July 16, 2023
By Xari Jalil
In commemoration of the Baloch Day for Martyrs (Baloch Yaum-e-Shauhada), which takes place on July 15 each year, a discussion was held on Twitter space on how death squads have been operating in Balochistan. Organized by the Balochistan National Party (BNP), the discussion highlighted that the policy had been ongoing since General Musharraf was in power and how over time these death squads or private militia have not only repressed any form of dissent they have also been involved in other crimes in areas across the province.
Sardar Akhtar Mengal, the President of the BNP explained why the death squads were created. “In the 1970s we had similar squads in South America; then in Germany, and also in Romania (known as the Iron Guards). Here in Bangladesh, we came to know through the Mehmoodur Rehman Commission what happened in Bangladesh,” said the veteran political leader.
“Under these death squads, people are abducted and killed. They are created to crush dissent and a difference of opinion. Bounty hunters or private militia are hired for this kind of work. Sometimes it is the security forces who do these things in plain clothes.”
Mengal said that the death squads operating in Balochistan today were mainly established under General Parvez Musharraf, and were spread out across Turbat, Makran, Punjgur, Gwadar, Kharan, etc.
“No journalist has ever gotten away from them – they were targeted if their stories and reporting went against the narrative of these squads,” he said. “Even 70 of our BNP workers have been martyred in this way – from Haji Attaullah to Jumma Raisani, etc. Social activists have been murdered.
“There is an atmosphere of repression here in Balochistan,” he said.
“Anyone who wants to do politics in a democratic manner is targeted whether it is mainstream politics or as a student worker. But they must never have the audacity to speak or even think in what goes against the grain.”
Mengal explained that squads were given freehand by the government to do as they liked to ‘earn’ their own money. In return for their favours to the government, their activities were bypassed. For example, they were never stopped at any of the check posts, and could easily reach their destination after carrying out raids. They also resorted to kidnappings for ransom in order to get money; and were involved in extortion, from landlords, vehicle owners or businesses. Their extortion rackets were ignored by the authorities. They were also involved in encroaching on land, in drug trafficking, etc.
“They are given so much leeway that even the federal government is helpless in front of them,” said Mengal. “And when the authorities are asked about this, we are told that these groups have worked so much for the state that they have now become state assets. If the government believes that elements that have left entire families destroyed and broken – are in fact state assets – what can we call such a government? Is it any different from terrorists?”
Mengal said that there seemed to inclination that there had been any learning from the past. Instead, no one had any idea what the future would hold.
“Through these groups, political parties are formed, others are splintered. Even governments are removed. From the Mujahideen to the Taliban, there are entire generations that have been destroyed. Where did religious radicalism come from – doesn’t matter which area it emerges from. Can their footprints not be traced to these groups and organizations? And if all this is included in the state’s manifesto, where will the public go….what will it do?”
NO REPORTS MADE VISIBLE
Mengal complained that while the Hamoodur Rehman Commission report had still surfaced, they had yet to see any public report of the Tootak Commission.
“We repeatedly requested the IGP, the Home Secretary, the Chief Secretary, the Chief Minister even the Prime Minister to release the report,”
he informed. He said they raised this question in assembly too. but the Tootak report has not been released because those responsible for the tragedy were ‘state’s assets.’
“When the Tootak commission was made, bereaved families were repeatedly called to Khuzdar to give their court appearances, and were questioned. But the person responsible for the tragedy of the over 200 bodies found in mass graves – instead of calling that person in for questioning, they went to his house to ask questions. Still, there is no sign of the report.”
PAID BY GOVERNMENT
Besides Akhtar Mengal others in the discussion including senior journalist and part of PFUJ Shahzada Zulfiqar, claimed that the government had been paying exorbitant amounts of money to these death squads on the pretext of the Public Sector Development Program (PSDP)
“Since the last five years there has been funding allotted to these groups in the name of security and development,” said Mengal. “Even those who are elected are not given such payments as those who are heading these death squads – they are given a billion Rupees a year. Why? Because they have ‘sacrificed so much for the country’, we are told. And this year the sum was raised to Rs2billion. When we complained about it to the CM instead of Rs2billion, they gave them Rs900 million.”
Like Mengal, Shahzada Zulfiqar said that the death squad groups were now being brought into the mainstream.
“Now government-supported ‘Sardars’ are being set up,” he said. “They are given authority and public funds (PSDP). And these are the new ‘soldiers of the state’ are the ones that discourage the government from having any kind of negotiations or any kind of talks to move forward.
