June 26, 2009

BALOCHISTAN: Memories of another day

The 1973-77 struggle for rights had proved to the Baloch people, and to the world, that the struggle for their rights could bear fruit with tenacious dedication and perseverance. The Baloch have not been cowed down by the ever-increasing presence of the army and have stood up for their rights, which no government here is ready to concede or even listen to. The Baloch have resorted to the use of arms only because their rights have been trampled upon and all other avenues of redress have been blocked.

by Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur


The Baloch resistance to the unwarranted and unjust military operations, after the equally illegal and unfair dismissal of Sardar Ataullah Mengal’s government in February 1973, only 10 months after being sworn in, was the most protracted, pervasive and forceful struggle which demonstrated the determination and resilience of the Baloch when faced with overwhelming odds.

The Mengal government was sworn in on May 1, 1972 amid hope and expectations, but from the first day, the Federal government created hurdles and problems. The Federal government among other things created a law and order situation in Lasbela by making supporters of Jam Ghulam Qadir take up arms against the provincial government alleging persecution. Mengal government had to raise a Levies force to quell the trouble as Federal government refused to send help. Jam Ghulam Qadir, the Jam of Lasbela, later became the Chief Minister after Mengal government dismissal.

At a public meeting in Lahore, Akbar Bugti claimed that a plan for a ‘Greater Balochistan’ had been hatched. The Greater Balochistan Plan envisaged independence of Baloch majority areas in Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan through military means. The issue of sending Punjabi officers to serve in Balochistan also became a sore point, though later, it emerged that Ghulam Mustafa Khar, then governor of Punjab, had encouraged the officers to return. Iran too was unhappy with even nominal autonomy to Baloch fearing similar demands from Baloch within its borders.

The final straw was the charade of discovery of arms at the residence of Nasir Al-Saud the military attaché of Iraqi embassy in Islamabad on February 10 1973. Interestingly he had disappeared from Pakistan three days before the exposure. He was later executed by Saddam for being a Savak agent. The Mengal government was dismissed on February 13 and in its wake, the Mufti Mahmood government in the NWFP also resigned in protest against the dismissal because JUI members were part of Mengal government. Akbar Bugti was made the governor and continued for nearly a year.

Incidentally, Mir Rasool Baksh Talpur my paternal uncle, then Governor of Sindh, also resigned because his elder brother Mir Ali Ahmed Talpur, my father, was accused of involvement in the Iraq Embassy arms affair. He was accused because by now it was known that I was in the Marri area that too thanks to Akbar Bugti who had disclosed it to the press.

The dismissal of a government, which the people considered their true representative, was enough to make the people rise up to defend their rights and fight against the injustice. At its helm were people like Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo, Sardar Ataullah Khan Mengal, Mir Gul Khan Naseer, Khair Bakhsh Khan Marri, who headed the National Awami Party (NAP) and others who had suffered imprisonment and restrictions on their movement since 1947 for their views regarding rights of the Baloch.

While Sher Mohammad Marri was arrested in March 73 the above mentioned leaders were arrested on 15th August soon after the promulgation of 1973 Constitution. Nawab Khair Baksh and Mir Ali Ahmed Talpur were notable exceptions to the signing of 1973 constitution.

The hostilities didn’t break out immediately. While the Baloch people waited in vain for a resolution of the dispute, the government was busy blockading the Marri and Mengal areas, the hot spots of the previous resistance. They slowly tightened the noose, to the extent that people living in the Marri area faced extreme hardships just to procure basic rations.

Once, our small group had to survive for a few days on flour which had become quite inedible. Our group consisted of three Marri tribesmen a friend from city whose name need not be divulged and me. Our group was basically a support group which carried medicine and some extra rations on two or three donkeys. I knew a little about treating diseases, something that I had learnt while in Sindh.

On May 18, 1973 an eight-man patrol of Sibi Scouts was ambushed and killed near Tandoori. No one knows who was responsible but within three days, a military operation was launched with helicopters ferrying troops to Mawand, a small town in the Marri area. A fortnight later, a pre-dawn capture of Kahan ensued in a similar manner. I remember the day well. We had woken up and were having tea when the ominous sound of helicopters surprised us because it was not yet light. We saw some 15 helicopters with their blinking lights, flying towards Kahan. The offensive was intense and on a large-scale.

The resistance to the army began almost immediately and, contrary to the accusations that the Baloch struggle was foreign-funded, this struggle was the result of the blatant violation of Baloch rights. The arms used by the Baloch fighters were either .303 rifles made in Darra, old Lee Enfield single-shot rifles or hunting rifles. The only automatic, if it could be given that lofty status, was a 9mm sten gun which, more often than not, jammed after a few rounds.

The only advantage that the Marri fighters enjoyed was their intimate knowledge of the terrain; they knew where the watering holes were or where the caves and gorges were. They carried flour in their pushti, a bed-sheet sized cloth, and water in a khalli, a small goat-skin bag, and survived on meagre rations.. This, combined with their determination, the Marris were a potent force. They would fight, disappear and later regroup at another place.

The Marri area is small, it is only 3,300 square miles and relatively easy to control, so it was to the credit of the Marri fighters that most of the action during this struggle took place in that area. According to journalist Selig Harrison, at one time 80,000 troops were deployed in the province.

