By Irfan Husain
THE recent sentences handed down to the Jamaat-i-Islami leaders by Bangladesh’s War Crimes Tribunal have heightened the simmering tensions between secular and conservative elements.
Even though widely considered as flawed, the proceedings underlined the deep divide in Bangladeshi society. Although the tribunal has sentenced 91-year old Ghulam Azam to life imprisonment, tens of thousands rioted against what they called the leniency of the sentence.
Ali Ahsan Mohamed, secretary-general of the Jamaat, was sentenced to be hanged. These two are members of the party that, during Bangladesh’s bloody civil war in 1971, sided with the Pakistan Army, and stands accused of rape and murder on a monstrous scale.
All these years later, the events of that conflict still arouse powerful emotions in Bangladesh. However, in Pakistan, the only reason 1971 is remembered is because that’s when we lost our eastern wing. For most of us, it’s about the land, not the people. Our war criminals have yet to be brought to account.
Thus, our narrative remains unchanged, despite the passage of more than four decades. Some of our textbooks and, presumably, the lectures at our military academies, continue to teach students that East Pakistan’s secession was the result of Indian plotting, and the treachery of Hindu citizens.
A further element is the alleged role played by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the break-up of Pakistan. His motive is supposed to be his ambition to rule. By not signing up to Sheikh Mujib’s Six Points, Bhutto is accused of having paved the way for separation. Of course, this narrative suits the military as it absolves it of the responsibility for a humiliating surrender in Dhaka on Dec 16, 1971.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is perfectly evident that once the people of Bangladesh had decided to go their own way, they simply could not be stopped when India decided to step in. Rather than precipitate a bloodbath, the military junta of the day could have saved countless lives by reaching a negotiated, honourable exit. In purely logistical terms, the military simply could not avoid defeat.
This, however, is not true of Balochistan where a low-level insurgency has been simmering for years. Apart from the crucial advantage of geography, there is no country willing to fight for an independent Balochistan. Regional powers might be aiding nationalist groups, but unlike 1971, there is simply no threat of an invasion from a neighbouring country.
Another reality Baloch fighters need to face up to is that the army and the state of Pakistan can sustain the current level of violence for a very long time. Just as the Indian army has outlasted the Kashmiri freedom struggle, so too does the Pakistan military have the means and the will to absorb the relatively low casualties the nationalists can inflict.
In fact, it is innocent people on both sides who are bearing the brunt of the violence. It is usually thus in most insurgencies where organised armies, frustrated by the elusive nature of their adversaries, tend to lash out at the local population who they suspect of harbouring militants hence the underground war that has seen the disappearance of hundreds of young suspected militants, and the murder of non-Baloch civilians.
Finally, we have a country that is already caught up in another vicious campaign being waged by the Taliban. Sympathy for the Baloch is marginal among the general public. Even in the more aware civil society, Baloch grievances figure very low on the radar.
So all in all, the situation in Balochistan is very different from East Pakistan in 1971. This is not to detract from the Baloch narrative: there can be no doubt that the people of that wretched province have had a very raw deal dating back to the earliest days of Pakistan. But as we learn from nationalist movements around the world, modern states cling to every square inch of land with obsessional ferocity.
For the Pakistani military and state — in the former’s mind, there is little difference between them — the options are limited as well. Given the nature of the terrain and the open borders surrounding the province, any outright military victory would be difficult to achieve.
And with a volatile border with Afghanistan, the last thing the generals want is to be mired in an unending insurgency, especially with the departure of foreign troops from the region next year.
Economically, ending the conflict is a very attractive proposition, given Balochistan’s natural resources, as well as the need to open up the route from Gwadar to China. But this is precisely what the nationalists fear. They don’t want their land to be exploited as it has been in the past.
In conflict resolution theory, one path to peace calls for enough pain to be inflicted on both sides to bring them to the negotiation table. It is not clear that this point has yet been reached.
The military clearly thinks time is on its side: there is no international pressure as it has effectively sealed off the conflict from the foreign media. And the local TV channels just aren’t very interested: things like the NRO and the latest Supreme Court verdict pull in far more viewers than a couple of dead nationalists.
Another problem is the lack of any clear-cut leadership among the Baloch. Many tribal chiefs, tainted by their proximity to the government, have become irrelevant. Also, a significant population of the province is now non-Baloch, given the apparently steady migration of Pakhtuns from Afghanistan.
Clearly, there are no easy answers. But the longer the conflict endures, the more difficult it will be to resolve. Nawaz Sharif needs to spend some serious political capital to sort it out as it is too serious a matter to be left to the generals forever.