Inordinate interest in Balochistan—Part I

BY subarno c| IN Media Monitoring | 30/09/2006
Media responses in India on Nawab Bugti’s death reflected India’s sense that Pakistan was being hoist on its own petard in Balochistan.

 Indo-Pak Media Monitoring—A Panos-supported project on The Hoot

Subarno Chattarji

With monitoring by Shubha Singh


Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, the Balochi tribal chief, was killed on August 26, 2006 and his death was followed by massive anti-government protests in Pakistan and saturation media coverage in India. The Indian media had displayed inordinate interest in Balochistan earlier (see ‘Meddling in Balochistan’—Indo-Pak monitoring part III on, so it is not surprising to note the recent outpouring of articles, editorials, and TV coverage. Some of the themes and symmetries noted in January-February 2006 - Kashmir and Balochistan as parallel situations, India’s sense that Pakistan was being hoist on its own petard in Balochistan, the idea of Pakistan as a failed state - were repeated again in August and September 2006. Unlike the previous survey this one looks at some TV coverage as well as internet message boards responding to news items related to the Bugti killing. The latter is particularly revelatory in that new interactive media replicates opinions and biases available in mainstream media. 

Indian media representations: 

In print the Nawab’s death remained a top story for about a week and it was on TV screens for almost the same period. However, there were editorials and analysis well into September. With the exception of The Hindu, which had a correspondent in Islamabad and expressed opinions at odds with general media consensus, the Asian Age, Hindustan Times, Indian Express, and Times of India relied mainly on agency reports. The last four displayed a remarkable homogeneity of opinion and outlook. 

The media dealt broadly with three issues/topics: (i) the Balochi national movement and Bugti as ‘iconic’ leader; (ii) the reaction within Pakistan and repercussions for India-Pakistan relations; (iii) India’s official reaction and condemnation of the killing along with expressions of moral superiority. Of course, none of these categories is exclusive and connections between and across them are important especially since quite often the same article dealt with one or all of the issues outlined. The division, however, is convenient in terms of ordering the vast amount of material churned out on this subject. 

Balochi national movement and Bugti as ‘iconic’ leader 

A day after Bugti’s killing NDTV declared: ‘Islamabad finally found one of its targets, 79-year-old Bugti, known as the tiger of Balochistan, who was leading a fight against the Pakistan government for the autonomy of Balochistan. […] Bugti has been the face of Baloch nationalism, the main plank of which has seen ill treatment by Islamabad.’ The NDTV story cited its correspondent, Munizae Jehangir’s, interview with the Nawab in April 2006 where Bugti had predicted his death at the hands of Pakistan’s armed forces. ‘"They have been given instructions that myself and Nawabzada Balach Marri - that the two of us should be wiped out,"’ Bugti had then declared. 

Bugti was represented by some former Indian diplomats ‘as a secular leader, of not just Pakistani tribals but also Hindus. The ex-High Commissioner to Pakistan Satish Chandra says, "He was a wise man, learned man. They could have utilized him to reach out to the Balochis, but they didn’t"’ (Parul Malhotra, ‘India, Baloch puts Mush under pressure,’ CNN-IBN, August 28). The minority religious angle and the fact that a wise and learned man was not consulted by the Pakistan government are combined to convey the sense of misgovernance and worse. 

The history of bad governance was highlighted by frequent references to Balochistan’s natural gas resources. In a story prior to Bugti’s killing, Munizae Jahangir reported: ‘The crux of the problem is economic. Balochistan has the richest gas and mineral reserves in Pakistan. While large gas pipelines like the one at Sui supply the rest of the country, the region itself remains Pakistan’s most underdeveloped. "The fact remains that this is a territory, a people who have been oppressed for the last 50 years. This is a battle about resources where they feel they do not get their fair share," said Ahmad Rashid, international journalist and author’ (17 April). 

After Bugti’s killing NDTV quoted Bugti from an earlier interview on the economic basis of the conflict: ‘"Everyone is after our national wealth, our Baloch national wealth. We don’t get any thing out of it, it is ours"’ (27 August). On 3 September CNN-IBN repeated Balochistan’s economic importance: ‘The military has been pounding tribal areas in gas-rich and strategically crucial Balochistan’ (‘Baloch party chief quits provincial assembly’). 

C. Raja Mohan combined economic and strategic factors in a piece for the Indian Express. He pointed out that the failure to address the aspirations of the Baloch people ‘has also complicated Pakistani plans to exploit the geo-economic significance of the province. All projects to bring natural gas and build energy pipelines from either Iran or Central Asia into Pakistan and India depend on peace in Balochistan’ (‘Killing may complicate Indo-Pak relations,’ 28 August). 

On August 29, the Hindustan Times carried a front page report by Imtiaz Alam, a senior Pakistani journalist. Alam wrote that ‘In his death, Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, once a villain, became a martyr of the Baloch nationalist movement - one he has never been part of, except in the recent past when he took to the hills of Balochistan to fight back the Pakistan army’ (‘Pak has given Balochis a hero’). While the transformation from ‘villain’ to ‘martyr’ may not have been as dramatic as Alam suggests and while the terms refer to opposing sides in the political battle (‘villain’ for the Pakistan government, ‘martyr’ to Balochis), Alam does refer to an important aspect of Bugti’s history. 

This history was highlighted by the NDTV story on August 27: ‘Bugti was not always an anti-establishment figure. In 1973, he was briefly appointed governor of Balochistan, but resigned after a few months after disagreeing with federal government policies. In 1989, he was elected the province’s chief minister but resigned little more than a year later. On other occasions, he was elected as lawmaker.’ It is interesting that Alam and NDTV used Bugti’s past for differing purposes. Alam wished to demythify Bugti as the great Balochi resistance leader by pointing to his recent conversion to the cause and blamed the inept tactics of the Pakistan government for his transformation into a ‘martyr’. NDTV suggested that although Bugti had worked with the Pakistan government he had to rebel in order to secure the legitimate rights of the Balochis. This interpretation highlights the inherently undemocratic nature of Pakistan, a point repeated in print media. 

One way of stressing Pakistan government oppression was to quote Bugti’s interviews, as NDTV did. On August 29 the Asian Age reprinted one such interview from the Pakistani newsmagazine, Herald. Bugti had said in the March 2006 interview: ‘"Phosphorus bombs which the Americans used in Vietnam are being dropped on us. Only three or four resistance fighters have so far been killed by these bombs, whereas the rest are all civilians. Now our options are clear: resist or die without resisting. The people have chosen the former."’ 

The Asian Age carried a PTI report on August 29 citing former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharief’s comments to Pakistan’s GeoTV. Sharief believed that the killing was an attack on Pakistan’s unity and integrity. ‘"I feel sad that the weapons we acquired for protection of the defence and security of the country are being used against our own people from Waziristan to Balochistan."’ He added that ‘"such operations resulted in formation of Bangladesh"’ in 1971. That Sharief would make such a comment about his nemesis General Musharraf is obvious, but that Indian media picked up and reproduced these quotes is important in the context of how the statements by Pakistani leaders contribute to ideas close to Indian establishment hearts, particularly ones related to 1971 and Pakistan as a failed state. 



 to be continued

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