Every man has his fault, and honesty is his. I ha’ told him on’t, but I could ne’er get him from’t ~ Shakespeare
The last of the famed Baloch triumvirate, Sardar Attaullah Khan Mengal, breathed his last a week ago. He, along with the other two stalwarts – Nawab Khair Bux Khan Marri and Mir Ghaus Bux Bizenjo – had defined, shaped, and led the Baloch nationalist struggle in the 20th century. The fourth star in that galaxy was Nawab Muhammad Akbar Khan Bugti, who spearheaded the struggle in the early 21st century, and was assassinated — with his boots on.
Their ideologies, vision for Balochistan, and political paths merged and diverged, but each one of this quad was a larger-than-life figure, who left a lasting impression on both politics and political workers inside Balochistan and outside its borders.
Unlike his father Rasul Bux who was an apolitical but powerful chief of the Mengal tribe, from its Shahizai clan, Attaullah Khan cut his political teeth at a young age. Born in 1929 in Wadh, Balochistan, he was exposed to the political currents, and tumult, of the era in Karachi, where he had gone to attend college. The city, which was the federal capital then, was the crossroads of Marxist, nationalist, and Islamist, ideas, and outfits.
Protests against the so-called One Unit – an amalgamation of the then West Pakistan’s four provinces to give it an ostensible parity vis-à-vis East Pakistan – and subsequently against Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s martial law regime that brutalised the Baloch campaigners like Babu Nauroz Khan, were some of the young Attaullah Khan’s early political experiences. He, however, was not terribly enamoured with the textbook Marxism like Bizenjo, a romantic tribal notion of communism as Marri, or flamboyant capitalism like Bugti. But upon becoming the Sardar – tribal chief – himself, he gave away half his lands to his tribesmen and tenants, as Nawab Marri had also done. Like his slender, upright figure, Sardar Mengal was straight and narrow morally as well. He remained a brutally honest man, till the end. Speaking unvarnished truth to the friend or foe, was his hallmark.
Sardar Mengal became a member of the National Assembly in 1960 as an independent, and along with Nawab Marri went after the Ayub Khan regime all guns blazing. Ayub Khan got Sardar Mengal arrested for allegedly making a seditious speech, deposed him as the tribe’s chief, and replaced him with his elderly cousin, Karam Khan. Sardar Mengal was later released, only to be rearrested and imprisoned for the murder of the army-imposed chief, who had been slain. He spent some four years in prison during Ayub Khan’s martial law. Other Baloch leaders faced a similar predicament.
Unlike his father Rasul Bux who was an apolitical but powerful chief of the Mengal tribe, from its Shahizai clan, Attaullah Khan cut his political teeth at a young age.
After Ayub Khan was ousted by General Yahya Khan, Sardar Mengal along with his other Baloch peers joined the leftist-socialist National Awami Party (NAP) led by the Pashtun nationalist Abdul Wali Khan. In the 1970 elections, the NAP won a plurality of seats in the NWFP (present-day Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa) and a thumping majority in Balochistan, which by then had become a province for the first time. After the 1971 debacle, Sardar Mengal became the first elected chief minister of Balochistan in May 1972. But his government lasted a mere ten months, when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto – country’s president under the interim constitution– whose Pakistan People’s Party (Party) had not won a single seat from Balochistan, dismissed both Sardar Mengal’s ministry and Bizenjo as the governor.
Bhutto and his interior minister Qayyum Khan, who headed his faction of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML), as well as Nawab Bugti who at the time was estranged from his NAP colleagues, had orchestrated protests and a tribal turmoil in Balochistan and then restrained the federal security personnel from deploying in aid of the provincial government. In the mayhem that ensued, Marri and Mengal tribesmen took to the hills, Bhutto ordered a full-blown army operation in Balochistan, led by none other than General Tikka Khan, who had earned the monikers Butcher of Bengal for brutalities against Bengalis in East Pakistan. The NAP ministry in the NWFP resigned in protest. Bhutto who had become the prime minister by then, with the assistance of the Director General Inter-Services Intelligence (DG ISI) Ghulam Jilani Khan fabricated a case against the NAP leadership for receiving arms from Iraq for the insurgency.
Rafi Raza, a close confidant of Bhutto and his minister, wrote later that Iraqi officials told him personally that the arms cache discovered from their embassy in Islamabad was destined for use against their archrival Iran, and not for the NAP. After the NWFP’s governor was assassinated in 1975, Bhutto banned NAP and eventually got the Supreme Court to rubber-stamp his decision.
Sardar Mengal along with over eighty NAP members, including all its top leadership, was incarcerated in Hyderabad. The NAP leadership was tried by a Bhutto-appointed kangaroo court held inside the prison on charges of sedition and plotting to form independent Pashtunistan and Balochistan. The proceedings, dubbed as the Hyderabad Conspiracy Case lasted for over two years without proving a single charge.
While imprisoned there, Sardar Mengal received the news that one of his sons, Asadullah Mengal had been abducted by the security agencies. It was soon followed by unconfirmed reports that Asadullah – barely 19 or 20 then – along with a friend had been killed in custody. Bhutto and his officials, however, would not confirm the news. When the imprisoned NAP colleagues went to comfort Sardar Mengal in jail, he refused to accept the condolences saying that he wouldn’t do so till he knew if his son had indeed been killed or not.
