Malik Siraj Akbat interviews Governor Balochistan Owais Ahmed Ghani for the Friday Times about government's stance on the military operation in the province and negotiations with the Baloch nationalists.
Owais Ahmed Ghani, the Peshawar-born 57-year-old engineer-turned-governor of the volatile Balochistan province, is optimistic about the future of Balochistan. He says the province will surge ahead of other federating units in the next ten years because socio-economic changes are breaking down existing tribal structures. Ghani also claims that the current trouble in Balochistan is orchestrated by a handful of tribal chiefs who fear that development will eliminate their hegemony over Baloch society and the resources of the province. The Friday Times met him to seek his views on his role as governor and the unrest in the province. Excerpts: [Ed note: This interview was conducted before the July 8 decision by Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz to re-activate the Parliamentary Committee on Balochistan and the July 9 raid in Dera Bugti in which the government claimed to have killed 23 militants.]
The Friday Times: There is a general feeling that the situation in Balochistan has worsened because of the ‘imported governor’.
Owais Ahmed Ghani: I did initially encounter resistance from political groups because I was not a local; I was perceived as ‘imported’. But I never took offence. I knew that I was part of the whole game. What mattered most in August 2003, when I assumed office, was delivering efficient services. For the people, what you do is more important than who you are. Balochistan required someone who could grapple with mounting violence in the province. When I got into the swing even my opponents began to laud my work.
How intense was violence at the time?
The level was very high. Rockets were fired routinely at Quetta. Some people thought I had been brought in to impose the Governor’s Rule in the province. Some asked if we planned to topple the provincial government. There were also speculations about a military operation. I told everyone that we would never use the army against our own people, no matter how intense the violence. I also dispelled the impression that the democratic process in Balochistan would be derailed. We had decided to address all contentious issues democratically. Within two months, with the cooperation of 850 Frontier Corps personnel from the NWFP, we had made tremendous progress in rounding up terrorists and dismantling their networks. Since then the situation has greatly improved.
Where does the violence emanate from?
Balochistan has seen two types of terrorism in recent years: sectarian violence and the so-called nationalist struggle. The first has gradually eased down and we are currently battling terrorism by the so-called nationalists who are operating with the help of external forces.
Why are nationalists employing violence?
Balochistan has long been controlled by a handful of sardars and nawabs who control all aspects of life in the province. They have traditionally enslaved their own people and deprived them of all amenities of life. Past governments patronised these elements and kept the province backward for strategic reasons. But things began to change with the arrival of President General Pervez Musharraf who apologised to the people of the province for past sins of omission and commission. The government now wants to develop the province and educate and empower the common Baloch. The sardars and other chieftans obviously feel threatened by this development. These people are not fighting the common man’s war. They are fighting to retain the status quo.
Do all the sardars oppose the government?
The nationalists used to grumble that the federal government took no interest in the construction of a port at Gwadar. They also wanted the Mirani Dam, the Coastal Highway, Kachhi Canal and other projects. When the government started these projects, they began to oppose development for the reasons I have cited above. The enlightened nationalists and sardars have shown a more progressive approach; they have welcomed the government’s initiatives.
Who are these enlightened nationalists and sardars?
The Jamalis, Magsis and some sections of the Marri, to name a few. Baloch society is rapidly transforming from a tribal set-up into a progressive one. Change is inevitable. We are witnessing the rise of an educated middle class and the decline of the sardari system in Balochistan. Some twenty years back, the Balochistan Assembly was replete with the supporters of Nawab Akbar Bugti, Sardar Attaullah Mengal and Khair Baksh Marri. Today, they have been rejected by the people and pushed into utter isolation. Even the nationalists are represented by the National Party, which comprises the educated middle class of Balochistan. Sensing this extraordinary social change, even some sardars have decided to reconsider their politics. They are developing their areas and educating the people.
Would you say the two parties have reached a point of no return?
No, the government has never shut the door on negotiations. Eight months after becoming the governor, I visited Dera Bugti and held talks with Nawab Bugti. While I was in the process of talking to Bugti, there was a bomb blast in front of my office. But we did not discontinue the dialogue. Then the Parliamentary Committee visited the area. Bugti and Sardar Mengal separately tabled their recommendations. In December 2004, I predicted that by February 2005 we would have a peaceful solution to all problems. At the time the government was seriously mulling over the idea of granting full provincial autonomy to all the provinces, as demanded by the Baloch sardars. I said that once these recommendations are implemented, Bugti would emerge as a hero. But within a week, the Balochistan National Party boycotted the Committee. We insisted that they should first let the Committee complete its fact-finding process. We assured them that all their grievances would be addressed later. But they sabotaged the Committee’s work.
