There is a big weakness of the Baloch: they have always fought alone [as a single tribe] or with one another rather than fighting against a common enemy.
Shah Meer Baloch
Balochistan’s first chief minister, Sardar Attaullah Mengal, is said to be the fourth pillar of Baloch nationalism, and the only one alive today. The other pillars were Mir Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo, Nawab Khair Bakhsh Marri and Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti.
Born in 1929, Mengal spent his childhood in Lasbela and later moved to Karachi. He was declared the chief (sardar) of Mengal tribe in 1954.
Mengal was introduced to politics by Mir Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo, a founding member of the National Awami Party (NAP) – who also briefly served as the governor of Balochistan in 1972-73. In 1962, Mengal was elected to the West Pakistan provincial assembly; Bezinjo ran his election campaign.
After Zulfikar Ali Bhutto overthrew the NAP’s provincial government in Balochistan in 1973, he called a meeting of politicians including Mengal, Bizenjo and Marri in Murree. Bhutto informed them that he would restore the provincial government after his return from a trip abroad but Mengal demanded that the government be restored immediately. When an angry Bhutto asked Mengal what he would do if the government was not restored right away, he replied, “I would struggle against the injustices inflicted upon the Baloch and stand against you.” The three Baloch leaders, along with some other senior NAP members, were sent to jail in 1973 under what is known as Hyderabad Conspiracy case.
While Mengal was still in prison, his son Asadullah went missing on February 6, 1975 and was later murdered though he came to know about it only after he was released by General Zia ul Haq in 1977.
Below are excerpts from an interview with Mengal conducted at his residence in Karachi.
Shah Meer Baloch. It has been over a decade since you were last interviewed. Is there any reason behind this?
Sardar Attaullah Mengal. Well, I am 89 and I don’t have the energy or strength to do anything at this age. Moreover [the authorities] are blind, deaf and dumb; so why scream if they can’t listen or see?
Baloch. The Baloch have had some charismatic leaders in the past such as Mir Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo, Nawab Khair Bakhsh Marri, Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti and you. Do you agree that there is a political vacuum in Baloch politics now?
Mengal. Every human being is the product of his time, and the same applies to leaders. Time is the ultimate factor which gives birth to leaders. I personally believe leaders aren’t born — it is time and circumstances that create leaders. If you want to judge a person or a leader, look at his circumstances and the era he is living in and how he is dealing with the problems. It would be unjust to give [full] credit to one leader and discredit others.
Baloch. Many analysts say that it is tribalism that is holding Balochistan back. What is your opinion?
Mengal. The first tenet of this tribalism is enmity. Tribes divide the Baloch and they don’t let them work for a common cause or for unity. Even our Baloch nationalists, who claim to be fighting for the rights of the Baloch, don’t come out of their tribes. So how can you expect an ordinary Baloch person to leave tribalism behind when the so-called Baloch nationalists stick to their tribes with pride?
Baloch. Do you think the tribal set-up or sardari system is not relevant to the 21st century?
Mengal. The sardari system has lived its life. It is completely outdated now and of no use in the modern world. The world moved on from the tribal age long ago.
Baloch. But there is still a tribal and nomadic life in many parts of Balochistan. Why?
Mengal. Until or unless an alternate system is introduced in Balochistan, the tribal system will keep ruling the Baloch. But it is high time that an alternative be formed.
Baloch. The Mengal tribe is one of the largest Baloch tribes and you are the chief of the Mengal tribe. Why don’t you renounce tribalism and push harder against this tribal system if you really think that it does not fulfill the needs of the 21st century?
Mengal. Whether or not I renounce or disown tribalism has nothing to do with it. This [system] will go extinct sooner or later.
Baloch. What do you have to say about the motives of different insurgent movements witnessed in Balochistan?
Mengal. Deprivations of political, economic and social rights have always been the driving force of the Baloch or insurgent movements. The Pakistani state did not give due rights to the Baloch. Even Zulfikar Ali Bhutto – people called him a democrat – was, I think, a civilian dictator who toppled Balochistan’s elected government.
Baloch. Could you please tell us about the military operation, particularly against the Marri and Mengal tribes, initiated by Bhutto?
Mengal. There is a big weakness of the Baloch: they have always fought alone [as a single tribe] or with one another rather than fighting against a common enemy. The first bloody war in the history of the Baloch was fought between the Rind and the Lashars (both Baloch tribes).
When the Mengal and the Marri tribes started an armed movement against Bhutto after the NAP’s elected government was overthrown and the military operation had begun in Balochistan, it looked like a tribal war, as the Bugti tribe was not part of it.