The operations were relentless and caused immense disruption in the social and economic life of the people. They shifted to other towns and cities in Balochistan and Sindh. Eventually many had to migrate to Afghanistan. Those who migrated in winter suffered the loss of the young and old alike due to exposure to extreme cold and frostbite. And after moving there, life didn’t get any easier.

In September 1974, an army operation took place in Chamalang where 15000 Marris, including families, had amassed because traditionally Marri tribesmen took their flocks for grazing to that area. There the Army used artillery, Mirage and F-86 fighters, along with Huey Cobra helicopters manned by Iranian pilots against them. The Army claimed that 125 guerrillas were killed and 900 captured while the Baloch claimed that these figures are inflated and they killed 446 soldiers. Livestock numbering over 50000 heads and 550 camels were taken away and sold in Punjab. The army claimed it was a great success but, in fact, it was just a temporary setback to the Marri people because the fighting continued even after it.

We always moved in small groups to avoid detection. Our group consisted of five people, two donkeys which carried medicine and other such provisions and two goats which we kept for milk. It was Eid day in January 1974 and we were moving from Tadri towards a safer place. A few days earlier the army had had attacked a household where Tangav Ramkani a Marri tribesman of Mir Hazar Khan Ramkani's clan and his nephews, Jalamb and Karam were killed. It should be remembered that Mir Hazar Khan was the leader of insurgency in Marri area.

We had slept the night in the open as we always did and moved at dawn hoping to see some Marri household where we would bake bread with our flour rations. As we turned a mountain corner, we saw smoke which we understood was coming from a household. Apparently, the people living there had seen us from a distance and thinking we were the army, since we carried rifles, had moved away, because when we reached there, not a soul was present. Then we saw some people in the hills nearby and upon seeing that we weren’t from the army they shouted and asked us to stay and have food, but we didn’t want to embarrass them so we moved on. The incident shows the terror that the people lived in.

The missing person’s problem was equally acute and widespread then, as it is now. People were picked up on the slightest suspicion or were given away by some undercover agents who had infiltrated the Baloch ranks. Many disappeared without a trace; among them was Asadullah Mengal, son of Sardar Ataullah Khan Mengal, and Ahmed Shah Kurd, an intrepid activist. They were picked up in Karachi and never heard of again. Dulip/Johnny Dass was abducted along with Sher Ali Ramkani Marri, near Belpat, by an undercover agent and suffered the same fate. Shafi Mohammad Badani, Bahar Lalwani, Ali Dost Durkani and many others also disappeared.

Activists were picked up and tortured, as were many tribesmen. Some of them were later released, disabled permanently due to torture. It is noteworthy that it was during this period that the first ever jail break from Quetta Jail occurred. Fed up with the torture, four young activists made plans to escape and enlisted the support of some other prisoners who, although not willing to go through the risky exercise, promised that at the arranged time they would all put on the electric heaters to reduce the current passing through the wires on wall. So, according to the plan one climbed up and put a quilt on the wires and crossed over, the other two did the same but the fourth one gave up after hurting his leg. Minutes after they climbed over the wall, the alarm went off but they made good their escape.

Activists from other provinces who were involved in the struggle included Najam Sethi, Ahmed Rashid, Rashid Rahman, Asad Rahman, Dulip (Johnny) Dass, Mohammad Bhaba and me. Most of them were studying in London before they joined the Baloch national struggle and were also known as the London Group.

These activists were mainly involved in political work which included the printing and distribution of a clandestine newsletter named 'Jabal'. These activists were also involved in educating people and also in providing treatment to the people; the activists who were in the mountains lived in the same conditions as the common tribesmen lived.

There are conflicting claims regarding the casualties from the contending sides and though no confirmed figures exist, it is believed that during the conflict some 3000 soldiers and 5000 Baloch died but nothing can be said about the veracity of these figures as no attempt has been made by either side to collate the facts. Some of the prominent Baloch persons who were killed in action were Safar Khan Zarakzai in Jhalawan, Mir Laung Khan, a septuagenarian, the elder brother of Mir Gul Khan Naseer who died defending his village Mali and Jalat Khan Durkani. When Zia took over some 6000 Baloch who were held in different jails were released.

After Bhutto was ousted by Zia the Army activity nearly came to a standstill though minor clashes continued. The fact that Zia released the Baloch leaders, dismissed the Hyderabad Tribunal and declared amnesty for all took the steam out of the struggle. More importantly difference of opinion regarding the continuation and the mode of struggle emerged not only between the Pashtun and Baloch leadership of now defunct NAP but among the Baloch leaders themselves. Most of the Baloch leaders in exile in Kabul opted to return and only the Marris opted to stay there and they returned only after the fall of Najibullah government in 1992 as the fundamentalist leadership which replaced him was much indebted to Pakistan refused to support them.

The 1973-77 struggle for rights had proved to the Baloch people, and to the world, that the struggle for their rights could bear fruit with tenacious dedication and perseverance. The Baloch have not been cowed down by the ever-increasing presence of the army and have stood up for their rights, which no government here is ready to concede or even listen to. The Baloch have resorted to the use of arms only because their rights have been trampled upon and all other avenues of redress have been blocked.

Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur
mmatalpur@gmail.com

Tando Mir Mahmood
Hyderabad, Sindh.
71000

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