Balochistan witnessed a significant development on its political landscape last month. Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani and Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif met with the veteran Baloch nationalist leader Sardar Attaullah Mengal, patron-in-chief of the Balochistan National Party (BNP-Mengal).
These meetings were held in Karachi where Mengal was recuperating following his medical check-up and subsequent treatment.
The Punjab chief minister was the first to call on the Sardar. He requested Mengal to play a role in normalising the tense situation in Balochistan.
Prior to this meeting, Shahbaz Sharif had taken a few steps designed to win the hearts and minds of the Baloch. Besides doubling the quota of students from Balochistan studying in Punjab’s various educational institutions, Punjab’s chief whip is also having a modern cardiac centre built in Quetta at a cost of more than one billion rupees.
According to inside sources, Sardar Mengal was not particularly impressed. He refused to accede to Sharif’s request to initiate efforts to help improve the situation in his province. They quoted Mengal as saying, “The matters of Balochistan are now in the hands of its young generation, and if anyone wants to negotiate, he would have to meet the youth of Balochistan.”
“In any case, the Baloch nationalist leader believes that the real power lies with the army, which is responsible for the grave situation prevailing in the province, and not the democratically elected government,” says one source.
The Punjab chief minister was understandably disappointed with the outcome of his visit and was reported to have said that he found a big change in Sardar Attaullah Mengal, which according to political observers is indicative of the level of anger among the Baloch leadership against army action in Balochistan post-1999, when Musharraf took over.
Four days after Sharif’s visit, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani also arrived at Sardar Mengal’s residence in Karachi. “The prime minister repeated the Punjab chief minister’s request for assistance to help calm the situation in Balochistan,” reveal BNP sources.
Talking to the media after the meeting, the prime minister said contacts with Baloch elders would continue. Sardar Mengal however, was dismissive of the talks. “The prime minister has simply wasted his time by meeting me,” he remarked.
Gilani and Sharif’s visits were the first high-level contacts between the government and a Baloch nationalist leader after the assassinations of leading Baloch leaders Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, Nawabzada Balach Marri and Ghulam Muhammad Baloch that pushed Balochistan towards a serious political and administrative crisis.
Mengal’s fulminations aside, government circles are attaching great significance to these meetings and are predicting that they will gain momentum in the near future and help improve Balochistan’s overall situation. However, independent political observers are not very optimistic about the outcome. They maintain that hardline nationalists, who are supporting the armed struggle, would not agree to any role for Sardar Attaullah Mengal. They have not forgiven him for his refusal to quit parliamentary politics at their insistence. Mengal did not agree with their stance and argued that all modes of struggle needed to be adopted, including parliamentary politics.
Even Nawab Khair Bakhsh Marri, who was once considered to be a close associate, distanced himself from Mengal when the latter opposed the armed struggle. It created a wide rift between the two and now their respective supporters occasionally make each other the target of strong criticism. In fact the Baloch National Front (BNF), an alliance of hardline nationalist parties and other groups who are openly supporting the armed struggle, are accusing Mengal’s party of being the B-team of the establishment, along with the National Party.
Viewed against this backdrop, his meetings with Prime Minister Gilani and Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif are putting Mengal under a greater cloud of suspicion with the hardliners.
Political analysts maintain that while contacts with senior Baloch leaders like Sardar Mengal should be maintained, it is the young nationalist leaders supporting the armed struggle, who need to be taken on board. It is believed they are the ones calling the shots and they are the ones who will eventually decide the fate of Balochistan. No normalisation in the province will be possible without the green signal from them.