The dismissal of the Balochistan provincial government by Bhutto in February 1973 set the stage for the 4 year long military action in Balochistan that ultimately contributed to Bhutto’s downfall and had enormous repercussions for Balochistan – Islamabad relations to this day. It’s useful to look at the events leading up to the dismissal of the government and examine the causes and whether it was avoidable.
In the general elections of 1970, the PPP, while winning a majority in Sindh and Punjab, did not win a single National Assembly seat from Balochistan. Bhutto thus had to contend with a NAP-JUI alliance in both Balochistan and NWFP and these two parties formed the basis of the opposition for the purposes of pushing through his proposed constitution. Balochistan had only become a full-fledged province in 1970 and so the NAP-JUI government was the first provincial representative government in Pakistan’s history.
In March 1972, Bhutto was able to work out an accord with the NAP-JUI which, among other things, guaranteed the convening of the provincial assemblies and that, while the governors of the provinces would be appointed from the center, this would be done with consultation with the NAP-JUI.
Initially Bhutto tried to appoint a loyalist Ghaus Bakhsh Raisani to the position of governor, but this was not approved by the provincial government. The next governor appointed by the centre in April 1972 was the well-respected Baloch nationalist leader Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo. Bizenjo had earned respect for his principled opposition to One Unit and martial law and had spent time in jail during Ayub’s regime. He was known for his conciliatory approach to politics. Atuallah Mengal became the chief minister. The other main Baloch political leader in the government was Khair Bakhsh Marri who headed the NAP in the provincial assembly. At this time, Nawab Akbar Bugti was aligned with Bhutto and against the provincial government. Marri and Mengal were both leftist in their political inclinations and the new provincial government set about on an ambitious agenda of reforms. A large number of the local police and bureaucracy and intelligentsia was dominated by Punjabis. This issue was somewhat neutralized when the chief minister of Punjab Ghulam Mustafa Khar made the decision to recall many Punjabi bureaucrats and police servicemen to Punjab.
The issue of Punjabi bureaucracy illustrates the difficulty faced by the provincial government – on the one hand,it was resentful of the over-representation of Punjabis in the civil service and professional class, on the other hand the fact that Balochistan was so poorly developed necessitated the presence of outsiders.
Another point of contention between the province and the center was when provincial government decided to establish its own rural police called the Dehi Muhafiz. This was done in part to fill the vacuum left by the abolishment of the Civil Armed Force by the federal government and in part due to the perceived non-cooperation of the police which was under the Interior ministry headed by Abdul Qayyum Khan, a lifelong enemy of the NAP and Wali Khan.
It is not surprising why the actions of the provincial government, while by no means particularly aggressive (for example, it chose Urdu over Balochi as the official provincial language), were regarded with suspicion by the centre. For one thing, the Bhutto government was closely aligned with the Shah of Iran and the Shah was deeply suspicious of any political autonomy given to Balochistan since he had just spent a decade suppressing secessionist movements in Iranian Balochistan. Iraq, allied with the USSR, had a history of supporting Baloch separatism in Iran in response to Iran’s support of Kurd separatists in Iraq. So the US, too, was suspicious of the political empowerment of the Pakistani Baloch. The Pakistani army, fresh from its defeat in East Pakistan, was deeply suspicious of the Baloch nationalists and moves like the establishment of the provincial rural police only added to this suspicion.
In September 1972, the central government actually accused the NAP leaders of what was called the “London Conspiracy” with Mujibur Rehman – allegedly they had plotted to divide Pakistan up into four states. The government never provided any evidence for these claims beyond the physical presence of the leaders in London.
By early 1973, a law and order situation had arisen in Patfeeder and Lasbela districts of Balochistan. The provincial government sent the Dehi Muhafiz to handle the situation and the central government allegedly (although it later denied it) sent its own armed forces that actually ended up skirmishing with the Dehi Muhafiz. According the Adeel Khan, the essentially provincial issues of local law and order faced by the NAP government were exacerbated by the high-handed interference of the central government and thus magnified, dooming the provincial government to failure. As the threat of India on the Eastern border diminished, the army’s heavy-handedness in dealing with Balochistan, after a brief period of respite in early 1972, increased.
