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Baluchistan at tipping point

Among the maladies that inflict Pakistan at this time, the crisis in Baluchistan is, arguably, the most critical. Some analysts might contend that the problems of religious extremism and militancy in the tribal areas and NWFP (North Western Frontier Province) and the recent wave of suicide attacks and bombings are bigger problems than Baluchistan. However, in large parts of Pakistan’s FATA (Federal Administered Tribal Area), where the state has lost control to Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters, the population is not fundamentally opposed to the Pakistani state.

In this sense, the situation in Baluchistan represents a bigger problem than extremism and militancy in FATA. The province is in the grip of a strong separatist movement, with such sentiments growing day by day. Whatever power the state has in Baluchistan is only due to the strength of its armed forces. The majority of the people do not have any positive feelings towards the state. More and more young Baluch people are taking up armed struggle. The nationalist insurgency not only continues, but is expanding into more areas of the province. Numerous armed insurgent groups like the Baluchistan Liberation Front (BLF), Baluchistan Liberation Army (BLA), Baluchistan Republican Army (BRA), Baluchistan Liberation United Front (BLUF) etc, are active in the province.

The recent killing of Baluchistan’s Education Minister, Shafique Ahmad Khan, in Quetta once again highlighted the issue of targeted killings. The Baluchistan Liberation United Front (BLUF) accepted responsibility for the killing. The slain minister was a member of the ruling PPP (Pakistan Peoples’ Party), but was of Punjabi origin. He is the second Baluchistan minister to have been killed in the last two months. In the past six years, according to estimates, 3,000 non-Baluch people have lost their lives in so-called target killings in the province and thousands have fled to other provinces to save their lives. Even senior non-Baluch teachers and professors who lived and worked all their lives in Baluchistan have not been spared. Armed separatist groups try to justify the killings as revenge for what is being done to Baluch people by the Punjabi establishment. They consider Punjabis and Urdu-speaking people as legitimate targets, regardless of whether they belong to the establishment or are workers such as barbers, bakers, doctors, teachers or daily wage labourers. The security forces and government accuse armed nationalist groups for these killings but not a single perpetrator of violence have been brought to justice so far. The government set up tribunals in 2004 and 2008 to investigate two separate target killings.

The recent spate of target killings has forced non-Baluch settlers to migrate to other regions of the country, especially to Karachi and Punjab, creating a shortage of human resources in Baluchistan. According to an estimate, 50,000 non-Baluch families have so far emigrated from Baluchistan. Muhammad Nadeem Khan, a representative of the Chamber of Commerce in Quetta, says that nearly 22,000 government employees in Baluchistan have applied for transfers outside Baluchistan.

After the killing of senior non-Baluch teachers at Baluchistan University, 20 university teachers got themselves transferred outside Baluchistan and more than 120 applications for transfers are pending with the authorities. The University remained closed for more than three months. The sense of insecurity and fear has increased in the non-Baluch communities, as the government has failed to stop these killings. Some communities in Quetta have started to arm themselves against armed separatist groups.

The mood has changed
The issue in Baluchistan is not solely one of financial assistance or economic deprivation any more. The crisis is now much deeper, as sections of youth and nationalist political activists demand political freedom and independence. Baluch youth are quite brazen in repudiating their loyalty to Pakistan. These sections of youth stand completely alienated from Pakistan and tell harrowing stories of the excesses and humiliation inflicted by state agencies. Baluch nationalists say: ‘We are not part of Pakistan. Baluchistan is an occupied territory. We want an independent Baluchistan as it was before 1948, when it was annexed by Pakistan through military force. Islamabad has imposed colonial rule upon us. We do not beg for anything from Pakistan. We want full control our territory and resources. It would be an insult to Baluch people if someone advised us not to ask for total freedom and independence.’

The Baluch Students Organisation (BSO Azad) is spearheading the independence campaign and draws its strength from Baluch youth, including female students. The walls along the Quetta-Karachi highway and of towns like Mastung and Kalat are painted with anti-Pakistan slogans and salute Baluch leaders killed by security agencies. Even the walls of offices of high government officials are daubed with nationalist slogans.

Baluch women have become an active part of the nationalist resistance movement. A large number of women come to public meetings and protest demonstrations to express their views, which is remarkable given the profoundly patriarchal and conservative nature of society, where women are traditionally confined to domestic life. The women are more emotive and agitational than men in expressing their anger over the alleged excesses committed by security and intelligence agencies.

There is also widespread anger and mistrust on the issue of ‘missing persons’. The nationalist groups allege that intelligence agencies and security forces have disappeared thousands of Baluch activists and tortured them in prison cells. Security officials deny these allegations and insist that these missing people are being hidden by insurgent groups. Human rights organisations and independent observers have confirmed that credible evidence suggests that a few hundred people have been victims of enforced disappearances, and hold state agencies responsible for it. The PPP-led (Pakistan People’s Party) federal and provincial governments have made repeated promises to sort out the issue of missing persons, but nothing has been done so far.

