Voice of reconciliation: In conversation with Tahir Muhammad Khan
In the thinly populated mountainous Balochistan, the military operation could not achieve one per cent of its objectives. The issues are purely political, which cannot be resolved in any other manner except through dialogue and negotiation
Veteran Tahir Muhammad Khan belongs to a political family of Balochistan. He was deputy chairman Senate and federal minister for Information in ZA Bhutto’s government. He was put behind bars for demanding restoration of democracy during General Zia’s dictatorship. Earlier, he left college teaching to take part in the election campaign of Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah against General Ayub Khan. He was first associated with National Awami Party but later joined PPP in 1969.
Khan’s personality has a rare blend of politics and literature. He has to his credit a number of books in Urdu, English and Balochi and hundreds of articles.
His prime interest is history and his books on Balochistan have become reference material. He has also produced a book of short stories, titled Zood Pashemaan. His other publications include Balochi Zuban-o-Adab, Islami Riyasat — Tasawar aur Haqiqat, Balochistan Soobai Khudmukhtari Aur Qaumi Masla, Balochi Azmanak (short stories in Balochi), Balochistan Key Barguzida Shakhsiat, Customary Law-Human Rights, Balochistan Resources and Development and Religious Minorities in Balochistan. He is former Chairperson of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).
I sat with him in 2005 and we had a conversation over various topics. Here is the excerpt of our full conversation:
How did you become interested in politics?
Tahir Mohammad Khan: My family has political roots. Two of my elder brothers joined the nationalist movement in British Balochistan in 1930s. Khan Abdus Samad Khan Achakzai formed the Anjuman-e-Watan Party which, along with reforms, demanded freedom. Most of the educated Pushtoon young men were behind him. The number was not so large whereas loyalist Sardars and Maliks were at the beck and call of British Rulers.
Same was the case in Kalat Princely State. The Nawabs were honestly and sincerely camp followers of the Indian Empire. They had bound themselves in stringent treaties. A British agent regulated the affairs of the state and steered the foreign policies. The Kalat National Party (1932) initiated the movement for reforms and throwing away the yoke of slavery. My family having both Baloch and Pushtoon connections was associated with both the parties, whereas both the parties were associated with the Indian National Congress. My brother Mirza Faizullah Khan and Mirza Rehmatullah Khan held offices in Kalat and Kharan States. At the same time, they were office holders in these parties. This family background attracted me to politics.
I started my career as a lecturer, but in 1965, on the eve of the election of Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah (1965), I resigned from my job and joined her election campaign. At that time, a majority of youth were sympathizers of National Awami Party. So was I because, during Ayub Khan’s tenure, Balochistan was governed by a draconian law — the Frontier Crime Regulation (FCR). Therefore, open political party affiliation was not permitted under section 40 FCR. In 1969, some of us joined Pakistan Peoples Party.
What is the current situation in Balochistan? One gets the impression that the Baloch youth is demanding independence and would not accept anything short of that?
TMK: You are right. Balochistan is going through turmoil. The Baloch Pushtoon society has opened up. The tribal ties are eroding. Bhutto gave impetus to education, opened schools and colleges almost at tehsil levels. The professionals and graduates have grown diametrically. The youth is unemployed or under-employed. There is agony of joblessness while the world around is glamorous. They can’t reach the goals set for themselves. There are serious impediments including political and executive bottlenecks. This has caused disenchantment. They are just angry young men.
The growth of politics in Balochistan has not been healthy. Both British and Princely Balochistan were poor, totally undeveloped but independent. You couldn’t blame anyone. But, the creation of one unit (1955) snatched everything. It made us totally dependent on Lahore. Everything rolled out from here. No one from Balochistan could reach or could get anything from Lahore. The jobs were lavishly given to people from Punjab. The development programmes could not reach the grassroots. First, the demands had increased; second, the administrative Punjabi machinery was unsympathetic; third, it was dishonest and corrupt. These factors added to miseries leading to frustration. The sheer frustration gave birth to politics of hatred. The hatred devolved and became an epidemic. Balochistan is going through those pangs. The nationalists think that the nail of neo-colonialism is so deeply engraved that it cannot be redeemed without full independence.
What are the historical reasons — factors which led to this stage?
TMK: When General Yahya Khan restored the provinces, he did not give the same autonomy to the provinces which was taken away in 1955. During the Ayub/Yahya dictatorship, the authority of federal government increased. The concept of a strong centre was not only pleaded but enforced. It was done because the rulers thought the wave of secession of East Pakistan can only be avoided by a rigorous strong centre. This policy was defeated in the 1970 general elections. However, the policy continued in West Pakistan, mainly because the rulers thought there are separatist movements of Pushtoonistan, Sindhudesh and Balochistan. These feeling strengthened two types of movements, increasing militarization and extending the role of Army through intelligence agencies.
At the same time, it enhanced the fear of the provinces by allowing the agencies, the Anti-Narcotics Force, the induction of Frontier Corps, the Coast Guards and civil administration to yield parallel powers in control of smuggling etc.
