London: It is unusual that the interim government in Pakistan has a Prime Minister, an Interior Minister, an Information Minister and even the Supreme Court justice from Balochistan. The Baloch are, however, not impressed as they do not consider these leaders as community representatives. Activists from the community speak with outright dismissal if not derision about interim Prime Minister Anwar-ul Kakar and Interior Minister Sarfraz Bugti who is currently presiding over intense military operations in Dera Bugti to recover six ‘footballers’ kidnapped by a Baloch armed group.
Balochistan – despite an alienated people and overlooked by human rights defenders globally, has become a centre of attraction for, and also tussle between, geo-political powers. Recently, Pakistan’s largest province has come under an investment limelight with the Chinese, the Americans and the Gulf autocracies eyeing the region for investment.
As Pakistan becomes the centre of news over a sliding economy, mass radicalisation and a hub of terror groups, India Narrative speaks with Ahmed Baloch, foreign policy representative of the Baloch National Movement (BNM) in London about the fierce armed independence movement, sudden American interest in the region and how Pakistan’s unstable conditions are impacting the conflict.
Excerpts from the interview:
IN: A Pakistani Army mission has been on for more than two weeks in Dera Bugti which is unusual. The government says that it is trying to recover six ‘footballers’ kidnapped by the Baloch fighters. Do you know what is happening there?
AB: A Baloch nationalist outfit called the Baloch Liberation Tigers (BLT) kidnapped six members of a death squad. The van had nearly 20 people but the others were let go. These six kidnapped people are believed to be close to interim Interior Minister Sarfraz Bugti and it has become a matter of pride for the minister and the army to rescue these six.
The army launched a military operation with artillery and helicopter gunships. Entire villages have been set on fire but they have not been able to find out those death squad members. The modus operandi of the Pakistani Army is to shell Baloch areas and shut down the operations after a few days, as has happened earlier in Noshki. But in Dera Bugti the operation, which is being led by Corps Commander Asif Gafur, is still going on at three weeks.
IN: What do you make of the American ambassador to Pakistan David Blome’s visit to Gwadar, where the Chinese are building a controversial port?
AB: It is a big question. The US ambassador goes to Gwadar just days after a huge attack takes place on a van carrying Chinese engineers. Baloch political parties welcome the ambassador in Gwadar where he meets local people also.
The US had underestimated Chinese investments in Pakistan and the role of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The US could be trying to rectify that mistake by taking more interest in Balochistan.
I think someone gave him assurance about security in a sensitive area like Gwadar. The distance between the Gwadar airport to the city is about 10 odd kms and the Talar mountains which are close to the airport are under Baloch control.
IN: Pakistan is trumpeting investments in Balochistan from the Gulf countries and is inviting global firms to invest in the province. How ripe are the conditions for investment?
AB: Gwadar does not have water or power for the people. People have to buy and store water, which is stolen from their houses at night.
Gwadar is two cities – one for the Chinese people and Pakistani soldiers and the other for the local Baloch. The city that is for Pakistani soldiers and the Chinese investors is modern with water and power. The one for the Baloch is like 15th century living. There are no schools for the girls.
From Gwadar to Karachi, there is just one double road for transporting people and goods from the port. During rains at least one to two bridges collapse. This road cannot take big cargo, has a lot of security checkpoints and witnesses regular attacks by the Baloch insurgents.
Every blue moon, a ship arrives at the Gwadar port which is operational on a small scale. There is hardly any investment in Balochistan. The only investment is the Gwadar airport. There is no railway to ferry the shipments.
IN: How have the poor socio-political-economic conditions in Pakistan impacted Balochistan?
AB: Things have completely changed in Balochistan. Since 2014, our movement has changed from emotional to tactical politics.
Now even the mainstream Members of Parliament who are Baloch support an independent Balochistan. They will salute the Pakistan flag and Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s photograph in public but help the fighters in secret.
There is a groundswell of sympathy and support for Balochistan among the political classes. Baloch politicians have begun to keep the flag of an independent Balochistan nation inside their homes.
Baloch people have penetrated the ISI, the military intelligence and the police. They participate in Pakistan’s August 14 independence day rallies. Our people have joined mainstream political parties like the PPP, the PML-N and even the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) but espouse the Baloch cause.
IN: How do you analyse the May 9 attacks on the Pakistani Army buildings and symbols by Imran Khan’s supporters?
AB: I feel the Pakistani Army was exposed in front of the people – that it did not win any war that it started. The attacks also showed that the Pakistani Army is not a holy cow any more.
Its corruption and affluence was exposed before the people. The pride in being a Pakistani Army family has been swept away after its businesses and corruption was seen by the people. In fact a lot of women in the army families have begun to support Imran Khan.
People in the UK used to say that the army will not attack its own people. But now they have begun to agree with me that the Pakistani Army is abducting its own people.
For many ethnic soldiers like the Pashtuns at the lower levels, who used to view it (the army) as jihad, it it no longer so. Now it is just a job.