Was that the turning point?
Yes. But it was from their side, not ours. January 2005 witnessed unprecedented violence. The miscreants fired some 600 rockets in Sui within three days. They had planned to wipe out the gas plant at Sui. How could we allow that to happen? As the last resort, we were obliged to send troops to Sui to protect our national installations. The negotiations process ended at that point. In February, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, the PML chief, spoke at length on the floor of the National Assembly about the Committee’s progress. He reiterated that all problems would be settled through peaceful negotiations. The process was once again derailed on March 17, 2005 when Bugti tribesmen ambushed an FC convoy and killing some FC personnel. We had to act in the greater interest of the country.
The nationalists accuse FC of killing some 77 women, children and elderly citizens, mostly from the Hindu community.
This is disinformation. A stray rocket did hit a Hindu temple and a few people people. But it was fired by the terrorists and not by security forces.
The nationalists also say the government could not implement the recommendations of the Parliamentary Committee. [See Ed note above]
I don’t understand why they now talk of the Parliamentary Committee or its recommendations. Do they own it? No, they don’t. I find it ironic. When the Committee was in place, they sabotaged it and now they want the implementation of its recommendations!
Are the tribesmen being backed from outside?
Yes. We have credible evidence of that. All the weapons we have seized are of Russian origin and they come from Afghanistan. Secondly, where do the Sardars get their billions to maintain private armies? Thirdly, I have seen the Kohlu area which is extremely poor. How can those people purchase such sophisticated weapons? The weapons and financial assistance come from other countries.
How come such huge quantities of weapons enter Balochistan while your own personnel are guarding the borders?
It is impossible to monitor every part of the border. This province occupies 43 percent of Pakistan’s total land area.
So you are helpless in this regard?
Have you protested to the Afghan government?
Yes, on a number of occasions. But the present government in Kabul is not strong enough to stop assistance pouring from the other side. We cannot expect much from Kabul in this connection.
Do you rule out the possibility of Indian involvement in Balochistan?
I can’t say anything. It is for Islamabad to comment.
Does the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) bother you?
No. The BLA is a very small organisation with little manpower. I know that even countries like the United States have not been able to completely weed out terrorism, but I am very optimistic.
The government had recently offered general amnesty to the insurgents. What was that?
The tribesmen may have picked up the gun, but they are our brothers. They are Muslims and our countrymen. We want them to take the right path. The government is not against any individual. They will be granted amnesty. Many tribesmen have benefited from this offer. Several top commanders and other followers of Bugti have surrendered weapons and we have granted them amnesty.
Will Akbar Khan Bugti be granted amnesty?
Obviously. He is too old to be punished. He is a respected figure. We just want him to give up arms.
Will similar amnesty be given to all?
No, not to everyone; some elements, whenever arrested, would be brought to justice because they have been involved in mass murder of innocent women and children.
Are you in touch with Nawab Bugti?
So there is a deadlock at the moment?
I don’t know why you call it a deadlock . I don’t find it necessary to talk to Nawab Bugti. He does not want to talk. I personally requested him to negotiate but he does not want to do so.
Are you disappointed?
To some extent, yes. The latest wave of violence was triggered by Marri tribesmen in December last year. President General Pervez Musharraf went there to be with the people and listen to their problems. In return, they attacked him. A day after that ugly incident, the convoy of the Inspector-General FC Balochistan was attacked in the same area. In spite of this, we did not close the doors on negotiation. However, an operation was carried out to hunt those who tried to target the president and IG-FC. We sent a message to Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti that this operation is not against you so please keep away from it. Disappointingly, Bugti jumped into the conflict on his own by killing five Frontier Corps (FC) recruits. A representative of Bugti later came to me and said the Nawab had offered a hand of amity.
Who was he?
I can’t disclose the name. However, I told him to tell the Nawab that unless he released five police recruits who had been detained by him from Nasir Abad area, we would not talk. He never met my demand. So no progress could be made. You know it takes two to quarrel.
When did you send the last message to the Nawab?
I sent him the last message through Sher Ali Mazari offering amnesty if he surrendered. I received no reply from him.
So where do we go from here?
Bugti no longer plays a pivotal role in the affairs of Balochistan. The province has an elected assembly that has the right to decide these things; this right cannot be given to Akbar Khan Bugti.
How will you ensure progress in the province amid violence?
There is no law and order problem in the province. Out of its 113 tehsils, the problem persists in just two. So you can’t say that the pace of development would be hampered due to lawlessness merely in two tehsils. Let me remind you that the situation in the two tehsils has also improved. In the next tens years, the province will be far ahead of the other provinces of Pakistan.
This interview was originally published in The Friday Times July 14-20, 2006 issue