People & Society

Akbar Bugti’s death and the revival of the Baloch insurgency

Published 16 Sep, 2017 10:12pm
Photo by White Star
Photo by White Star

Over a decade after his death in the mountains of Balochistan’s Dera Bugti district, Akbar Shahbaz Bugti – better known as Nawab Bugti – is still lauded and loathed in equal measure. This is evident from the shadow his anti-state struggle continues to cast over the province.

The chief of the Bugti tribe and former governor and chief minister of Balochistan was killed in a military operation on August 26, 2006 after a prolonged conflict with General Pervez Musharraf. As news of his death at the hands of the military spread, it intensified the fifth phase of an insurgency that had already begun in the rugged mountains of Dera Bugti and Kohlu in 2004. The previous four phases (which began in 1948, 1958, 1968 and 1973, respectively) were comparatively short-lived.

Akram Dashti, who served as the speaker of the Balochistan Assembly from 1989 to 1990 when Bugti was chief minister, says the main difference between this phase of insurgency and the previous ones was that it came with the refrain of a separate state for the Baloch. Dashti says the insurgent’s demands had always been about Balochistan’s autonomy and the grievances of the Baloch people which were never heard or addressed by the power elite. But after Bugti’s death, the demands transformed into one for separation.

Others, however, claim the insurgency in Balochistan was a war of secession from the very first day. “Is it not the legal right of the Baloch to have control over their natural resources, culture and coasts?” questions Dashti.

Senator Mushahid Hussain, who was a member of the team sent by Musharraf to negotiate with Bugti, agrees the tribal chief was open to dialogue. "Nawab Bugti was certainly amenable to reconciliation. He was ready, willing and able to compromise. There was just one hitch: a Frontier Corps picket overlooking his house in Dera Bugti that he wanted removed for both reasons of privacy and security," says Mushahid.

Photo by White Star
Photo by White Star

"I took this up personally with General Musharraf, who concurred and overruled his military commanders. However, in December 2005, when General Musharraf was addressing a meeting in Kohlu, rockets were fired. The inspector general of the Frontier Corps was also injured later. This gave hardliners the opportunity to reverse the peace process. The rest, as they say, is history."

Journalist and analyst Zahid Hussain sees the conflict between Bugti and Musharraf as a war of egos. “Despite his hard-line approach, Bugti was prepared to negotiate. The way I see it, there was ample room for compromise. It did not need to escalate, had Musharraf agreed to resolve the issue through political means." But when Zahid Hussain went to interview Bugti at his residence in Dera Bugti in December 2005, his house had already been bombed.

Zahid Hussain recalls a corps commander telling him about how he had thrice tried to stop the army action in Balochistan as senior military officials were sceptical of the use of force in the province. "After my article was published in Newsweek titled ‘It’s war now’, Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) chief Shaukat Sultan Khan told me Musharraf was angry with me and had flagged the article. I told him, ‘What is new? The use of military was not the solution. It must be stopped before it is too late,’” says the journalist.

He adds Musharraf was never really serious about negotiating with Bugti. "News of Bugti’s death spread like wildfire. Even those who were not hardcore nationalists got involved in the separatist movement and those were already fighting for separation grew more determined. There was anger across Balochistan. Bugti’s death was a disaster."

Insurgents then started targeting not only paramilitary forces but also prominent political figures in the province. Among them was Moula Bakhsh Dashti, the secretary general of National Party, who was assassinated in 2010.

The military establishment encouraged the formation of lashkars or militias to counter the Baloch insurgency, says Zahid Hussain. "Initially, the lashkars were not sectarian, but some sectarian groups became a part of them later. Allowing this was the [military’s] biggest mistake. With that, religious extremist organisations found a place in Balochistan. Take Shafiq Mengal, for example. He was fighting the Baloch insurgents with one hand and helping Lashkar-e-Jhangvi with the other. More than the Baloch insurgency, religious militancy has become a bigger threat for the state."

Both Akram Dashti and Zahid Hussain believe Bugti never advocated for Balochistan’s separation from Pakistan. He was one of the first Baloch to vote in favour of Balochistan’s accession to Pakistan in the Shahi Jirga held in Quetta in 1947. Both the politician and the journalist also believe that the revolt after Bugti’s death was different from other insurgencies. Makran – the most educated and non-tribal division of Balochistan – was not part of previous insurrections. Now, even the more educated Baloch are involved, with Makran becoming the epicenter of their activities.

Photo by White Star
Photo by White Star

Akram Dashti says the killing of Bugti not only intensified the resistance movement, but also left a political vacuum. “Not only did it anger the Sardars, but also the educated and pro-democratic areas like Makran. Young professionals such as doctors, engineers, teachers, etc, felt that the establishment would opt for its own interests over the rights of the Baloch,” he says.

"I think the military establishment has realised its blunder," says Zahid Hussain. "There was some criticism from within. There were even division between the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Military Intelligence (MI) over the military operation in Balochistan. The province’s political dynamics changed completely as a result of the insurgency," says Zahid Hussain.

Baloch nationalist parties and groups boycotted the 2008 elections as a result of the change, he adds. Acceptance for a democratic and election-based struggle for the Baloch rights was at its lowest. But, he insists, that the powers that be have finally learnt that Balochistan’s problems cannot be resolved through force alone.

There are others who see Musharraf’s actions in a different light, particularly those from the power elite. Balochistan’s Minister for Home and Tribal Affairs Sarfaraz Bugti, who also hails from the Bugti clan but opposed Akbar Bugti’s insurgency, reckons Musharraf did the right thing. "I don’t think the killing of Nawab Bugti was a mistake. Anyone who uses violence against the state will be dealt with an iron hand. Bugti’s killing did not worsen the situation. Instead, it opened the way for peace. We pushed the terrorists from the cities to the mountains. Now they are surrendering and contributing to Balochistan’s development."

True or not, development seems the only solution to many commentators. The benefits of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor must reach the local population, warns Zahid Hussain. "The state should invest in human development in Balochistan. Political dialogue is the ultimate remedy."

The writer is a former visiting fellow at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg.