You’ve probably never heard of Balochistan. A resource rich province of Pakistan wedged between Afghanistan and Iran, it is an area of great geo-political importance that includes the port of Gwadar, which many eye as a profitable road to China and Central Asia. Balochistan is also the site of what historian Selig Harrison has called “a slow motion genocide” of the Baloch people.
Despite its strategic importance and harrowing human rights scandals, however, the region and its problems go virtually unreported because Pakistani authorities rarely grant journalists permission to travel beyond the capital of Quetta and its intelligence agencies routinely monitor and mistreat those journalists who do enter the province.
When Pakistan was carved out in 1947, British drew lines through tribal lands regardless of the indigenous people who lived there, and the centuries-old Balochistan was tucked into Pakistan with the coerced signing of an accession agreement. The Baloch have been struggling for decades to gain back their independence — sometimes violently.
Deprived of education and their own country’s resources, Baloch resistance fighters are made up of youth, farmers, shepherds, traders, salesmen, doctors, and ordinary citizens. The Pakistani government often conflates them with the far more violent extremist Taliban, waging all-out war against the secular Baloch resistance, imprisoning dissidents, abducting not only suspected fighters or sympathisers, but uninvolved citizens and, often, killing them. In February 2011 Amnesty International wrote in a press release: “The Pakistan government must immediately provide accountability for the alarming number of killings and abductions in Balochistan attributed to government forces in recent months.” In their effort to win independence, Baloch fighters have bombed gas pipelines, sabotaged railway lines and allegedly attacked persons regarded as collaborators, although in an area with limited freedom of the press, it is difficult to parse the truth of who did what.
In a rare glimpse into this conflict and into a region veiled by its near-blackout media status, Dr Allah Nazar, one of the best-known and revered Baloch resistance leaders with boots on the ground, agreed to an interview. The questions to Dr Nazar were delivered to him at an undisclosed location by an intermediary.
Q: What draws people to advocate on behalf of the Baloch?
A: Those who know the history of the Baloch, those who see that Balochistan is being used as a colony, support our struggle for freedom. Those who have a conscience and are men of reason understand that it is our right to live as an independent people on our homeland. Some are attracted by our bravery, some appreciate our traditions, such as “mehman nawazi” [translates as ‘hospitality’. Mehman is ‘guest’ and nawazi is ‘supporting’], some voice their concerns over the violation of human rights in Balochistan by the Pakistan army.
Q: You founded the student political group BSO (Azad) in 2002. What were your goals at the time?
A: We founded it on February 2nd 2002 to do two things. One was to announce that the Baloch want a free homeland and the other was to say no to the politics of vote and parliament, as it was one of the biggest hurdles between us and freedom. [By that I mean] the politics of the groups that were said to be nationalist parties were ambiguous at the time we founded the BSO. Most of them were demanding provincial autonomy and asking the people to vote [for them] in order [to] achieve their ideals. But what they actually did was to enjoy the luxuries of life in the Pakistani parliament. Plus, their ideals were not clear at all. They couldn’t say what exactly they wanted. This ambiguity had turned the students as well as the general public into a frustrated lot. We wanted to give the people a clear direction, and today I feel we succeeded in doing that.
Q: You were arrested shortly after founding this student political organisation, but released following a hunger strike on the part of your supporters. Who arrested you and what were you arrested for?
A: I was the chairman of the BSO and was arrested by the police in Quetta for protesting against unjustly sacking some employees from the Bolan Medical College on the grounds that they were Baloch.
Q: In March 2005 you were re-arrested with six friends. Who arrested you and what for?
A: We were arrested by the personnel of the Pakistani intelligence agencies in Karachi and kept in illegal detention for about four months. They thought I was one of the top leaders of the armed movement and getting rid of me would weaken the Baloch armed struggle. They picked us — I use the word ‘pick’ because they didn’t show us any document or a FIR nor did they [acknowledge] we were in their custody in the following days — to eliminate us. But later they had to reject the idea, perhaps because they thought they were making a hero out of me as the Baloch people had protested against our unlawful detention.
Q: Why were you tortured this time? What information were the authorities looking for?
A: We were subjected to brutal mental and physical torture and put in inhuman conditions all the time. They abused us, didn’t let us sleep for days, beat us with iron rods, cut parts of our body with blades, etc. I can’t narrate all the details of torture I had to endure as time and space will not allow me to do that, but I say this: the ISI (Inter Services Intelligence) and MI (Military Intelligence) have absolutely no respect for basic human rights, they have no dignity.
A: Among many other questions, they kept asking us who led the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) and the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF), who funded the Baloch armed movement and on which country’s behalf we were waging a war. They would torture me after each question they asked.
Q: Why were you released?
A: It is something those who released me could better answer. I had refused to fight a case in the court, as I don’t believe in the Pakistani justice system — which becomes a supporter of the intelligence agencies when it comes to dealing with the Baloch. I think they thought I was going to die anyway, as my health had deteriorated by then, and they didn’t want to be blamed for my death.
Q: Following your release, where did you go?
A: From Quetta I went to my hometown Mashkay, stayed at home for 17 days and on the 18th day went on the mountain. In the Baloch national struggle, ‘taking to the mountain’ is a euphemism for joining the ranks of the freedom fighters, who mostly hide in mountains.
Q: There is a photo from August 21, 2005, that has become one of the iconic images of the Baloch resistance. In it you are gaunt and shackled. Men are transferring you to an ambulance. Who are these men?
A: The people putting me into the ambulance are, apart from the ambulance staff, officials of the Pakistani intelligence agencies, police and anti-terrorist court.
Q: Where are they taking you?
A: To a detention centre of the Anti-Terrorist Force in a Quetta cantonment. After being kidnapped by the ISI and MI officials from Karachi, I had remained in their illegal custody for more than four months, first in Karachi and then Quetta. After experiencing months of beating and humiliation at the Quetta’s Quli Camp — an illegal cell of the Pakistani intelligence agencies where Baloch political activists are subjected to mental and physical torture — I was thrown into a police station and was later brought to the ATF [Anti Terrorist Force] detention centre. The suffering had done my health lots of damage and that’s why they had to take me to a doctor. This is where this photo was taken.
Q: In the past, going to prison was almost a rite of passage for Baloch political leaders, but generally families knew where their loved ones were held and could visit. In the last decade that has evolved. First there were the abductions and enforced disappearances. The recent development is for agencies to dump tortured and bullet-riddled bodies at the roadside. Often in groups of two or three. Why this change?
A: After failing to break the political activists in torture cells — and knowing that their brutality can’t make them stop speaking about the Baloch cause — the army is now killing them to spread terror. The marks of severe torture on the bodies of the martyrs are a proof of that. It’s state terrorism at its ‘best.’
Q: Are persons at the top of the military-intelligence complex giving orders to abduct, kill and dump Baloch citizens?
A: All the state terrorism being carried out in Balochistan has been ordered by the higher authorities. Interior Minister of Pakistan Rehman Malik recently told the intelligence agencies to wage a ‘guerrilla war’ against Baloch political activists. An organisation has been made by the name of Sipah-e-Shauhda whose job is to eliminate the politically conscious Baloch. Both Chief Minister and Governor of Balochistan have called for and supported military’s operations against the freedom fighters.
Q: Today there are Baloch who would still prefer to stay within Pakistan, but to enjoy more autonomy. Is that still a possible option? Do any of the rebel groups desire this outcome?
A: It’s an old trick of colonial powers to support certain groups to weaken revolutions. The Baloch today accept nothing less than complete freedom. There may be Pakistani establishment-supported groups in Balochistan that speak of provincial autonomy but they have no support among the public. They are small groups. The Baloch today know who the real custodians of their land are and are supporting the freedom fighters.
Q: How does current American foreign policy affect Baloch youth?
A: It’s no secret that the Americans have an interest in this region. But in my opinion it’s the Baloch youth that could affect the American policies rather than the other way around. We are fighting for something we deserve, and we won’t agree on less than an independent country. The policy makers of the West must know that we are a peace-loving and secular people, and a free Balochistan is in the best interest of all those countries that love, and fight to maintain, peace — not only in the region but in the whole world.
Q: Is radicalisation a threat? If so, how are youth being radicalised?
A: It is becoming a threat as the ISI and MI are running a systematic campaign to radicalise the Baloch society. The Taliban are supported, patronised, given shelters and encouraged to spread religious intolerance in Balochistan by the intelligence agencies.
Meanwhile, let me tell you something interesting here. The officials of the Pakistani intelligence agencies attack NATO’s supply trawlers — a large number of them have been set ablaze in the recent past in parts of Balochistan like Khuzdar — and then put the blame on the Taliban or some other religious organisation that is never heard of previously. Why? Because they want to give the world the impression there is radicalisation in Balochistan and that the Baloch too believe in fighting in the name of religion.
Our national struggle has kept the threat of religious radicalisation at bay so far, as we don’t believe at all in violence in the name of religion. We are Muslims but we respect other people’s religions as much as we do ours.
Q: In the February 1 issue of The National Interest, Selig Harrison titles his article ‘Free Balochistan.’ His argument for granting Balochistan independence is a dramatic departure for an American scholar. What is the rationale for granting Balochistan independence?
A: An independent Balochistan will be a responsible and stable state that will respect the international law and live in harmony with the neighbouring countries. As I said earlier, the Baloch are a peace-loving and secular people. We will not at all be burden on the world as we have vast resources — be it our long coast, livestock, agriculture or mineral resources. Besides, we have a separate history, language, culture and traditions. We have our own geographical boundaries, and it’s our right to live as a free nation on the land our forefathers chose to inhabit centuries ago. The world should accept our right to freedom.
Q: Is there any attempt on the part of Baloch political groups to reach out to non-Baloch residing in Balochistan?
A: Yes. Through pamphlets and news statements we have time and again addressed them that if they share the pain we are suffering and stand with us through thick and thin, they will be respected and considered equal citizens of the country we’re fighting to achieve. But I’m sad to say that their role towards our national struggle has so far been awfully negative. Most of them collaborate with the ISI and MI in the killing of Baloch students and political activists.
Q: Do the fighting groups in Balochistan coordinate actions at all?
A: Yes. The coordination is very strong and we provide all kinds of support to each other, be it men, weapons, shelter — anything.
Q: What would a successful and independent Balochistan look like?
A: A free Balochistan will be a non-nuclear and democratic, secular country. It will be the safeguard of human rights and equality. Every one will enjoy the rights to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom to practice their respective religions. There will not be any kind of discrimination, be it ethnic, gender or class. The common people will be the real custodians of the state’s resources. There will be jobs and education and health care facilities. Art and culture will be promoted, and the state will do all it can to preserve the environment.
Q: What would a Balochi bill of rights include?
A: The Baloch bill of rights will be synonymous with the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The citizens will enjoy their rights to freedom of speech and information, freedom of assembly, freedom of making trade unions, political parties. Facilities of education and health will be for every community and group without any discrimination. The Baloch traditions will be made a part of the bill, excluding the ones that are outdated. All the ethnic groups and religions will be respected and given equal opportunities to practice their way of life.
Q: How would Balochistan’s vast resources be managed? Would the resources be shared?
A: The resources will put to use by the government keeping in mind above everything else the needs and welfare of the general public. Besides, we will hire experts from the developed world to give suggestions to the government on how best to utilise those resources. In the meanwhile, the Baloch youth will be given professional training as it’s they who will eventually assist the government in managing the vast resources.
Q: Would resources be controlled by respective tribes and/or regions?
A: Tribalism is a forgotten concept now. It’s the commoners who are doing the fighting and they are the ones who will be the real custodians of the state’s resources. Those who shed blood for the cause will lead the government just like they are leading the national movement today. Moreover, there will be a proper system and the state institutions, including an independent judiciary, will make sure that the resources are not exploited by a particular group or organisation.
Q: Scholar Juan Cole wrote that America supports dictators because they feel it enhances their security. What do you think about this logic?
A: Dictators have always been the guardians of the interests of superpowers. But I think in the modern world a dictator cannot survive only because he is supported by a certain powerful country. Today the people of a particular country decide the fate of a dictator. You saw what happened to Hosni Mubarak?
Q: Americans say that the Taliban retreat to and regroup in Balochistan from Afghanistan and that its leaders are holed up in Quetta.
A: Yes, but not in the Baloch areas. The Taliban are sheltered in the Pashtun areas of Balochistan, and all this is being done under the patronage of the Pakistani intelligence agencies. Let me say here that if the peace-loving nations of the world do not fully support the Baloch national struggle, the Taliban and terrorism will prevail in the region.
Q: When did you become active in politics?
A: In 1988 when I joined the Baloch Student Organisation (BSO) while I was a student of Intermediate at Degree College in Turbat. Back then, there were two blocks by the names of Capitalist Block and Communists Block at the international level and this situation influenced the local politics too. Young Baloch politicians of the time were more attracted towards the Communist Block as they spoke of supporting a nation’s right to self-determination. But it didn’t mean the Baloch were Communists. We have always been nationalists first. What mattered for us was our right to independence as a people.
Q: Was there a particular event or person that motivated or inspired you to become politically active?
A: Slavery. The society. The suffering of the Baloch. Besides, as a young man I would listen to elders sharing with each other bitter memories of [former President and Military Chief of Pakistan] General Ayub’s military operation in Balochistan. My people have a strong memory. They never forget what you do to them, good or bad.
Q: Please tell us about your parents and what kind of influence they had on you, if any?
A: My parents taught me to become a Baloch, which among other things means to never surrender before the tyrant no matter how unsuitable the circumstances are for you. They made me learn that you are never poor if you have dignity and the motherland together.
Q: In your recent interview with Naimat Haider you said you would prefer using a book over a gun to achieve your ideals. In closing, why don’t you share a couple of book titles with us?
A: ‘Glimpses of World History’ by Jawaharlal Nehru and ‘Kurd Gal Namak’ by Akhund Salih Muhammad.