Brahamdagh Bugti, an exiled Baloch separatist leader based in Switzerland, has demonstrated his willingness, for the first time in almost a decade, to negotiate with Pakistan to peacefully end the prolonged insurgency in the southwestern province of Balochistan. This is a significant change of attitude from a top Baloch leader in his dealing with Islamabad. In the past, Mr. Bugti, 34, who leads the Baloch Republican Party (BRP), had insisted that Pakistan should first recognize the Baloch right to statehood and then ask them to sit on the negotiation table. The BRP, in the meanwhile, has had to pay a heavy price for its stance as the Pakistani authorities arrested, tortured or even killed hundreds of young BRP activists due to their support for the free Balochistan movement. Many of them, including Bugti, were forced to flee Balochistan and live in exile owing to threats to their lives.
In a fresh interview with the BBC Urdu on Wednesday, Bugti stunned his admirers and critics alike. He sounded absolutely different from the typical uncompromising and articulate Bugti he had been known to his friends and foes. His followers always looked up at him as a steadfast leader committed to the dream of a free Balochistan while the Pakistani government reprovingly viewed him as a pawn in the hands of the Indian and the Afghan governments to cause turmoil in the country's resource-rich Balochistan province where the Chinese have announced to work on multi-billion infrastructure development projects.
Bugti, in his interview with the BBC, said if his friends and allies wanted to coexist with Pakistan, he would also respect their decision. Previously, he had been demanding that the United Nations should hold a referendum in Balochistan and the Baloch people should be given the right to decide whether or not they wanted to live with Pakistan. He also expressed his readiness to meet with the country's Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan should the latter want to hold talks with the Baloch leadership. Bugti's statement reflects such a great change in his stance that most top Pakistani newspaper and news channel reported his announcement as a front-page story or breaking news.
Bugti has put forward the new version of his views but he has also prepared to preempt a severe blowback from hardliners in his party by stating that he would consult his friends and allies first. As a matter of fact, no one can veto Bugti's views and decisions within his party. If by friends and allies he actually meant the rest of the pro-independence leaders belonging to other political parties and armed groups, he must not be very serious in doing so when he says he would consult them. After all, if friends and allies were so important to him, he would consult them before giving the BBC interview that will dominate the political landscape in the next few weeks. One wonders how his friends and allies are going to say no to him since he has already publicly stated his plans to open the doors of dialogue with Islamabad.
It is hard to speculate what has actually caused this change of mind among the Baloch separatists. However, there are two factors that could have triggered this major policy change. Firstly, the Pakistani military has tremendously intensified military operations across Balochistan in the past few months. They have increased door-to-door search operations, bombardment of Baloch villages and towns and shooting of Baloch resistance fighters. These operations have resulted in severe human rights abuses but it appears that the Pakistanis have decided to completely uproot the Baloch resistance movement by employing as much force as they can.
For example, Daily Intekhab, a respected Urdu language newspaper published from Quetta, carried out a deeply perturbing image of five Baloch citizens who had been killed by the security forces just next to Bugti's news report in the edition on August 27th. Ironically, eight of these people whose photos were published on the front page of Daily Intekhab were actually believed to be followers and admirers of Mr. Bugti. They were killed in Bugti's native town. Mr. Bugti could have utilized these gory photos to draw the attention of the international community toward the human rights violation in Balochistan instead of announcing his support for dialogue at a time when the security forces are routinely killing the Baloch citizens and then showing them as 'terrorists' without ever giving them a fair trail. Leaders are supposed to stand up and speak for their followers and Mr. Bugti seems to be failing to fulfill that responsibility.
Secondly, the Pakistanis have been successful in taking full advantage of the infighting and disunity among the Baloch leaders. They have been reaching out to them one after the other in an attempt to divide the Baloch. Every time the Pakistanis reach out to one Baloch leader, they flatteringly make him feel as if he is the most indispensable leader. They keep telling this to everyone of them. It seems Mr. Bugti is also falling in that trap. When news about a possible deal between one Baloch leader and the government appears in the news, the other leaders immediately react, feeling insecure and wonder what if he is being left out in an upcoming grand reconciliation. It seems Mr. Bugti has acted in utter desperation in the wake of media reports about a possible arrangement under which the government intends to take Suleman Daud, another exiled Baloch leader, to Balochistan. Hence, such unhealthy competition will undermine the Baloch nationalist movement.
Six years ago, when I asked Bugti what would happen if he ever compromised with Pakistan. He said his own followers would kill, replace and forget him. In the past six years, there has been enormous bloodshed in Balochistan and continues to this day. A lot of his own followers have been abducted, tortured or killed. They all deserve justice. Islamabad has not delivered justice to the Baloch. Yet, why does Mr. Bugti still believe that his followers in 2015 would react differently from what he feared coming from his followers six years ago in the wake of a compromise with Islamabad?