Asadullah Mengal was the first missing person thus from Balochistan. In the years to come, thousands of Baloch parents, siblings, and wives, would eventually experience the same tragic predicament as Sardar Mengal where they could neither bury and mourn their loved ones, nor know with certainty if they were still alive.
After he overthrew Bhutto in his infamous coup d’état of July 1977, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq visited the NAP leaders in Hyderabad and offered to release them. Mengal who by that time had spent another four years of his life in Bhutto’s prisons, including the notorious Sahiwal jail, along with the Baloch leadership of the NAP refused to leave prison till cases against all political prisoners were not withdrawn.
Asadullah Mengal was the first missing person from Balochistan. In the years to come, thousands of Baloch parents, siblings, and wives, would eventually experience the same tragic predicament as Sardar Mengal where they could neither bury and mourn their loved ones, nor know with certainty if they were still alive.
Sardar Mengal, however, developed a cardiac condition and was eventually released in October 1977 and immediately went to New York for bypass surgery. The tribunal was eventually disbanded in January 1978.
While the defunct NAP’s top leadership was in prison, Begum Nasim Wali Khan along with the widely-respected ethnic Baloch politician, Sardar Sherbaz Khan Mazari, had formed the National Democratic Party (NDP) in November 1975. Upon his return to Pakistan after the cardiac procedure, Sardar Mengal joined the NDP along with Bizenjo, only to part ways shortly thereafter.
Despite General Zia releasing them, the Baloch leaders had no qualms about his actual intentions to continue keeping Balochistan under the center’s heel. Sardar Mengal subsequently went into self-exile in London, from where he declared the independence of Balochistan in 1981. This was the same year when several political parties joined hands to launch the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) against martial law and to restore the 1973 constitution.
While Bizenjo, at the head of his new Pakistan National Party, joined the MRD, Sardar Mengal stayed away. He minced no words to say that he was done with parliamentary politics where the Baloch mandate was either not respected or was manipulated by military and civil bureaucracy as well as civilians toeing its line.
Sardar Mengal knew that call for independence was merely a symbolic gesture, but he wanted it to convey the exasperation of the Baloch with the existing federal order where they had always received short shrift. He also wanted to highlight the fact that a mineral and resource-rich province with hundreds of miles of coastline, that constituted 40% of the landmass of Pakistan but only 5% of the country’s population, would always remain subservient to and at the mercy of the majority populations, unless, in his view, the constitutional formula for coexistence was more equitable.
To this end, Sardar Mengal formed the Sindhi-Baloch-Pashtun Front (SBPF) along with the Marxist-Maoist Pashtun leader Muhammad Afzal Bangash, and Sindhi leaders Mumtaz Bhutto and Abdul Hafiz Pirzada, the latter also being one of the authors of the 1973 constitution. The Front called for a confederation of the four provinces to replace the existing federal structure, which in its view ensured Punjab’s hegemony over all others.
The SBPF did not gain any traction and eventually disintegrated. But as far as the stubborn Baloch Sardar was concerned, he himself was done with the parliamentary politics under the existing order and did not return to it even after a semblance of democracy was restored in 1988 after General Zia perished in an air crash.
Sardar Mengal returned to Pakistan in 1996 and helped form the Balochistan National Party (BNP) and remained its nominal patron till his death. In 1997, the BNP formed a coalition government in Balochistan with his son, Sardar Akhtar Jan Mengal as the chief minister. But for Sardar Mengal this was an exercise in futility, and he saw the deck stacked against the Baloch nationalists.
Sardar Mengal felt that a people with history as rich and old as the Baloch, their land – were it not divided between Pakistan and Iran — the size of France, and natural riches of Alaskan proportions, were entitled to an independent state. In that, he was a radical Baloch nationalist.
He openly said that Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah had reneged on his own word given to the Khan of Kalat to honor their independence and coerced the Baloch state(s) to join Pakistan through force. But Sardar Mengal was also a realist who saw that the Baloch were up against a state behemoth, which they may not be able to trounce without outside help and wholesale bloodshed.
Though somewhat sympathetic towards the erstwhile Soviet Union, Sardar Mengal was always wary of enlisting foreign help. He used to say that freedom is not replacing one master with another but a life of dignity with self-determination, secured through a people’s own struggle for their rights over their own land.
He was not exactly a pacifist but did not favor an armed struggle. He actually warned the powers that be in Pakistan that unless they stop treating Balochistan as a colony, the Baloch youth would continue to throng to the militant ranks. But he was not shy of stating his view that he wanted an independent Balochistan for its people as the only dignified resolution to the conflict. He, however, did not seek bloodshed to achieve that end. In that, he was a moderate.
He believed in reasoning and putting forth one’s point of view honestly and firmly, without conceding an inch. A man as arrogant as Bhutto had to be deferential to Sardar Mengal – a fluent Sindhi speaker himself — in their meetings, for this Baloch could neither be enticed nor intimidated. For him, personal integrity and honorable conduct trumped political victories.
Sardar Mengal was always wary of enlisting foreign help. He used to say that freedom is not replacing one master with another but a life of dignity with self-determination, secured through a people’s own struggle for their rights over their own land.
He used to say about the quintessential politician Bizenjo that he “has to have politics all the time or he will perish. But I can do without it”. That remained true for the second half of his life. But what would the Baloch nationalist politics do without the radical moderate, Sardar Attaullah Khan Mengal? Rest In Peace, Sardar Sahib, you were a league apart!