

As an autonomous area over which the writ of British India did not run, Baluchistan was a fit candidate for independence in 1947. It didn’t happen that way. But that’s no reason to shy away from this unaccomplished agenda of Partition.

(Published in Sunday Pioneer, September 3, 2006)

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