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Home Front; The changing face of Balochistan’s separatist insurgency

Home Front; The changing face of Balochistan’s separatist insurgency

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Published by Sani Panhwar
Home Front

The changing face of Balochistan’s separatist insurgency

By MAHVISH AHMA

Home Front

The changing face of Balochistan’s separatist insurgency

By MAHVISH AHMA

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Published by: Sani Panhwar on Jul 20, 2014
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Home Front
The changing face of Balochistan’s separatist insurgencyBy MAHVISH AHMAIN THE EARLY HOURS
 of 25December 2012, the paramilitaryFrontier Corps of PakistansBalochistan province launched anoperation in the small, remotevillage of Mai. The operation wentunnoticed by all save a handful oflocal newspapers. According toresidents of Mai, which lies deepinside Balochistan, six helicoptersand up to two hundred cars carrying soldiers arrived on that winter morning.The soldiers went door-to-door pointing guns, and were surprised when peopleanswered their accusations of being foreign spies with recitations of the kalima.“They thought we were Hindu agents,” said Muhammad Amin, a wrinkledfarmer who witnessed the soldiers’ arrival.Three helicopters circled above the village, and shelled some mud homes. A fewabandoned huts with mortar holes still dot the landscape. “It was as if the earthwas on fire, and the sky was raining bullets,” Amin said. Three other chopperslanded in front of a mosque, where the village’s women and children had hiddenthemselves. “Soldiers pulled us outside to stand in the cold for several hours,”Mahnaz, a peasant woman, said. Other villages nearby underwent similarattacks. By the time the operation ended, the Frontier Corps had set up 12checkpoints controlling every entry and exit around Mai.At first glance, Mai does not look like a sufficiently grave threat to warrant anykind of troop deployment. It is a 12-hour drive from the nearest city—Karachi—and its sandy-brown mud huts are home to a couple of hundred peasants whospend their days grazing sheep and goats. After the operation, critics in Balochnewspapers raged against the Pakistani media for failing to cover it. Abdul Malik,then a member of the provincial assembly and now the chief minister ofBalochistan, claimed the operation had taken innocent lives, and that heavybombardment had destroyed several villages. It was a “genocide” that had to bestopped, Malik fumed, and a “brutality” that needed to end. For those who did
 
not know Mai, the attack was a clear example of the rampant violence exercisedby Pakistani security forces within their own country.However, several eyewitnesses claimed that the Frontier Corps had run a highlytargeted operation. At the far edge of Mai, atop a small incline, a hamlet ofdilapidated mud huts still stands amid much rubble. Inside the huts, long steelbars that supported the ceilings have collapsed, and shards of glass from brokenwindows can pierce the feet of unsuspecting visitors. On the floor of one hut liethe burnt and scattered pages of a medical textbook. The ripped pages of a bookof Islamic political philosophy lie in a heap in a corner. Crumbled pages of aseparatist newspaper called the Daily Tawar—its Karachi offices were attacked,either by unknown assailants or security forces, depending on whom you asked,a few months after the operation in Mai—flutter around the empty rooms.Mahnaz said that when the soldiers came that morning, they were looking for aman who used to live in one of these huts: her brother, Dr Allah Nazar, thecommander of the Baloch Liberation Front—an ethno-nationalist militia that isbattling for the complete independence of Balochistan.Today, when war and militancy in Pakistan are often equated with the activitiesof al-Qaeda and the Taliban, few, even within Pakistan, know much aboutBalochistan and the separatist movement that has brewed there for decades.Stories of Balochistan’s “disappeared” have received some attention in the pressand from the authorities—especially from courts investigating accusationsagainst Pakistani security forces—but have rarely been placed within the contextof an ongoing war between Baloch separatists and the Pakistani state. Fewer stillhave heard of Nazar, a doctor-turned-guerrilla commander who was abductedand tortured by Pakistani security forces for his involvement in Baloch studentmovements, including the Baloch Student Organisation–Azaad, which hefounded over a decade ago. Nazar now leads a middle-class insurgency—ofengineers, peasants, college dropouts, ex-policemen, shopkeepers and others—that is the latest iteration of Balochistan’s 67-year-old movement forindependence. In a country full of battle lines, Nazar is engaged in an old warbetween the Pakistani state and a motley group of separatist sarmachars—aBalochi word for militants that means “those who are willing to sacrifice theirheads.”For the Pakistani state, Balochistan is both a strategic asset and an inseparablepiece of the puzzle that makes up the country. The province is Pakistan’s largest;it forms 45 percent of the country’s territory, and borders Iran and Afghanistan.It has the country’s longest coastline and largest natural gas reserves, andcontains a vast array of resources such as coal, oil, copper, gold, lead and zinc.Other countries have not only kept a close eye on Balochistan, but have, atvarious points, been involved in its internal affairs. The nature of that
 
involvement has varied from support for the separatist rebellion (Afghanistan,allegedly India); the deployment of fighter jets and gunships to squash therebellion (Iran); the construction and operation of a lucrative deepwater port(China); the hunting of the province’s fowl (Saudi Arabia); an old lease on partsof its territory (Oman); the requisition of its long and winding roads to transportgoods to troops in Afghanistan (the United States); and billion-dollarinvestments to mine its mineral-rich earth (anyone who can get their hands on acontract).Rumours of Afghan and Indian support for Baloch separatists regularly causeuproar among Pakistani officials. Last October, Pakistan’s then foreign secretary, Jalil Abbas Jilani, presented previously unavailable “evidence of foreign hands inBalochistan violence” to Indian authorities. A 2010 WikiLeaks cable confirmedthat the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, sheltered Brahamdagh Bugti, a youngBaloch separatist leader, for several years. (He was eventually packed off topolitical asylum in Switzerland—a move backed by the United States.)In this conflict, Nazar is emerging as one of the most important militant leadersoperating today. Of the three commanders of active separatist militias in theprovince, he is the only one who remains in Balochistan, and the only one whodoes not hail from tribal royalty. The other two commanders of his generation—Bugti and Hyrbyair Marri, who is also living in exile in Europe—are descendantsof powerful tribes whose patriarchs once held cabinet-level positions in theprovincial government, and also formed and led insurgencies against the state.The Baloch movement has had a leftist cast since the 1970s; the veteran separatistleader Khair Baksh Marri, who died in June this year, was famously Marxist, andthe predilection continues among younger leaders, including Nazar.Nevertheless, Nazar’s rise through the ranks of the province’s ethno-nationalistsrepresents a fundamental shift within the hierarchy of the movement. From oneled by sardars, or tribal leaders, it is becoming one spearheaded and populatedby a non-tribal cohort of middle-class Baloch. Nazar’s leadership exemplifies theshift of the movement’s epicentre from Balochistan’s north-east—home to theMarris and Bugtis, and known for its longstanding separatist sentiments—to theremittance-rich, urbanising south, which is home to a burgeoning educated andprofessional class, which has historically remained on the sidelines of theprovince’s politics.Over two years and more than a hundred interviews with Baloch in the province,as well as in cities such as Karachi and Islamabad, it became clear that the BLF,and other middle-class organisations such as the Baloch National Movement andthe Baloch Student Organisation–Azaad, are gaining in influence. Middle-classBaloch are increasingly forsaking statist, electoral politics out of sympathy for arapidly changing separatist movement. The state’s heavy-handed response

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