Collateral damage


Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur

The news of the death of 12 Bugti tribesmen in a supposed clash with the FC men after a mine blast that killed three of the FC men is alarming and disconcerting. Details filtering out say that they were taken into custody after the blast and executed. 

The news is all the more disturbing because this incident is not without precedent. In the Dungan area of Marri agency in the fall of 1975, nine Marri tribesmen of the Shahija and Kalwani clan, including Qaiser Khan, Baazi Khan Shahija and Ganj Ali Kalwani were lined up and shot after the army suffered losses in a clash in the vicinity. That atrocity had gone unpunished and unnoticed and this one too will probably go unpunished, in spite of being reported. Such atrocities have grave implications and consequences for the health of the federation and its credibility as protector of people’s rights.

All conflicts lead to suffering for non-combatants, but the venom and rancour permeating this conflict is bound to prove very costly. Casualties have already been very high for the Marris and Bugtis, while the casualties on the other side have been kept under wraps so far, as no representatives of the media have been allowed access to those areas. 

The pain caused by these unlawful and unjustified killings is not comprehensible to people. The sheer injustice of such killings is enough to motivate the survivors in any society to drastic action. In Baloch society it becomes the bounden duty of the survivors to seek vengeance on the perpetrators, even if it may take years. Such wounds are neither easily healed nor forgotten.

Along with collateral damage of a physical nature which comes in the wake of such operations, there will be even more long-lasting damage to the already scanty trust and confidence that the people of Balochistan have in the federation’s promises and assurances. This will have very far reaching consequences for the federation as a whole.

The recent carnage in the Bugti area may have even more disastrous and far reaching consequences, for such actions may determine the course that this conflict takes, when viewed along with the attack on a Punjabi settler in Quetta, reported in the nightly news bulletin of January 15 on a BBC Urdu news bulletin. In the past such revenge attacks have never occurred, though there was fighting on a larger scale in the 1970s. This doesn’t augur well for any of those involved in this struggle because once non-combatants are selected as targets, senseless violence will spiral out of control and innocents will pay the price. 

Not content with brutalizing members of the Marri and Bugti tribes in their respective areas, the government has launched drives to harass and arrest Marri and Bugti Baloch living in the settled areas of Sindh and Hub. Such punitive measure against members of those tribes are not only illegal and unjustified, but also inhumane and uncalled for.

Mr. Aftab Sherpao, the Federal Interior Minister, has said that 4,000 activists have been picked up in connection with recent rocket attacks and bomb blasts. These arrests must have entailed harsh intimidation and harassment of the families, friends and in some cases the clans of those who have been picked up. There are no indications if those apprehended have been provided the right of legal defence, or are being made to suffer the fate of Guantanamo Bay inmates, who still languish without trial or recourse to justice in detention of the supposedly avowed upholder of human rights.

This military action has done a lot more than any Baloch leader could have done to win the Baloch over to the cause of protecting the resources and rights of the Baloch people — more so as the treatment meted out to the detainees is not bound by any convention and the apprehenders are beyond the ambit of law, and answerable to no one. The sole thought behind the use of third-degree methods is to break the will of the prisoner and to extract information. But it has often been seen that such treatment only helps to stiffen the resolve of those dedicated to a cause and also helps win over more recruits from amongst their family and friends. Those who unjustifiably suffer at the hands of the state develop profound resentment against it.

During the insurgency in the 1970s, activists were subject to inhuman treatment, including beatings, humiliations, torture, and forcible placing on ice slabs in Quetta’s Central Jail. A jail-break was planned and executed — the first ever from that jail. Many members of that jail-break are still loyal to the cause. There may or may not be jail-breaks this time around, but what is certain is that those being put through the trial of persecution, along with their families and friends, will vigorously oppose those responsible for their nightmarish ordeals and sufferings.

The violence in Balochistan is the outcome of the Federation’s policy of establishing the ‘writ of the state’ through the force of arms. This policy is becoming increasingly controversial and difficult to defend, even for its supporters, but its representatives, both civil and military, continue to subscribe to the official policy for development and enforcing the government’s writ. Colonel Furqan, Commandant of the Bhambhor Rifles, talking to journalists in Dera Bugti on January 13, said, “The ‘writ of the state’ will be enforced in Dera Bugti and other free zones of Balochistan, at any cost.”

He accused Nawab Akbar Bugti’s private army of possessing more sophisticated weapons than those of the Pakistani army, including Cruise missiles. This is a ludicrous charge which denies nearly six decades of the army’s awesome defence budgets. He justified the siege of Dera as necessary to stop the infiltration of saboteurs from Kohlu, with Kahan being besieged to prevent infiltration from Dera Bugti emerging as quite an illogical charge. He said that an offer had been made to Akbar Bugti to disband his army and hand over his heavy weapons, but was rejected by the headstrong Nawab. The reason for detailing the words of the Commandant is to show the mindset that holds sway among those shouldering the responsibility for executing the ‘writ of the state’ policy there, and it certainly appears as if it would be quite futile to expect a more level-headed approach from them. In this connection, the ruling elite might draw inspiration from the editorial in The Post of January 19 which reads: “Even limited ‘anti-miscreant’ operations can produce the inadvertent effect of widening the conflict throughout the province, welding the tribes more closely with the Sardars. A wiser course may be to bring the Baloch nationalists back to the negotiating table, thereby separating the moderate elements prepared to argue their rights case politically, from those who may have other, more extreme ideas.” 

It is perhaps too optimistic to expect petrified thinking to suddenly evolve into prescience and prudence, but unless there is a change in the mindset and the interests of the ruling elite, there will be no changes in the policy towards Balochistan and its people, where the ruling elite sees greener pastures for itself in the form of resources and territory.

Attempts to solve issues through the force of arms has backfired throughout history, more recent examples being the Indo-China war and the latest Iraq and Afghanistan occupations, where the US with all its technology and military might seems to be floundering and flailing in the face of determined resistance by people to the injustice of imposing the US’s views and interests on these countries. It would be most appropriate for the ruling elite here to take lessons from the catastrophic miscalculations and misconceptions of their revered mentor who is now present in their neighbourhood, but it seems that those in the corridors of power have an extremely short memory and continue to tread the dangerous path that culminated in the birth of Bangladesh.

Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur has an association with the Baloch rights movement going back to the early 1970s. He can be contacted at mmatalpur@gmail.com

This article was first published on 29 January 2006 in The Post

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