Graffiti in urban centres of Balochistan’s Makran Division has completely changed in two years. “Long live independent Balochistan” and “Down with pro-parliament parties” have replaced pronouncements about separatist leaders being traitors.
Until recently, the locals were told through what they call “fine art” by security agencies that Baloch separatists were responsible for killing innocent people and attacking the Frontier Corps (FC) as well as other state institutions. The separatists, on the other hand, were too weak to make their presence known, let alone propagate their views in public. Even when a separatist activist was killed, members of his group would never come out to protest and instead would rely on political parties for raising a voice against the killing.
All that has changed; the separatists are no longer in hiding. They are, in fact, so visible and strong that now they can force any town to close down whenever they want. When a separatist activist was killed on September 4 in an encounter with Levies in Tump area, his comrades forced a complete strike in Turbat. All government and private banks were still shut in the city when this scribe visited it, about a week after the encounter.
In far-flung rural parts of Makran Division, the separatists are virtually running a parallel government. Many traders and businessmen in the cities say rural areas of Gwadar, Kech, Awaran and Panjgur districts are under the control of the separatist militants. Naseer Jan, a shopkeeper in Turbat, tells the Herald how he left his ancestral village, Balicha, and settled in Turbat city to avoid constant threats to himself and his family from the militants.
Another indication of the increased power of the militants in the area is that many local leaders of political parties which believe in parliamentary politics have left their rural homes for Karachi and Quetta because they do not feel safe in the militant-dominated areas. In the words of a local political activist, it is revealing to see how “those who claim themselves to be the leaders of the masses are leaving.” Dr Abdul Malik, the head of the National Party, is always surrounded by government-provided armed guards and cannot move freely even in his hometown; Akhtar Mengal, who heads the Balochistan National Party–Mengal (BNPM), was living outside Pakistan until recently, for fear of his life.
The rise in the separatists’ power has forced political activists to concede that they no longer have the people’s ears. “Yes, the masses listen to the separatists,” says advocate Abdul Hameed, a former vice-chairman of the Balochistan Bar Council who is also a local leader of the Balochistan National Party in Turbat.
But the reason for the change, he argues, is not that the separatists have become popular; rather it is because the government is conspicuous by its absence. “There is a complete breakdown of law and order and the civil administration cannot be seen anywhere in the troubled areas,” says Hameed. The only government staff which attends its duties regularly are the ones who work at the offices of the commissioner and the deputy commissioner, the offices of the education and health departments have been non-functional for months, he adds.
Hameed says the loss of the government’s writ is so complete that even the conviction of a criminal can take entire towns hostage in order to press for his release. A few months ago when a sessions court in Turbat convicted a local resident for drug peddling his clansmen forced the whole city to shut down, he says. Tribal feuds have also resulted in civic life coming to a halt in Turbat many times over the last few months, he adds.
Political leaders, however, do not entirely exonerate Baloch militant organisations. Dr Jahanzeb Jamaldini, a central leader of the BNPM, says that tit-for-tat attacks between the separatists and the security forces continue, but he points out that the separatist groups never shy away from claiming responsibility if and when they hit a target. He hastens to add that nationalist parties always condemn separatist attacks which result in the deaths of innocent people.
But Jamaldini and other political leaders like him argue that the main responsibility for the deteriorating situation lies with the security and intelligence agencies. They claim the agencies have caused the breakdown of law and order by creating and sponsoring criminal gangs and drug peddlers in every Baloch district, mainly to counter the militants but also to kidnap and kill activists of political parties and to gun down non-Baloch settlers.
The first such incident, for which the groups backed by the intelligence agencies are blamed, is the murder of Maula Bukhsh Dashti in July 2010. He was a former Kech district nazim and a central leader of the National Party. A previously unknown group, Peoples Liberation Army, accepted the responsibility for his murder. Since then, local and central leaders of Baloch political parties claim that these groups have killed many of their members. The BNPM claims that 30 of its members and leaders have been killed over the last two years. The National Party says 10 of its members have been killed in Kech district alone.
Opinion is divided on whether these criminal groups are operating on their own or are still being backed by the agencies. Senator Hasil Bizenjo, a central leader of the National Party, says they are working independently and have become a problem for their own creators. On the other hand, Jamaldini believes that the agencies still control and support those groups.
For outsiders, it is almost impossible to find out and verify who is doing what and on whose behest but discussions about the role of the intelligence agencies are widespread across Makran Division. And almost everyone that the Herald spoke to in the area is convinced that agencies would do better if they adopted a hands-off approach. Once the agencies withdraw their support for criminal groups, there would be no threat to the resumption of political and electoral activities in the region, says Jamaldini. And that could also signal the return of peace.