Brute Force is not the answer

Gulf News, August 30, 2006

This week’s protests in ’s Balochistan province following the killing of the most prominent tribal elder of the area, do not bode well for the region’s prospective gas explorers.
The death of Nawab Akbar Bugti at the hands of Pakistan’s armed forces serves as a metaphor for the war between politics and militarism that characterises Pakistan’s unfortunate history as a nation. One need not agree with all of Nawab Bugti’s views to acknowledge that he was a towering political figure in his life and a man who retained his pride and honour in his death. Only those schooled in the ways of colonial soldiers can feel pride in killing an 80-year-old tribal chieftain with the help of modern precision weapons.
Officials described Nawab Bugti and his companions as “miscreants”, a term brought to South Asia by the British East India Company. The term was last used widely in 1971 by the Pakistani establishment to describe the Bengali people of erstwhile East Pakistan.

The Bengalis had voted for Shaikh Mujibur Rehman’s Awami League in the 1970 elections, hoping that their votes would enable them to write the constitution of the country of which they were the majority of citizens. But the generals who ruled Pakistan then did not like the people’s verdict or their chosen representative. When Mujibur Rehman refused to give in to the generals’ demand to accept their views on the constitution as final and in the national interest, confrontation between the people and the army began.

Late Brigadier Siddiq Salik, who worked as an officer in the Pakistan army’s public relations directorate at the time, wrote an excellent account of events in Dhaka after the 1970 elections titled Witness to Surrender. In that book, he cites a comment that sums up the attitude of the army in East Pakistan. According to Salik, the General Officer Commanding, Major General Khadim Hussain Raja, who told an Awami League sympathiser within the hearing of fellow officers: “I will muster all I can tanks, artillery and machine guns to kill all the traitors and, if necessary, raze Dhaka to the ground. There will be no one to rule; there will be nothing to rule.”

The military cracked down on the politicians and the people they led. “Operation Searchlight”, began on the night of March 25, 1971 and its basis for planning clearly stated: “AL [Awami League] action and reactions to be treated as rebellion and those who support [the League] or defy ML [Martial Law] action be dealt with as hostile elements … As AL has widespread support even amongst EP [East Pakistani] elements in the Army the operation has to be launched with great cunningness, surprise, deception and speed combined with shock action.”

Troops moved with full force against Awami League supporters, students at the Dhaka University and Bengali Hindus. Shaikh Mujibur Rehman was arrested and moved to West Pakistan. Siddiq Salik offers the following account of the night of March 25, 1971: “The first column from the cantonment met resistance at Farm Gate, about one kilometre from the cantonment. The column was halted by a huge tree trunk felled across the road. The side gaps were covered with the hulks of old cars and a disabled steam-roller. On the city side of the barricade stood several hundred Awami Leaguers shouting Joi Bangla slogans.

“I heard their spirited shouts while standing on the verandah of General Tikka’s headquarters. Soon some rifle shots mingled with the Joi Bangla slogans. A little later a burst of fire from an automatic weapon shrilled through the air. Thereafter it was a mixed affair of firing and fiery slogans, punctuated with the occasional chatter of a light machine gun. Fifteen minutes later the noise began to subside and the slogans started dying down. Apparently, the weapons had triumphed”.

The triumph of weapons was, however, short-lived. After the first flush of victory, the Pakistan army in East Pakistan faced broader resistance. Bengali nationalism replaced demands for autonomy within a federal Pakistan as the Bengalis’ aspiration. Seeing themselves as freedom fighters, the Bengalis secured help from India and the Pakistan army faced an ignominious defeat and surrender. But even that experience has not made Pakistan’s generals wiser to the need for politics as opposed to their preference for the logic of brute power.

The consequences of Nawab Bugti’s assassination are likely to be monumental. Pakistan’s generals might think that the situation in Balochistan is different from that in East Pakistan because the army’s logistics and supply situation is better. More troops can be brought in from cantonments around the country to Balochistan and much faster than was possible during the civil war in East Pakistan.

Moreover, Balochistan does not border India and the prospect of a foreign military intervention in favour of the Baloch is unlikely. But these soldierly obsessions miss the crucial point. Should the conduct of the armed forces of a sovereign independent nation be the same as the behaviour of the British Indian army? Shouldn’t a modern independent state draw its legitimacy, not from force, but from the consent of the majority of its own citizens?