Assassination, the murder of an opponent, is one of the oldest tools of power struggles, as well as the expression of certain psychopathic disorders. It dates back to the earliest governments and tribal structures of the world. Acts of assassination have been performed since ancient times. An assassination may be prompted by religious, political or military motives. It is an act that may be done to avenge a grievance or because of a military, security, insurgent or secret groups’ command to carry out the assassination. And what better time to eliminate state threats than now, when the focus of the entire world is on fighting against the pandemic COVID-19, allowing the state to get away without being charged of any mischief.
Recently, a Baloch journalist, Sajid Hussain, who was living in exile in Sweden and edited an online publication, The Balochistan Times, had gone missing in March. His body was found in a river near the Swedish town of Uppsala on April 23, 2020. What had he done to deserve this fate? He hobnobbed with Pakistani politicians including those friendly to the military establishment, and with the army itself. Hussain had reported extensively on the Pakistan army’s dirty war in Balochistan, the Baloch separatist movement and how it challenged an international drug lord named Imam Bheel’s sway in Balochistan. Without the autopsy report it is difficult to say if indeed there was any foul play involved in the death of the journalist. However, Sajid Hussain sure had many enemies including the Pakistani intelligence agencies and its narco-mafia collaborators.
Roots of the cause
Balochistan — the country’s largest province by area — borders Afghanistan and Iran. The region has been dealing with various levels of insurgency and witnessed a number of terror attacks in the last 15 years. Balochistan — the country’s largest province by area — borders Afghanistan and Iran. The province has seen the presence of the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, IS militants, and other extremist groups. Meanwhile, Baloch separatists have been fighting the Pakistani state, seeking to separate what they see as their homeland from the Islamic Republic.
Amidst COVID-19, a lot of Baloch people have been victims of enforced disappearance and tortured killings. And it doesn’t stop here, it just continues. While the world is fighting against Corona, the guards of the so called Islamic Jhamoria are fighting against Baloch and Pashtuns.
Pakistan’s separatist insurgency
An unprecedented spike in violence in Balochistan province has been witnessed recently. While the whole world is fighting the Chinese coronavirus pandemic, Pakistan Army has intensified its military operations in the province. On April 26, the Pakistan Army along with armed mercenaries from its local proxies, whom the Baloch usually call ‘death squads’ raided Yar Muhammad Bazar, a village in Parom area of Panjgur and killed four rebels using airpower by pressing helicopter gunships into operation. After the operation, the bodies of rebels were dragged behind army vehicles to spread panic and terror among the Baloch insurgents. The picture of dragging dead bodies went viral on social media.
The security forces of Pakistan carried out more than 30 military operations and raids across Balochistan in the month of January and 67 persons were arrested and were forcibly “disappeared” during these operations. Approximately more than 50 houses were looted and 30 houses were burnt down.
The blatant misconduct and human rights violations being practised by the Pakistan security forces, during the ongoing operation in Balochistan, as brought out in the intercepts, need to be reported by the media, globally to highlight Pakistan’s atrocities on the Baloch.
There is an undeclared ban on media coverage of the PTM’s political activities and its leaders have been tacitly denied any screen or airtime. Newspapers have purged, under duress, columns and even columnists for writing about the PTM. The PTM has, however, been getting its message across through the deft use of social media and its leaders have penned op-eds for international publications. So, when curbs on media and coercing journalists didn’t work, the establishment through its jihadist henchmen appears to have resorted to the extreme form of censorship – assassinations.
It does not come as a surprise when Pervez Musharraf, who wielded absolute power after he took control of Pakistan in a military coup in 1999, says that this is the act of “pro-active diplomacy” that everyone should follow. Many years later, his lessons still seem to be well embedded in the Pakistan Army’s acts.
Islamabad has always had strained relationships with Baloch nationalists who complain that the local people haven’t benefitted from the resources of the province.
The round of conflicts started in early 2000 as separatist groups began targeting security forces. The conflicts intensified after a prominent tribal leader, Akbar Bugti, was killed by the security forces in August 2006. Security forces are also accused of killing and dumping bodies of suspected militants without a fair trial. Over the years, dead bodies of missing Baloch activists have surfaced in different parts of the province. A heavy-handed approach by the federal government, including the Pakistan Army’s crackdown, is often blamed for pushing young Baloch boys to join the separatist groups.
Army-driven disinformation and worse
Pakistan Army has been accused of widespread human rights violations in its crackdown in Balochistan where violence continues unabated. Baloch nationalists have been fighting for political and economic autonomy including independence since then.
Instead of redressing Baloch political and economic grievances, the Pakistani military is determined to impose state control through force. Baloch nationalists maintain that their actions are fuelled by the military’s attempts to subdue dissent by use of force. Many experts in Pakistan believe that it’s the state’s repressive response that triggers radicalisation of most elements of the ‘nationalist movement’ in the province.
Though regular inputs of conduct of counter-terrorist operations by Pakistan security forces in Balochistan do leak out, the current operation involving troops of Frontier Corps militia, regular Pakistan army troops, SSG commandos and air force elements indicate a shift in Pakistani strategy. The current joint operations appear to be aimed at targeting and flushing out the Baloch rebels who have been carrying out regular attacks against Pakistan security forces in Balochistan.
Military’s urge to fix the puppet government
Add to this mix, the recent appointment of Lt. General (retired) Asim Saleem Bajwa as the special assistant to the prime minister for information, and one can see that the army’s vice-like grip over the narrative is only going to get tighter, with specific goals in their mind. General Asim Bajwa is currently serving as the chairman of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor Authority (CPECA), effectively ensuring the army’s control over the mega-billion project. But his real claim to fame is that as the Director-General of Inter-services Public Relations (DG ISPR) he was the architect of media censorship and coercion in the post-Musharraf dictatorship era. He prodded, induced, cajoled and coerced media houses and newspapers to self-censor.
Another one of his nefarious successors whose contribution was building social media troll armies to hound, harass, smear, and drown out the voices that oppose the army’s hegemony in politics was General Ghafoor. He was a volatile and often petty man, who picked personal vendettas on Twitter, only to be chastised and ridiculed. He, however, carried on relentlessly with troll farming and media control with great success. Large media and publishing houses were cowed down, one after the other. However, since General Ghafoor was posted out earlier this year, his replacement, Major General Babar Iftikhar, has been struggling to fill his shoes. It seems that while General Iftikhar is learning on the job, General Asim Bajwa has been sent in as reinforcement. Another reason for managing the (dis)information front is that the army-friendly Prime Minister Imran Khan’s spokespersons and information ministers have fumbled and faltered. They have been replaced more times than one can remember. The brass – perennially obsessed with image and least concerned with changing the reality – was not happy with its puppet’s failure to put lipstick on the pig.
This not-so-surreptitious attempt at usurpation comes in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic when local and global attention is on fighting the deadly disease. But Pakistan’s democratic forces will be well-advised to close ranks and keep an eye out for the army’s virulent moves. Mischief is afoot and only a robust, cohesive political opposition can counter it. Otherwise, the censorship, assassinations, and power grab will go on.
14 May 20/Thursday Written By: Saima Ibrahim