And it is the same private militia and death squad that seems to be missing when there are huge conflicts like the one in Noshki and Punjgur or the recent one in Zhob or the one in Muslimbagh. When the Noshki and Punjgur attacks happened, there was complete silence. Where were the MPAs and the ministers who were being paid? My question is that if there is no free and fair election and these people are brought on top, to do government bidding then what are they for? Just for raking in money?”
Mengal said that there was a strategy of pulling these death squads into the political process to convert them from terrorists to leaders. “Slowly elected people will be forgotten and these people will come into power it seems,” he said. “The reconciliation process is important but some things are central to Balochistan’s political landscape. Some elements will never want the problems resolved, whether these are in the form of death squads or not. They are the ones benefiting from this situation.”
TERROR ON THE STREETS
Senior journalist Hamid Mir who was also part of the discussion highlighted that the concept of a death squad was to put an end to political dissidents. However, in the Constitution’s Article 256, it clearly states that no private militia was allowed in any part of Pakistan.
“This is anti-constitution, no matter what those squads pose to be doing for the benefit of Pakistan,” he said. “It is everyone’s responsibility to raise their voices against these squads. There is also Article 10 which is the most violated especially in Balochistan because it says that whoever has been arrested or taken into custody must be reproduced within 24 hours. But we can see people are going missing for years without ever being produced. Security forces have abducted them, and sometimes those who were abducted along with the central political dissident were released but that person was not released even years later.”
Mir spoke about his own disturbing experiences with the death squads.
“I have seen private militia in Turbat, in Awaran, where two men on a motorbike ordered me in broad daylight to leave the area at once. Later I found out that they were ‘friendly’ with the FC forces there. They are not just limited to Khuzdar either. After the floods, I met this banned religious organization who thought that even highlighting the damage done by floods was being ‘anti-Pakistan’. They forced us out of there. I think the COAS who just went to Quetta after the soldiers were martyred in Zhob should also visit Khuzdar some time, and see if he can hold an open court and public discussions.”
Mir also cited other instances where there were attempts to kidnap him outside the Khuzdar press club and the FC head office.
Death squads are not a new phenomenon, in fact, they can be traced back to British India.
Mir explained how General Dyer was posted in Balochistan in 1916 and wrote a book explaining how he created rifts between groups and communities in Balochistan and used one against the other. The opposing party was encouraged to behead their rival and play football with their head. “This ‘tradition’ comes from the seeds of hate he sowed,” said Mir. “Later he also orchestrated the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919.”
It directly connects with how the Day of Martyrs is marked every year.
Nawab Nauroz Khan who was known for his resistance against General Ayub Khan had in fact been resisting since long before partition.
“July 15 in Balochistan is important,” said Mir. “When you talk about this day, most people know Nawab Nauroz Khan as standing up against General Ayub Khan’s government. The resistance came to an end after his sons were hanged and he himself died in jail later. But he should be a hero for everyone in the subcontinent, not just in Pakistan or Balochistan because he stood against the British army and colonialism, and for that he was also arrested also and sent to Sukkur jail.”
Senior journalist Asma Shirazi said that media played in important part in building a narrative.
“It was the television media at once time where people came to record their protests against missing persons – this must be 20 years ago. Today you can see the number of complaints and protests that are recorded on social or digital media on a daily basis. So the media does give space for voices,” she said. “Reconciliation can only happen if there is discussion and these voices are allowed to come out.”
She said that this was what happened when the state sublets its areas and territories and its powers and authorities. “When they give it to someone else to run then this is what happens,” she stressed. “The government should have answers to questions about what the death squads are doing.”
Implementation of the constitution, she said was most important but also allowing the people to use their own land and resources as they wished to.
“There is no better time than now to engage with all local political parties in Balochistan as well as its public. Only through talks will these death squads and other militant groups will be pushed back.”
Mengal says he has been confined to his home by FC forces who have planted pickets around his house. He says that the BNP is being targeted because of their narrative. “Because of our activities over the last 5 years in assembly, they are countering BNP’s political and democratic struggle. If I am confined then they will use this as a reason and manipulate election results. If they try and push us against the wall the consequences will be bad. I told the current PM that if you don’t want us to do politics we will separate ourselves but then afterwards we won’t be responsible for where our political workers will go – to religious outfits, or militant organizations? And yet they seem to be pushing us there.”
For Mengal it is simple.
“We have already stated that we will not stop our protests till those in internment centers are not released.”