Moderate voices in Baluchistan seem to be becoming irrelevant. Nationalists, such as the Baluchistan National Party (BNP Mengal) and BSO (Malik), though insisting on Baluch national rights, stay short of calling for independence. Other nationalist parties and groups also demand maximum provincial autonomy and rights, but in the prevailing emotionally-charged atmosphere, these parties and leaders do not seem to be in a position to challenge the hard line stance of insurgent groups.

According to veteran left-wing nationalist leader, Dr. Abdul Hayee Baluch, “time is running out. If the government is serious about solving the crisis in Baluchistan, it is time to act now; otherwise it will be too late”.

The ruling class has failed to solve the National Question and provide equal national rights to the different nationalities within Pakistan. No adequate solution is possible on the basis of capitalism. Full national and democratic rights are only possible on the basis of socialism. The socialist transformation of the society could solve the national question and provide equal rights and opportunities for all nationalities.

Foreign intervention?
The Pakistani government and security forces put the blame on Afghanistan and India for the present state of affairs in the province. They allege that both countries are providing money and arms to the nationalist insurgents. They also assert that it is not an indigenous liberation struggle, but a conspiracy to destabilise the country, in which foreign intelligence agencies are involved. There are very few people in the country who are ready to buy into this theory. The overwhelming majority of the people consider former military dictator General Musharaf responsible for the present mess. The establishment is not ready to accept the fact that the present crisis the direct consequence of the policies it has pursued. There was no insurgency in Baluchistan before the decision of the military government of General Musharaf to silence every voice which was raised calling for national rights. The use of military force and the killing of two prominent nationalist leaders failed to wipe out or crush the separatist movement; instead, it was strengthened.

There is no doubt that the strategically important province of Baluchistan is a centre of attraction for all the powers in the region and the world. Every powerful country wants to increase its influence in the province, including the US and China. Baluchistan is located in the South-West of the country and shares borders with Iran and Afghanistan. It also has a long coastal belt bordering the Arabian Sea. Baluchistan serves as the second major transit route, after Torkhum, for the Nato forces currently engaged in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Given the strategic significance of this resource rich (oil, energy, natural gas and minerals) province, many countries, including the US and its allies, has a reason to start fishing in the province. Gawadar, the newly built port, is located close to the Straits of Hormuz, at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, which is expected to provide port, warehouses and industrial facilities for more than twenty countries including those in the Gulf, on the Red Sea and in Central Asia and East Africa as well as Iran, India, Afghanistan and parts of northern China.

China’s presence enhances Gawadar’s strategic importance. In fact, the port was built mainly using Chinese capital and labour. Some even consider this isolated township in the South-West of Pakistan as a Chinese naval outpost in the Indian Ocean, designed to protect Beijing’s oil supply lines from the Middle East and to counter the growing US presence in Central Asia. Gawadar is also going to serve as an energy corridor to Central Asia, the Middle East and South Asia. A Chinese company also operates the gold and copper mines in Saindak, near the Iran and Afghan borders.

The fact remains that the situation could become more critical if the Americans intensify their activities in Baluchistan and, especially if a situation of conflict with Iran develops. The US wants the Taliban and Al-Qaeda bases in Baluchistan to be liquidated to prevent attacks on Nato forces operating in Southern Afghan provinces. Now US officials are threatening to launch drone attacks in Baluchistan to destroy the Taliban bases. US drone attacks will bring disastrous consequences for the people of the province.

Workers show the way forward
The working class is the only force in this troubled province which is not hopelessly divided along national, religious and ethnic lines. So far, workers and trade unions have been able to maintain unity. Baluch, Pashtun, Punjabi and Hazara workers are standing shoulder to shoulder in this volatile situation. The trade union movement has spoken out against target killings and shown solidarity with victims. More than 10,000 workers, belonging to different nationalities and ethnic backgrounds, marched through the main streets of Quetta on May Day this year to demonstrate workers’ unity. This was one of the biggest workers’ demonstrations in the history of Quetta. The workers chanted slogans against target killings and narrow nationalism. Workers showed their will and determination to fight against narrow nationalism and state repression. The workers have showed that unity of the working class can be achieved on a class basis. It is now the prime responsibility of the trade union movement in the country to show its solidarity with workers in Baluchistan and further strengthen their links with them. Workers in Baluchistan need practical help and solidarity from the trade union movement. In the absence of a working class political alternative, the workers feel isolated in the highly polarised political situation which exists. A new workers’ party, with democratic structures and a radical socialist programme is needed which will be able to bring workers from different nationalities, ethnic and religious backgrounds together under one banner, to fight for the establishment of a socialist federation of Pakistan and the wider region, with the right of self-determination for Baluchistan and all other national minorities, as part of a socialist world.


Workers’ march united on May Day 2009

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