Shahid Nadeem. There was a time when Balochistan had become a trouble spot attracting the superpowers' attention. Radical and militant Baloch leaders were defying central authority. Today things seem to be very quiet. No serious law and order problem, no guerrilla war, no political crises. Some say the Baloch have been bought off by the government's development programmes and pouting in of money. Others say they have decided to cut away from mainstream Pakistani politics and are waiting for an opportunity to strike. How do you assess the situation?
Ataullah Mengal. Those who say there has been any real development in Balochistan are talking bull. There has been no development at all. All they have done is to bring Sui Gas to Quetta and electricity to some divisional headquarters, where the bulk of the bureaucracy resides. The only road constructed is the RCD road, which is in poor condition. Yes, they have built a few airfields, but all in one division: Makran. This extraordinary generosity to Makran is explained by the fact that the US Rapid Deployment Force has been given facilities on the Makran coast and they need airfields for supply planes from Karachi. The other airfields are in places like Sibi, where there is an army cantonment, an unfinished airfield in Khuzdar to cater for another army cantonment and the Chaghi airfield which no one has seen, because it is for the exclusive use of the "honourable guests" from Saudi Arabia and the sheikhs who come here to relax. The Chaghi strip is about 10,000 feet long, almost as big as the Karachi strip, but it is to facilitate Saudi jets, not the Baloch people. You call this development?
Nadeem. But is there no visible anger and protest?
Mengal. The anger is there, but perhaps you can't see it. It requires some deep thinking to understand what the people of Balochistan feel today. They have reached a stage where they know that the next phase of their struggle is going to be decisive. They have suffered extreme repression since the formation of Pakistan, and the last phase in the '70s was bloody. The Pakistan army never went back after the 1973 ceasefire; they are there, in every nook and corner of Balochistan. There are full cantonments in Kalat, Khuzdar, Dera Bugti, the Marri area. We have been made a minority in the one city we have, so the politics of slogans and processions is not feasible. What you consider the politics of protest will be interpreted as direct confrontation by the authorities in Balochistan. People know this time the crackdown will be very hard, it will be a decisive struggle. There is no trust left between the centre and the people of Balochistan; a saturation point has been reached. The next challenge will be that of secession. People are not ready to enter into that phase yet. But once they are ready, they won't wait.
We have tried to tell the people of Punjab that this army is your baby, you are nourishing it.
Nadeem. Are the traditional political leaders able to lead such a struggle?
Mengal. Most of them are not. The intellectuals are giving the lead and the young radicals are taking over the political leadership. The old leaders will become irrelevant if they don't join in. I myself have accepted the leadership of the youth.
Nadeem. But will the Baloch people disobey or discard their traditional leaders?
Mengal. The impression that the Baloch blindly follow the dictates of their traditional leaders is wrong. In the 1970 elections our party won seats in areas where we had no traditional influence. My own seat covered three tribes. Both the Khan of Kalat's sons lost in their own area.
Nadeem. Who are these young radicals?
Mengal. They are mostly working underground and outside the known political parties. They are socialists, anti-US and not interested in the present state of Pakistan. They will be the dominant force soon and if a solution to the problems between small nationalities and the centre is not found by then, we will have reached a point of no return.
Those who say there has been any real development in Balochistan are talking bull. There has been no development at all.
Nadeem. How do you see Balochistan in the present geopolitical context?
Mengal. Balochistan has attracted both the superpowers, and their interests and role will have an important bearing on our struggle. As a part of Pakistan, Balochistan is already under the US command. The US has bases for the use of its fleets and is in a position to determine the Pakistan government's policies in Balochistan. The Soviet Union can't ignore this and has to take measures to protect its interests. It has two options: to try to have, as a neighbour, a friendly Pakistan which will stop giving military facilities to a hostile superpower; if that becomes impossible, then to destabilise Pakistan. My view is that the Soviet patience has not run out and they will continue trying to make friends with Pakistan. They haven't done anything to destabilise Pakistan. But if they are forced to do that, they will get support from the extremist elements in Balochistan, who want to fight the US and Punjabi domination. I think if the Russians intervene, they will not find themselves unwelcome in Balochistan. The touts of the centre might be the first to welcome them.
Nadeem. What about the Baloch guerrilla fighters being trained in Afghanistan?
Mengal. They will not have any key role to play until the crunch comes. The Afghan government will not take any action unless the Soviet Union gives the green signal and it hasn't exhausted its patience yet. The Afghans will be happy with Kukikhel type incidents. But once the Soviet Union decides to act, the Baloch guerrilla will play an important role.
Nadeem. Do you think the Pakistan government, the army in particular, is willing to risk Soviet wrath?
Mengal. A section of Pakistan's ruling classes is willing to have friendship with the Soviet Union. The army is also not itching to take on the Soviet Union. It is not in a position to get involved in any battle. The problem is the interest of those army officers who get remunerations and other benefits from western and Arab aid. They know that if they accept the friendly hand of the Soviet Union, western aid and petrodollars will stop and they will not be able to maintain the vast and expensive army or the country as a whole. Pakistan is geographically close to the Soviet Union; it would be foolish to create animosity with it to please a power 10,000 miles away. The best way is to be friends with all but not to be anyone's pawn.
Nadeem. What about the regional powers and neighbouring countries?
