In Bludgeoning Balochistan, is Pakistan Army Losing Support in Punjab?
Sushant Sareen

After the huge furore in Pakistan caused earlier in the year by the Congressional hearing on Balochistan organised by US Congressman Dana Rohrabacher who also moved a resolution in the US Congress calling for the right to self-determination in Balochistan, the restive province was once again the flavour of the week in Pakistan's political circles and media when the former Chief Minister Akhtar Mengal returned for a sojourn from a four year self-imposed exile to depose before the Supreme Court of Pakistan which was hearing a petition on the abysmal state of law and order and blatant violation of human rights in the province.

As was to be expected, Mengal’s presence in Islamabad provided grist for the mills churning conspiracy theories in the capital city – did he return as part of an understanding with the establishment; is he positioning himself for becoming Chief Minister in the forthcoming elections; was he representing the Baloch separatist leadership that is currently in exile and paving the way for a reconciliation between the establishment and the separatists; was he only testing the political waters to see if he could return to mainstream politics; did he come to make a last ditch effort to keep the Pakistani federation intact etc. Regardless of his real motives for appearing before the Supreme Court and presenting his arguments, what he has managed to do (whether wittingly or otherwise is hardly the point) is to jolt the military establishment and perhaps also cause a tremor which could potentially lead to tectonic changes in Pakistan's political system.

Mengal’s appearance before the Supreme Court wasn’t something that happened out of the blue. He had applied months back to become a party in the missing persons case that was being heard by the apex court. Clearly then, this was a well-thought out move. Of course, the details of the political game-plan under which Mengal decided to use the Court to make his pitch and queer that of the military establishment and the civilian government is shrouded in mystery. Without indulging in any histrionics, harangues or hysterics, Mengal, in his own soft-spoken manner, adopted quite a hard-line, not only before the Court, but also in his various TV interviews and joint press briefings which followed his meetings with top opposition politicians. What was most surprising, however, was that instead of outrage, Mengal’s tough and biting words invoked understanding and sympathy among his interlocutors like Nawaz Sharif, Imran Khan and the Jamaat Islami chief Munawwar Hasan, who endorsed almost everything he demanded.

While Mengal very ably articulated the myriad grievances of the Baloch with Pakistan in his interviews and meetings – he cut the Pakistani establishment to the bone by calling the situation in Balochistan worse than that in Palestine and Kashmir (in other words, pointing out that not even the Hindus and Jews are as oppressive as Pakistani Muslims are to fellow Muslims) and even went to the extent of calling for a peaceful parting of ways rather than a bloody divorce – it was his Six Point charter of demands, or recommendations, that he placed before the Supreme Court which seem to have caught everyone in Pakistan in a quandary. These Six Points are as follows: suspension of all overt and covert military operations against the Baloch; producing all missing persons before a court of law; disbanding all death squads being operated as proxies by the ISI and MI; ending political interference by the intelligence agencies in Balochistan and allowing all political parties to function freely; bringing those responsible for torture and murder of Baloch political activists to justice; rehabilitating the Baloch displaced by the conflict.

On the face of it, these recommendations are unexceptionable because they seek nothing more than application of fundamental and legal rights enshrined in the constitution of Pakistan. But in the context of Balochistan which has been facing a very heavy-handed and brutal crackdown by the Pakistan military establishment, asking for due process of law is akin to rebellion against the Pakistani state. Not surprisingly then, these innocuous looking Six Points are not only as unacceptable, but also as un-implementable, as the famous Six Points of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman of the erstwhile East Pakistan. Akhtar Mengal seemed to be quite aware of this and that is precisely the reason why he equated his Six Points with those of Sheikh Mujib. Mujib’s Six Points, had they been accepted, would have ended up restructuring the Pakistani federation; Mengal’s Six Points, if implemented, will effectively emasculate the Pakistan Army and inalterably shift the balance of power in favour of the civilians.

That such a thing will never be allowed by the military establishment is a no brainer. This is so partly for what the army would call ‘reasons of state’ – i.e. it simply cannot countenance taking a back seat and allowing Baloch nationalists a run of the place, even less so because these demands are only a ‘confidence building measure’ that is expected to pave the way for a more substantial dialogue on the future status of Balochistan. And partly, the army will oppose these demands for ‘reasons of person’ – i.e. from top generals, including army chief Gen Ashfaq Kayani, to foot soldiers, scores, if not hundreds, will face prison, or worse – if these Six Points were to be implemented in earnest. At least, this is what Mengal expects because he has made it clear that his demand for bringing those guilty of crimes committed in Balochistan is not limited to only a Gen Pervez Musharraf but also all those officers who were directly or indirectly responsible for the killing and kidnapping of Baloch political activists. Small wonder then that the very next day, the military and law enforcement agencies submitted a statement before the court and quite brazenly denying any involvement in either ‘enforced disappearances’ or in running death squads that ‘kill and dump’ the bodies of Baloch activists. The Army also activated its proxy agents to file a petition seeking a judicial enquiry into the events surrounding the death of the iconic Baloch leader, Nawab Akbar Bugti.