These uniformed forces exercised uncontrolled authority in Balochistan. They interfered in the day-to-day life of citizens which created uneasiness. They also fleeced citizens on every level. Over and above, the government also announced construction of cantonments in Gwadar, Pasni, Ormara, Dera Bugti and Kalat. It was also asserted that the existing cantonments will be strengthened. This created threat and fear among the people. The politicians capitalised on these existing fear factors. This has promoted the old, prevailing apprehension — that Pakistan by means of militarisation intends to capture the mineral resources of Balochistan. This mindset activated the youth, women and nationalist forces.
There are complaints of serious human rights violations, torture and humiliation of people?
TMK: Yes. That is why this independence movement is gaining momentum. The policy of picking, torturing and killing of the activists at the hands of the agencies has given birth to the feeling of revenge. This, in fact, is a reaction to the use of force. This has now seeped into women and children as well.
Militarisation in Balochistan has created all political problems. How can more militarisation (of people) solve its problems?
TMK: The first military action was taken in Kalat in 1958. It was extended to Marris and Bugtis in 1962 and continued up to 1969. The third action started in 1973 and continued till 1979. But in the thinly populated mountainous Balochistan, the military operation could not achieve one percent of its objectives. Hence, operation is not the solution.
Now the issues are purely political, which cannot be resolved in any other manner except through dialogue and negotiation.
Can Balochistan survive as an independent state?
TMK: No economic study is undertaken by the locals, nor is there any data with us. The proponents claim that gas, expected oil, copper, marble, tin and nickel are the resources which could maintain Balochistan. But all these activities require 30 years to develop. What about these 30 years? International trade i.e. Gwadar and other parts need another 40-50 years. These are capital-intensive projects, require articulate negotiation and more concessions. Can the new leaders of Balochistan achieve this? It is a mere hypothesis.
How do you look at the situation in Balochistan in the regional context?
TMK: Pakistan’s strategic importance is thanks to Balochistan. Balochistan has 750 kilometres of coastline in the Arabian Gulf. It is located on the mouth of Strait of Hurmz. (An independent) Balochistan creates an alarm for all small states of Gulf. It might pose a threat for Iran, because of its Baloch entity. An equal number of Baloch lives in Iran where the Baloch nationalism has gained roots. The most important aspect is the rivalry between USA, Russia and China for control of oil and gas of Caspian Sea. Balochistan and its coastline is the only option of trade and access to international markets. Hence, it has an immense strategic importance not only for itself but for Punjab as well. Without Balochistan, Punjab is a landlocked area like Afghanistan, which reduces its international efficacy. The creation of independent Balochistan will provide new dimensions in the region.
Can there be peace here without peace in Afghanistan?
TMK: Peace in Afghanistan has no nexus with the struggle in Balochistan. The dream of an independent Balochistan is over 80 years old. The Baloch are in search of their identity. They possess territory, they own resources, they have their language and culture, they take pride in their history, unconquered by any one. The creation of
Muslim Pakistan was a romantic division; that dream is over. Therefore, the classic nationalism is once again reemerging.
There is accusation of outside help, particularly from India through Afghanistan?
TMK: There is no direct testimony of any foreign assistance for the movement. The presence of Brahamdagh Bugti is considered an evidence of assistance by the Indians through Afghanistan. It may be true to the extent of keeping the pressure on both India and Afghanistan. But both of them may not like to involve themselves when other international players feel any vacuum.
Don’t you think mere military might will not solve the issue of Balochistan?
TMK: The active presence of Army and civil armed forces in Quetta and other places is an exhibition of brute force. But, at the same time, it is a sign of weakness because the militants attack those forces without any impunity. It is seriously eroding the myth of the military’s power.
Quetta is like a cemented fort with a lot of checkposts. Its cantonment does not seem to be a part of the city while people complain about humiliation, army excesses, target-killings and missing persons. Comment.
TMK: The humiliation has been a manner of governance for years. But recently, the FC and the police have indulged cutting moustaches of people, taking off and throwing away regional caps, cutting trousers with scissors, and abusing the people for being Baloch. The reaction, perhaps, was not to the government policy, but to the expression of force by the militants. However, such measures alienate the common Baloch who is not with the militants.
How do you see the future of the Baloch Liberation Army? Has Baloch tribal leadership, such as Brahamdagh Bugti, any future?
TMK: Bramadagh Bugti is not a Baloch leader. He has yet to establish his credentials. But he is commanding a group of militants, inspired by Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti. They are effective in Dera Bugti District which has been the constituency of Bugti. The tribal leadership yields influence in its tribal territories but all of them do not subscribe to the separatist/militant movement.
What is your take on Nawab Akbar Bugti’s murder?
TMK: Akbar Khan Bugti has become a classical war hero. He is revered and idolised as a great fighter and a brave soldier of the Baloch. Poems and short stories have been written about his martyrdom. He has left permanent imprints on the Baloch history.