Mengal. Iran is experiencing a new system and we will have to see if it survives after Khomeini. The present Iranian government has not shown any inclination to interfere in the affairs of Balochistan. But there are governments which are panicking. Pakistan has allowed the Saudis to spend an enormous amount of money to set up religious schools, universities and hospitals in the border areas in order to stem the influence of the Iranian revolution in Balochistan. India, in my view, has no interest in the disintegration of Pakistan. In fact, after the Afghan revolution, it would prefer Pakistan to remain as a buffer.
Nadeem. And you believe such an autonomous Balochistan will not be dependent economically or technologically on the more developed units?
Mengal. We have nothing to lose. We don't have a capitalist class, just a handful of individual capitalists. There are no big landlords and agricultural produce is very limited. You can count the well-to-do people in Balochistan. Our economy is not dependent on Punjab or the US or the Arabs. For our 3 million population, Sui Gas and other mineral resources could be sufficient: Sui Gas is regarded as the cheapest natural gas in the world and the centre is wasting it, cheaply. The total income from Sui Gas is about Rs 600 million, but Balochistan got only Rs 50 million from it as royalty. Recently the central government very generously agreed to give us the Rs 500 million it got as excise duty, but with the condition that this is equally distributed among all four provinces according to the population. That is a big joke. Who is dependent on whom then?
The impression that the Baloch blindly follow the dictats of their traditional leaders is wrong.
Nadeem. Benazir Bhutto's reception in Quetta and the crowds at her public meeting indicate that the PPP now has a stronger footing in Balochistan. Do you think that it is now really an all-Pakistan party, contradicting your claim that federal politics is no longer possible?
Mengal. The rally was held in Quetta, a city where the Baloch and the local Pashtuns are a minority; the majority of its residents are settlers and Afghan muhajirs. Crowds in Quetta don't mean much for Balochistan's politics. It has never been typical of the trends in the province. Our party had a majority in the province in 1970 but we didn't win the Quetta seat. I still believe that the PPP has no support outside Quetta. For the people of Balochistan the prospect of the PPP coming to power doesn't mean much; they have suffered under a previous PPP government and also under the present government. Benazir Bhutto has no programme to offer to the people of Balochistan; they have no reason to get excited about her. I will mention one thing about that public meeting — a lot of people had been brought to Quetta from outside. My village is very close to the RCD highway and my people counted at least 26 trucks full of PPP supporters travelling from Karachi to Quetta.
Nadeem. What are the chances of a political breakthrough in Pakistan as a consequence of the lifting of martial law and Benazir's return?
Mengal. It is naive to believe that the government has let Benazir act freely without thinking of any countermeasures. I am sure they have plans which will be implemented when Benazir launches her second phase, a phase which might lead to confrontation with the government. In this phase, if she succumbs to government pressure, that will be the end of the PPP. If she survives and succeeds in isolating General Zia, it might be the end of the general, but he will be replaced by another general, not by her. She is playing all her cards against one man; when he is removed she may be at a loss. She thinks she can deceive the system, drive a wedge between the army chief and the institution, but the system can't be deceived by such naive tactics. At the most she may be offered a bite of the loaf, to become a Junejo.
India, in my view, has no interest in the disintegration of Pakistan.
Nadeem. And will she accept it?
Mengal. I think if she is offered a face-saver, she might well do that. If her return and the freedom given to her is a result of US approval, then such an arrangement can take place smoothly. That will be the point where the MRD can play a role by exposing this arrangement. Some of the parties may want to dance to the government-PPP tune, but most will not.
Nadeem. The new Awami National Party is likely to have its own tune.
Mengal. Perhaps. The formation of a united leftist party is a healthy thing, but I have yet to be convinced of its genuineness. I am not sure which forces have driven all these parties towards unity. I know that American and other western agencies have penetrated deep into Pakistan's left wing groups and they won't let any left unity move succeed, or not so easily, anyway. One of the main planks of US policy in this country is to keep the left ineffective, and apart from state oppression, infiltration is their main tactic. That is why in spite of weak capitalist and disorganised landlord classes, the Pakistani left hasn't been able to make much headway.
Nadeem. That leaves us with a new force, the Front. But it seems to be raising issues which relate to a situation when democracy is restored and people have an opportunity to discuss constitutional issues and the rights of nationalities. Opposition circles claim that you are diverting forces away from the struggle for democracy and to dislodge the army.
Mengal. I don't think these parties are engaged in a struggle to dislodge the army from politics. They want to remove General Zia, not the army, from power. Only the Front has come up with a clear-cut programme to ensure that the army doesn't meddle in politics in future and the institution as it exists is replaced by a decentralised army which is unable to engineer coups and takeovers. Most opposition leaders, including the PPP leadership, are praising the army, calling it a sacred institution. For us, it is the usurper.
Nadeem. But do you really believe that you can achieve this objective by alienating the Punjab and other democratic forces?
Mengal. We have tried to tell the people of Punjab that this army is your baby, you are nourishing it. If you want to dislodge it, we will help. If you don't, we will confront it on our own, for our national rights, but in that case the consequences for Pakistan will be disastrous. The ball is in Punjab's court.
Nadeem. And what do you want the people of Punjab to do?
Mengal. Struggle on the streets, like in Iran. Everyone knows that the army will not fire indiscriminately on Punjabis, because soldiers will know that they might hit a relative or friend.
This article was originally published in the Herald's July 1986 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer worked as the Herald's correspondent in London and is currently the Executive Director of Ajoka Theater.