Another era of insurgency began in 2004 (and intensified after) Bugti’s killing; the Mengal tribe did not take part in it. Starting from the first insurgency in 1948, most of the insurgencies seem to be tribal wars against the state. But this current one is different from the previous ones. In this movement, a Baloch consensus can be seen. But again, the Baloch are divided into tribes which is inimical to being united.
Baloch. Some analysts argue that the previous phases of the Baloch insurgency did not raise the slogan of independence, unlike the fifth phase, which is ongoing in Balochistan. What is your opinion?
Mengal. The more you get hurt, the more you scream. The same is the case with the Baloch. They have been given pain since the inception [of Pakistan] and now the pain is at its peak and unbearable. The slogan of independence has always been there but in previous phases it had not permeated the mountain ranges of [the vast area stretched from] Sui to Makran. I suppose there used to be a small group of people in the previous phases of insurgency who demanded independence but not everyone who has been fighting against injustices inflicted on the Baloch demanded it.
Baloch. Do you agree that the insurgency is not the answer?
Mengal. If I knew that waging a war against the state would resolve the issues, even at this age I would have gone to the mountains. But how should the Baloch respond to the injustices inflicted on them by the establishment? Does the establishment accept the sanctity of the vote and respect Balochistan’s elected representatives? Not, not at all.
The establishment has not learnt anything from its history. After snatching the due rights of its citizens, it applies force to keep the oppressed communities silent. But an oppressed community can’t be silent no matter how small and weak it is. I think it would be much better to ask the rulers and the establishment as to why they push the poor Baloch to the mountains time and again.
No one leaves his comfortable house without a heavy heart. The Baloch are pushed to take a refuge in the rugged mountains. I doubt they would have ever gone to the mountains if their natural resources were given to them and they were given the authority to decide their fate.
Baloch. Has the military establishment changed its approach towards the Baloch?
Mengal. The establishment has not changed its attitude one bit towards the Baloch. It’s not only about Balochistan, but all of Pakistan — the establishment views Pakistan and its provinces through its own viewpoint. They have a certain way of looking at things and they want to take all decisions. They don’t want to share power with the Baloch, Sindhis, Muhajirs or Pakthuns.
Baloch. During your tenure as chief minister, and also when your son Akhtar Jan Mengal was chief minister, how did you deal with the military establishment?
Mengal. Back in the 1970s and the 1990s, we didn’t have to deal with the military establishment directly. There was a civil establishment on the front. But in this era, the military establishment is on the lead; it is even striking deals and picking up politicians to rule. The Punjabi establishment has never taken the driving seat in this way before.
Baloch. What is your opinion about the ouster of Nawaz Sharif from power?
Mengal. Everyone knows that it was not the judges but the military establishment calling the shots. In the history of Pakistan, the military establishment has never been severe on a Punjabi ruler. I personally think the army will strike a deal sooner or later with Nawaz Sharif. I would not be surprised if the military establishment deals with Sharif [differently from how it dealt with] Benazir Bhutto.
Baloch. What do you think about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)?
Mengal. I see nothing for the Baloch people in CPEC. I don’t think the establishment will share the fruits of CPEC with the Baloch. It will use the Baloch land for extracting its natural resources but these resources have never benefited the Baloch. China does not love the Baloch or Balochistan — it is just interested in the strategic land of the Baloch.
Baloch. It is alleged that Iran, India and Afghanistan support insurgencies in Balochistan. What is your opinion on this?
Mengal. Iran would never support the Baloch because an independent Balochistan would be a threat for it as its largest province [has a Baloch majority] like the province of Balochistan in Pakistan. In the past, Afghanistan has given refuge to a few Baloch but Kabul can’t support them as it is caught between global and regional powers. When it comes to India, it does not have direct access to Balochistan; so Indian influence is minimal.
Balochistan can’t be ignored [by the outside world] because of its strategic importance. Regional powers, such as India and China, and the superpower, the United States, have their own strategic and geopolitical interests in this region. In this war of interests, the Baloch are being suppressed.
The only question which was not published in the interview was the one I asked Sardar Attaullah Mengal concerning his message for Baloch youth.
Baloch: Do you have any message for the Baloch youth?
Mengal: I would suggest to the Baloch youth to not discourage one another — don’t think you can’t do anything. You can do anything. Whatever you are doing now is doable; you will get what you struggle for. I would say, don’t pull each other’s legs, just be united and work for your nation.
The writer is a former visiting fellow at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg.