Originally published 19 June 2014 by the Daily Times
Nawab Khair Bux Khan Marri is no more. Nawab Marri was the chief of the largest Baloch tribe and arguably the father of modern Baloch nationalism. He inspired not just three generations of Baloch activists but countless political workers across ethno-national boundaries. His name ignited a spark in many a leftist worker’s eye in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Karachi or London, as it did in his native Kohistan-e-Marri. He was a tribal Sardar who was adored as much for his political theory and practice as for an altruistic decision to abolish several of the chief’s taxes on his tribesmen. Nawab Sahib became a Leninist legend in his lifetime among the progressive nationalists. His was a long and arduous political journey from a privileged young man educated at pre-partition Aitchison College, Lahore, to parliament, to under the shadow of the gallows, into exile and then back. His dormitory mate and a fellow Baloch, Sardar Sherbaz Khan Mazari notes that during his time at Aitchison College, he was “an intense pacifist who would remove insects from his path so that neither he nor anyone else would step upon them”. As Nawab Sahib stated himself, he led a rather carefree life then. Sardar Mazari wrote that he was “fond of clothes”, particular about his looks and that “cinema was an obsession with him as was everything else connected with America”. Nawab Marri’s early transformation into the supremely intense politician that he became was somewhat astonishing for his other colleagues as well. But there should really be no surprise as he was born Khair Bux II, named so after his grandfather Khair Bux the Great, a nineteenth century Baloch chieftain who fought the British colonial regime. Nawab Sahib’s father Mehrullah Khan Marri had also taken on the British.
More importantly perhaps, Nawab Marri gained an early firsthand experience of the machinations of the Pakistani junta under General Ayub Khan. He was the deputy opposition leader against Ayub’s handpicked king’s party in the National Assembly from what was then West Pakistan. He was removed as the chief of his tribe and later imprisoned for two years. His two Baloch peers, the late Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti and Sardar Attaullah Khan Mengal had been similarly deposed and jailed before him. This toppling was not for the sake of any reforms. The regime appointed Nawab Bugti’s young son and Sardar Mengal and Nawab Sahib’s ageing uncles as the chieftains to run the tribes in their lieu. The Baloch leaders were punished for opposing the Ayub regime, especially its ‘One Unit’ policy. Not too long before that the state had betrayed the Baloch guerrilla leader Nauroz Khan, using his own nephew, and then arrested him. The Baloch leadership quartet — the late Ghaus Bux Bizenjo being the fourth — was becoming persuaded that Pakistan would offer their people only the short end of the stick. Nawab sahib would go on to morally, and perhaps materially, support another wave of Baloch Parari guerillas taking to the hills for their rights in the 1960s.
Nawab Sahib, labelled as obstinate and haughty by his opponents, was not an irrational leader. He had an excellent command of western politics as well as mastery over Marxist theory. He admired Chairman Mao Zedong but was particularly fond of Vladimir Lenin. It is well known that he would wear a Lenin lapel pin to parliamentary sessions and political meetings. But his was not just an infatuation with the Marxist-Leninist model. Nawab Marri was a formidable theoretician who saw the Leninist theme of a national democratic revolution and emphasis on dual rights of self-determination and secession as the basic framework without which the amorphous Baloch patriotism a la Nauroz Khan risked being reduced to tribalism. An alternative predicament was the Baloch national character or Balochiyat becoming subsumed into the state-sponsored Islamo-ethnic Pakistani identity designed to buoy the Punjab’s interests at the expense of other nationalities. Nawab Sahib desired the recognition of the Baloch by others as equal and without any preconditions. He was not averse to the idea of a political solution of the Baloch national question and in fact gave parliamentary politics — not paramilitary tactics — his first and best shot.
On the eve of the 1970 elections, Nawab Sahib was the Balochistan chief of the leftist National Awami Party (NAP). He won the National Assembly (NA) elections from Quetta-Chaghai, securing over 100,000 votes — a feat never repeated since in Balochistan. The way the Baloch mandate was stolen by dismissing NAP’s Balochistan government and then the Supreme Court’s infamous decision banning the party, ultimately convinced Nawab Marri that the deck was stacked against non-Punjabis. The fourth Baloch armed struggle of the modern era was to then receive his blessings in the 1970s. He was incarcerated for five of those years. It was perhaps the Baloch ordeal at the hands of then Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and his political manoeuvring, not just the military atrocities, rape and pillage, that made Nawab Marri state categorically that the Pakistani state and its beneficiaries would never give the Baloch their rights through peaceful and constitutional means.
Nawab Sahib was not interested in what he described as mere crumbs for the Baloch. The focus of his struggle moved from self-rule and autonomy via ballot and pen if possible, to independence through the bullet from a mountain den, if needed. His unassuming demeanour could not hide his steely resolve any longer. The soft-spoken Baloch patriarch was pithy and unsparing in his criticism of the Pakistani state keeping the Baloch under its heel. Unlike several Baloch and almost all Pashtun nationalists, Nawab Sahib could not come to terms with making peace with Islamabad on its terms. As he would often say, he was not interested in handouts. The post-1947 Pashtun nationalist movement perhaps does not have an equivalent of Nawab Sahib, who called for the right of self-determination, clearly and overtly. He was peerless both among and outside the Baloch. Nawab Sahib was effectively the political bridge that connected the four previous armed struggles by the Baloch to the present one, provided an ideological answer to the Baloch national question, and served as a comradely sanctuary for his lieutenants. He preserved and passed on to future generations everything that has been good about the Baloch and their untiring struggles; it is up to them now to cherish and build on what this Leninist legend has bequeathed them. RIP Nawab Sahib, you will be deeply missed but never forgotten.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and he tweets @mazdaki