Finally in February 1973, Bhutto abruptly dismissed the provincial government. The dismissal was justified by the claim that a large cache of weapons had been discovered in the Iraqi embassy in Islamabad, en route to Balochistan to be used to arm Baloch nationalist militias. This claim became the basis of the infamous Hyderabad tribunal from 1975- 1979 and which led to the banning of the National Awami Party in 1975, on the basis that it was acting against the interests of Pakistan. Nawab Akbar Bugti played a significant role in making accusations against the NAP politicians, claiming, among other things that Mengal and Wali Khan had shared with him their “free Balochistan” plan in early 1973. Mengal, Bizenjo, Wali Khan and Marri were all imprisoned for several years.
Why did Bhutto take this step and was there any justification for it? According to Ataullah Mengal, the dismissal of the government was directly related to Bhutto’s inability to share power from the centre, especially with a party that he distrusted as much as the NAP. Dr. Mubashir Hasan, a PPP minister, in his book The Mirage of Power claims that the dismissal was a consequence more of the Army and bureaucracy’s suspicion of the NAP-JUI government and that Bhutto’s hand was forced. Pro-establishment politicians like Abdul Qayyum Khan were said to have played in a role in driving a wedge between the PPP and the NAP.
Others argue that Bhutto’s hands were tied by his loyalty to the Shah of Iran. Indeed in the subsequent military operation in Balochistan from 1973-1977, key help was provided by Iran in the form of US manufactured Cobra helicopters that were crucial in fighting the Baloch guerillas in the mountainous terrain.
The argument that Bhutto’s hands were tied, however, does not hold much water when the events of the Liaquat Bagh public meeting held on 23 March 1973 are taken into consideration. The NAP and other opposition party members (under the collective banner of the United Democratic Front) held a rally to protest the dismissal of the Balochistan government and were fired upon by the paramilitary federal security force. Wali Khan narrowly escaped death and over a dozen party workers were killed. Mubashir Hasan quotes Bhutto, describing how he got a consensus on the Constitution as saying the following:
While putting on a facade of conciliation I was firm in my belief that the violent threat had to be faced courageously at the right moment. The right movement came on the 23rd of March 1973. I had no doubt in my mind that the ground had to be held no matter what the cost. So much so that some of the so-called militant leaders of my party were expressing their doubts on whether 23rd of March should be made the decisive day for a show of strength. Firmness and flexibility were combined to bring about the unanimous approval of the constitution. If the classical attitude of the opposition is gauged, if the historical position of the NAP and the statements of their leaders are scrutinized it would appear that the consensus on the Constitution was a miracle. It was not a miracle, all it needed was clear thinking, steady nerves, correct strategy, a sense of anticipation and the collaboration of my principle colleagues.
This quote neatly illustrates both Bhutto’s brilliant political instincts and his unscrupulousness. Given this statement, it is very, very difficult to believe the argument that Bhutto’s ‘hands were tied’ in his dealings with the NAP. One of Bhutto’s gifts as a politician was his ability to gain politically, in tandem with the military elite’s own goals. I believe that the dismissal of the Balochistan government was as much a consequence of Bhutto’s distrust of the NAP and his desire to see it neutralized as a voice in the opposition as it was an action taken by the military.
The military action that followed the dismissal of the Balochistan government lasted until 1977 and due to its brutality succeeded in uniting all factions of the Baloch nationalists against the government of Pakistan. Even Akbar Bugti, who initially supported the operation and who was made governor of Balochistan following Bizenjo’s dismissal, resigned in 1974 as a result of his disagreement with the centre on the military operation in Balochistan.
So the first representative provincial government of Balochistan lasted only 10 months in an ill-fated tenure against almost impossible odds – a hostile military and hostility from several foreign powers. Bhutto had an opportunity to manage this difficult balance in a way that would not have alienated the Baloch politicians but chose to gain politically by first coercing the NAP to support his constitution and then ultimately neutralizing the threat it posed through the Hyderabad Tribunal. The dismissal of the government led to a long and bloody military action in the province which would have been entirely avoidable through political compromise. Mubashir Hasan rightly claims that the the Pakistani army as an institution is, when crude political intrigue fails, unable to deal with domestic unrest with anything other than brute force. However, Hasan’s analysis is equally applicable to the short-sighted and heavy-handed behavior of Bhutto towards the provincial government.
Mubashir Hasan, The Mirage of Power
Adeel Khan, Politics of Identity: Ethnic Nationalism and the State in Pakistan
Taj Muhammad Breseeg, Baloch Nationalism: Its origin and development
Naudir Bakht, Role of Mr. Ghous Bakhsh Bizenjo in the politics of Balochistan: An Analysis