Another Province, Another Six Points
As Sardar Akhtar Mengal’s boisterous trip to Islamabad comes to an eventful end, the leader of Balochistan National Party (BNP), the troubled province’s largest nationalist group, and his aides must be sitting down somewhere to reassess whether or not the journey to Islamabad was worth it. Some of them still wonder if the former chief minister’s appearance before the Supreme Court has won them more friends or developed new rivalries.
In the midst of the hullaballoo in the media about possible reconciliation between disgruntled Baloch nationalists and the government, the darker and often unnoticed side of the picture has something totally different to say: More trouble for Mengal.
The BNP complains that it is the most misunderstood political force in Balochistan. It has tens of thousands of voters and party offices in every district and tehsil of the province. Some of its central leaders include ethnic Pashtuns, too. The party enjoys a cadre of ardent student followers through one of the three wings of the Baloch Students Organisation (BSO). Despite this, BNP’s politics, the party leaders grumble, is seemingly unacceptable to the ‘establishment’ and militant Baloch nationalists.
Several top BNP leaders, including the Party’s secretary general and former Senator Habib Jalib Baloch, have been killed allegedly by what Sardar Mengal calls as the death squads of the intelligence agencies.
For the country’s security apparatus, BNP’s overt demand for Baloch people’s right to self-determination is too hard an expression to tolerate. Officials in the military say the BNP cannot be fully trusted because its temporary goal may be the attainment of provincial autonomy but eventually even the BNP will end up joining hands with the forces that seek Balochistan’s independence.
On the other hand, Baloch political parties and armed groups that advocate for an independent Balochistan view BNP as “too soft” to qualify as a “genuine nationalist” party. They believe that the BNP is a collaborator with Islamabad to mitigate the Baloch demand for independence. Some militant nationalists think the Pakistan establishment is trying to pit Mengal against pro-independence leaders like Hairbayar Marri and Bhramdagh Bugti by helping him in the upcoming general elections. BNP denies such charges.
Mengal’s visit has alerted at least three groups of political players in Balochistan. All of them have reacted differently to his appearance before the Supreme Court and meetings with popular opposition leaders, including Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League and Imran Khan of PTI.
Those exiled treat Mengal’s return as a “compromise” and a sell-out to the government. After all, Mengal’s visit to Islamabad was the first official contact between disillusioned Baloch nationalists and the State through the Supreme Court of Pakistan.
Suleman Dawood, the Khan of Kalat who convened a grand Jirga in 2006 to take Balochistan’s case against Pakistan at the International Court of Justice, accused Mengal of brokering a deal with the government.
“No one can return to Pakistan and hold negotiations in Islamabad without the approval of the establishment,” said Dawood who now lives on political asylum in United Kingdom. Balochistan’s former leader of the opposition in the Balochistan Assembly, Kachkol Ali strongly condemned Mengal’s decision. He said Mengal had “significantly undermined” the efforts of the international organisations to help the Baloch while referring to the US Congress that held a hearing on Balochistan in February and the UN Working Group on enforced disappearances which recently visited Balochistan.
Mengal’s visit has alarmed the members of the Balochistan government who fear being replaced by nationalists in the near future. If Mengal holds talks with the government and agrees to return to the national mainstream, his tribal and political opponents fear he is going to take away their jobs and authority.
Consequently, Balochistan Chief Minister Nawab Aslam Raisani immediately reacted to Mengal’s media interactions and brushed aside the charges of corruption and bad governance in his province. The CM said it was easy to accuse his government of corruption but hard to substantiate the charges.
“Accusation of corruption against the elected Balochistan government is ‘an insult to public mandate’,” said Raisani.
Provincial leaders of the Pakistan Muslim League (N), such as Sardar Sanaullah Zehri, a powerful tribal chief in Mengal’s native district of Khuzdar, were not very happy with their party chief’s meeting with Mengal. In Quetta, he insisted before the local media that Sharif had not endorsed Mengal’s Six Points.
Talal Bugti, the head of the Jamhoori Watan Party (JWP), also immediately rushed to Lahore to meet Nawaz Sharif, days after Mengal’s meeting, in order to make sure that Sharif had not removed him from his list of trusted Baloch leaders. Mengal’s old friends from the moderate National Party did not go to meet him in Islamabad because they also felt politically challenged on his arrival.
Some federal ministers and sections of the establishment have questioned Mengal’s commitment to Pakistan. They view his approach and Six Points similar to that of Sheikh Mujeeb-ur-Rehman of East Pakistan. They suspect Mengal is making efforts to dismember the country and defame the armed forces. Not only did the government representatives refrain from meeting Mengal, they also completely rejected his Six Points in an official submission at the Supreme Court saying that the intelligence agencies did not maintain any death squads nor were the missing persons in their custody.
“Mengal should stop defaming the army,” warned Rehman Malik, the Interior Minister.
The national media and civil society groups reacted to Mengal’s return to Pakistan with such overexcitement that the BNP now feels it has been misunderstood both by the media and the hardliner Baloch nationalists. They say Sardar Mengal’s Six Points, if wholeheartedly implemented, should not be confused with the actual Baloch demands. These points should only lead to developing trust between the Baloch people and the government.
A Supreme Court verdict on Balochistan will not mean much in terms of deescalating tensions. More tangible measures backed by the parliament, such as the Aghaz-e-Haqooq-e-Balochistan and the passage of the 18th Constitutional amendment too did not help in normalising the situation in Balochistan because of the government’s failure to fulfill the promises made to the province on these two occasions.
Some of Mengal’s demands, such as the release of the missing persons, were included in the Aghaz-e-Haqooq-Balochistan Package but never met.
Mengal is no Sheikh Mujeeb-ur-Rehman. He does not lead any of the fierce armed groups like the Baloch Liberation Army or Baloch Republican Army. The only threat he poses is that of street power. The government’s treatment of him with suspicion will undermine the interests of those who want to keep Balochistan as a part of Pakistan.
Mengal is a moderate Baloch leader who finds himself sandwiched between an unaccommodating Pakistani military and an irreconcilable Baloch militant movement. He says his party will not contest elections in a ‘war-like-situation’ whereas the hardliner nationalists accuse him of having already jumped off the ‘freedom ship’. If Islamabad does not comply with Mengal’s list of political demands, it will be renewing the lifecycle of the insurgency in Balochistan.
Mengal is among the last generation of the reconcilable Baloch nationalists. This cost is very high if the government fails to do business with him. (Courtesy: The News on Sunday)