After months of speculation, Pakistan’s ISPR finally revealed that the head of the Baloch National Army (BNA) Gulzar Imam alias Shambay is in their custody. The news was broken on 7 April 2023, after nearly a year because according to Kiyya Baloch, a Baloch journalist living in exile, Imam had been arrested from Turkey in April 2022 and was extradited to Pakistan around Aug-Sep 2022.
There are several theories as to how he reached Turkey but the most popular one is that he was lured in the name of friendly agency and support. But his arrest has to led several questions among the Baloch people and caused ripple effects among nationalist organizations.
Who is Gulzar Imam?
Imam hails from the Panjgur district of Balochistan and joined the Baloch Student Organization (BSO) in 2002 and later joined BSO Azad which openly supports an armed freedom movement. In 2006, he was made the president of the Panjgur division of BSO Azad. Later Imam joined the Baloch Republican Army (BRA) which is alleged to be led by Brahmdagh Bugti. However, it is said that differences started developing between Bugti and Imam after which Imam was expelled from the BRA in 2018. Imam had a considerable following in the Makran region and formed his own group Baloch Republican Army (Gulzar Imam Group).
Several Baloch armed organisations – the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF), Balochistan Republican Guards (BRG) and Baloch Liberation Army (Bashir Zeb Group) formed an alliance in 2018 called Balochistan Raaji Ajoi Sangar (BRAS). Soon, Baloch Republican Army (Gulzar Imam Group) and in 2020 United Baloch Army (Sarfaraz Bangalzai Group) also joined BRAS. Both Baloch Liberation Army (Bashir Zeb Group) and United Baloch Army (Sarfaraz Bangalzai Group) were split from the group of the same name.
On 11 January 2022, UBA (Sarfaraz Bangalzai group) and BRA (Gulzar Imam group) got merged and formed a new group Baloch National Army (BNA). Head of BNA was Gulzar Imam. As their earlier groups were also part of BRAS, so BNA joining BRAS was a mere formality.
The Arrest of Gulzar Imam and its Aftermath
On 24 May 2023, almost after a year in Pakistan’s custody, Imam was presented in front of the media in Quetta where he urged Baloch freedom fighters to surrender and fight for the rights of Baloch through in a constitutional manner. However, Baloch circles are not convinced that these were Imam’s thoughts, considering the kind of physical and mental torture Imam had to go through in Pakistan’s custody.
Recently, on 14 June 2023, Imam gave an interview to Pakistani journalist Kamran Shahid where Shahid tried to pin Imam and BNA’s ties to India but Imam refuted that neither he nor his organization were ever supported by India. Shahid also tried to drive a wedge between Baloch by bringing in the question that Sardars such as Bugti and others are responsible for the violence in Balochistan while living a privileged life abroad.
A clip went viral in Baloch circles where the BNA alleged that BNM ex-chairman Khalil Baloch is to be blamed for the arrest of Gulzar Imam and that he was blackmailed into doing this. BNA has alleged that other groups want to take over the nationalist struggle and divide their organization. Khalil has refused these allegations and has raised objections as to how Imam was able to inform his comrades of these alleged conspiracies while being in Pakistani custody. While all these doubts have created confusion and chaos among Baloch nationalists, it led BNA spokesperson Mureed Baloch to announce the separation of BNA from BRAS.
Consequences for the Baloch National Struggle
Imam’s capture is a big win for the Pakistani Establishment and will surely slow the engines of the Baloch nationalist struggle but not stop the Baloch freedom struggle in any manner. There are ample examples from Baloch history to demonstrate that – right from the time when Pakistan occupied Balochistan on 27th March 1948, Prince Agha Abdul Karim Baloch revolted and started the first phase of insurgency. When Gen. Pervez Musharraf killed Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti he thought it would put to end Baloch nationalism, however, it oxygenated Baloch nationalism instead and gave rise to new organizations with young blood – like Aslam Achu, Dr Allah Nazar, Bashi Zeb Baloch etc taking on the Pakistani Establishment.
When BLA head Aslam Achu was killed in Kandahar, it was said that the BLA which was the most lethal organization, would be slowed down, but in turn, it became even more dangerous with Bashir Zeb taking over and doing extensive operations through the suicide bombers of the Majeed Brigade.
This time the Pakistani Establishment tried to play around with the psyche of the Baloch by capturing Imam and bringing out him in front of the world, forcing him to give interviews. During the interview with Kamran Shahid, Imam called upon Pakistan to declare amnesty for Baloch freedom fighters who are willing to give up the nationalist struggle. While it doesn’t seem that Imam is all serious for numerous reasons including threats to his family members. It is possible he is playing around with his captors by camouflaging his thoughts and speaking the minds of his captors to survive. However, it wouldn’t be a surprise if in future Imam joins Baloch politics or even start a political party.
Despite Imam appeal to the Pakistani Establishment for giving an amnesty to the captured Baloch fighters, Pakistan would have released a statement for amnesty or began addressing grievances of the Baloch community, but on the contrary, the Pakistani Army on 20 June 2023 conducted a military operation in Zarghun, Hanna Urak and surrounding areas of Quetta – the capital of Balochistan.
The army continues to detain and abduct people daily which clearly proves that Pakistan is not interested in finding a solution to its most serious challenge – the Baloch conflict. Moreover, Imam was presented to the world in May 2023 just when Imran Khan’s Pakitan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) caused much mayhem in Pakistan and brought down the military to its knees. Pakistan tried to show that the rule of law is prevalent in Pakistan – a narrative that is fooling nobody.
Baloch nationalists understand well the modus operandi of the Pakistani Establishment, and continue to attack army personnel and installations consistently. After Imam’s media appearance, the BLA within a week carried out six separate attacks in Balochistan, while BLF and BRG claimed one attack each. Even after Imam’s capture interview, the Baloch nationalist struggle has in no way been diluted as the people remain ideologically motivated for an independent nation and in no mood to forgive Pakistan for its duplicity over the last 75 years.