Of course, Mengal would never really have harboured any illusion that his Six Points will be implemented. He knows well that the civilians, whether in government or in the judiciary, neither have the power nor the will to deliver on these very constitutional demands. Take, for example, the judiciary, on which Mengal claims to have placed some faith because of its ostensible assertiveness. While the Chief Justice and his colleagues are all sound and fury on the issue of missing persons in Balochistan, they have just not been able to show the same steely determination against generals and colonels serving in Balochistan that they displayed when they convicted an elected Prime Minister on charges of contempt of court. Forget about throwing some of these persons in prison, the judges have had to show enormous forbearance on the non-appearance of many of these officials despite summons and threats having been issued.

But the support, even if only verbal at this point in time, that Mengal has received from opposition parties like Nawaz Sharif’s PMLN, Imran Khan’s PTI and the Jamaat Islami signals a big shift in Pakistan's politics. All these parties receive the bulk of their support from Punjab, the province which has traditionally blindly backed the army’s version of national interest. Today, these parties which are expected to attract the bulk of votes from Punjab are challenging the army’s definition of national security and national interest. On the other hand, parties like the PPP, and to an extent the MQM and ANP, which have all traditionally been seen as anti-establishment parties and which derive the bulk of their support not from the heartland of Punjab (i.e. the politically powerful Central Punjab and the military’s recruiting ground, North Punjab) but from smaller provinces like Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the marginalised part of Punjab (South Punjab) have today become the biggest supporters of the military establishment’s conception of national security and national interest.

One explanation for this sort of a stance by these parties is that the PMLN, PTI and Jamaat Islami are in opposition and as such they have much greater latitude for taking a contrary stand from that of the military establishment. The PPP, ANP and MQM, on the other hand, are part of the coalition government and hence cannot afford to take a stand that is anathema for the Pakistan Army because if they were to do so they would never be able to deliver. Of course, some Pakistani analysts have also pointed out that despite its reputation as an anti-establishment party, the PPP has always been far more obedient, subservient and supportive of the army – whether it be during the Bangladesh crisis in 1971 or in Balochistan in 2012 [or earlier]– than the so-called pro-establishment parties like PMLN. Indeed, parallels are being drawn with the posturing of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto during the Bangladesh crisis and that of the PPP on Balochistan today.

Equally important is the political implication of this shift in the approach of the main political parties in Pakistan. To be sure, the PPPs calculation would be that both Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan would have spooked the army quite badly with their support for Mengal’s Six Points. Already, the army did not seem to be very comfortable with the prospect of having either Nawaz Sharif or Imran Khan running the next government. Their endorsement of Mengal’s Six Points would have only added to the army’s discomfiture with them. The PPP senses an opportunity to ingratiate itself further with the military establishment and derive the benefit of this in the forthcoming elections. But what if the PMLN or even the PTI manage to get the numbers in the next election to form the government in Islamabad? If these predominantly Punjab based parties renege on the support they have extended to Mengal, they will only end up further alienating the Baloch and reaffirming the extremely negative perceptions among the Baloch about the Punjabis. But if the PMLN or PTI actually live up to their commitments, then it will pit them directly against the army. This will tantamount to a Punjab versus the Army conflict, something that the army will not find easy to handle especially if popular support in the province is with these parties.

In a sense then, Mengal has set the cat among the pigeons with his Six Points. At the same time, he has taken a high risk gamble of his own by appearing before the Pakistani Supreme Court. Although by and large most Baloch nationalists who remain pro-federation have welcomed Mengal’s demands, the reaction from the separatists and anti-federation nationalists (arguably representing the predominant sentiment in the province) has been more nuanced. While people like Hyrbyar Marri and Brahmdagh Bugti have so far maintained a studied silence, others (which includes those who are either fighting the Pakistani state or are lending moral, financial, and at times even physical support to those who are doing the fighting) have been quite critical of what they see as Mengal’s ‘last ditch’ effort to save the Pakistani federation. Unless Mengal has decided to ditch the separatist bandwagon and make his peace with the Pakistani state, something that he has consistently denied, he will have to play his political cards very deftly to keep himself politically alive in his core constituency that swears by Baloch nationalism and which has all but burned its boats as far as Pakistan is concerned. Any misstep, and he stands to lose his core constituency. But if he manages to play this hand well, then he could well emerge as the rallying point for all Baloch nationalists and create the elusive ‘single party’ that so many Baloch nationalists say is required to spearhead the demand for independence of Balochistan.

Published Date: 6th October 2012

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