Pakistan, from inception, is a country wracked by violent
dissent often bordering on civil war. It lost half its territory after the
secession of East Pakistan (Bangladesh) but the problem doesn’t go away. Indeed
the oldest resistance to Islamabad is not Bengali but Baloch in origin. There
have been five major conflicts in Balochistan province, starting from the Raj
days. The fifth and latest has continued for more than a decade, from 2004 to
the present day. The reasons are a complex and toxic combination of
sub-nationalism, economic stagnation and military atrocities born mainly of
geography and its reluctant accession to Pakistan.
As such, it has always tempted Indian strategic thinkers since Independence to wonder how turmoil in this key province could be leveraged to India’s advantage. The fact that sections of Baloch nationalists have tried to reach out to India for assistance has prompted Pakistani accusations of interference in its internal affairs. But it also leaves a window of opportunity in the future for India.
Somewhat like the Kurds of Iran-Iraq-Turkey, the Balochistan region is divided into three parts—southwestern Pakistan, southern Afghanistan and southeastern Iran. The primary loyalty is therefore to its own basic identity rather than to the nations that rule it. The part that went to Pakistan was part of what was known as the Khanate of Khalat from 1666 to the 1950s. This was a princely state ruled by the “Khan”, comprising the Makran, Jhalawan, Kacchi and Sarawan administrative divisions as well as two feudatory states, Las Bela and Kharan. Before it became an element of the Raj in 1839, it was variously part of the Mughal, Persian and Durrani (Afghanistan) empires.
Under the aegis of the Raj it became a self-ruling princely
state. Once the British left, Kharan and the feudatory states of Makran and Las
Bela opted to join Pakistan in March 1948. But the Khan was undecided about the
future of Khalat and in communication with the governments of Pakistan, Iran,
Britain, Afghanistan and India. An old rumour has it that he was trying to
strike a deal with India but failed, perhaps because Delhi was trying to
consolidate its own possessions; Hyderabad, J&K, island territories, Goa,
Pondicherry and the North-East. It was never confirmed officially or
independent of the government. Balochistan’s formal accession to Pakistan took
place later in 1948. Today, it is the largest province, covering some 44 per
cent of its area at 3.47 lakh sq km. It also has the port of Gwadar, one of the
key terminuses of the Chinese New Silk Roads initiative.
o get an idea of what is happening in the province and of Baloch grievances, it would be instructive to examine the birth of Bangladesh. East Pakistan’s greatest complaint was political under-representation, though it had a majority of Pakistan’s population. The rulers in West Pakistan had avoided the spectre of Bengali domination through the “One Unit” scheme that meant “Balochistan, NWFP, Sindh, and Punjab will comprise of one unit”. This policy concentrated political power in West Pakistan.
There were also economic grievances. Pakistan’s biggest export was jute, grown only in East Pakistan. But the national budget and development schemes favoured West Pakistan. During 1950-1970 the east accounted for just about 28 per cent of total expenditure despite having the majority of the population. Language was another problem. By proclaiming Urdu as the language of Pakistan, the government alienated the Bengali majority.
There is no development, no jobs and no technical institutions. Balochs feel that government apathy is the reason why it is so short of healthcare and education. Balochistan is the most backward province in Pakistan.
In the same way, Balochistan has political, economic,
language and cultural grievances. The Baloch want greater autonomy, increased
royalties from natural resources and provincial revenue, and an independent
state if this doesn’t happen.
Although it is one of Pakistan’s poorest provinces, Balochistan is rich in natural resources like oil, gas, copper, marble, precious metals and uranium. The economy is dominated by its natural gas fields. Pakistan has an estimated 25.1 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of proven gas reserves of which 19 trillion are located in Balochistan. According to the Oil and Gas Journal (OGJ), Pakistan had proven oil reserves of 300 million barrels, mostly in Balochistan. Other estimates place the province’s oil reserves at an estimated six trillion barrels, on-shore and off-shore.
It is the cause of serious heartburn. Though almost all the natural gas is extracted from Sui, Balochistan, other states get preference in supply. Most of the revenue from gas sales goes to the national treasury. Only a fraction returns though it is Pakistan’s largest province. Baloch militants frequently target gas pipelines as a mark of defiance against the federal government.
There is no development, no jobs and no technical institutions. Balochs feel that government apathy is the reason why it is so short of healthcare and education. Balochistan is the most backward province with the lowest literacy in Pakistan. It has poor communication and transport, gets no royalties for natural resources and though it has a separate ethnic and cultural identity, this is not reflected in official attitudes. In addition there is the widespread repression of democratic rights.
hen General Zia-ul-Haq carried out his coup d’etat against the Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto government in 1978 he was faced with the question of his legitimacy. To circumvent the sceptical, he sought a “new political system according to Islam”. Henceforth, the government would be run in accordance to the tenets of Islam. The Hudood laws introduced a series of draconian punishments for offences ranging from adultery and fornication to rape and theft. The government also introduced a system of Sharia courts as well as a blasphemy law (1986). Islamisation brought Islamic scholars, madarsas, and the revision of school curricula in accordance with Islamic law. Islamisation of the early 1980s, in particular, was also a response to a Bangladesh syndrome, which continues to haunt Pakistani decision makers to this day. In short, Zia pioneered the use of Islamisation as a weapon against the nascent Baloch insurgency.
The insurgency began as a constitutional exercise to achieve political autonomy and socio-economic rights. Independence was not on the agenda. But state repression changed that equation radically.
The Pervez Musharraf regime, after his overthrow of the
Nawaz Sharif government (1999), followed this model. New religious schools came
up at the expense of secular education and the role of the mullahs expanded as
a result. But the weapon turned in his hands as this excessive religiosity
angered the nationalists. Wherever the Balochs are in a majority, Islam as a
tool to confront the insurgency has failed. But this is not a rejection of
Islamic doctrine, just the repudiation of centralisation and central dominance.
Sectarian violence, however, has increased markedly.
The attacks are directed mainly at the Hazara community—a Persian-speaking Shia minority that lives in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Under Musharraf’s patronage a strong Taliban presence developed in the province which is also increasingly becoming a haven for sectarian outfits such as Tehrik-e-Taliban Balochistan, al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Janghvi, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, Imamia Student Organisation, and Sipah-e-Muhammad. Their presence is partly the result of the security agencies pushing them there from Punjab, partly the result of a vast network of Deobandi madarsas, and partly a consequence of the Islamisation policies pursued by the federal state since the 1970s. Balochistan’s sectarian groups continue to multiply, fragment, and collaborate at a dramatic pace.
here is an irony about the insurgency that is hard to miss. It began as a constitutional exercise to achieve political autonomy and socio-economic rights. Independence was not on the agenda. But state repression changed that equation radically. As the police abused their powers to maintain authority, Balochs retaliated with violence for their part. Thus, a campaign for state rights metamorphosed into a freedom struggle through the barrel of a gun. It is a struggle that has claimed thousands of civilian lives, including women and children.
In 2004, the insurgency flared up afresh and violence escalated after the killing of Nawab Akbar Bugti. On August 26, 2006, the Pakistani army stormed the stronghold of the chief of the Bugti clan, and a prominent leader of the separatist movement, Akbar Bugti and had him killed. The earlier army bombings of Dera Bugti had resulted in the death and displacement of hundreds of people and the unlawful detention and disappearance of many Balochs.
The Pakistani army has used helicopter gunships and carpet-bombed civilians in the Kahan, Taratani and Kamalan Kech areas. Dozens of innocents, most of them shepherds and farmers have been shot dead by soldiers.
Professor Naila Qadri Baluch, politician, activist for women’s rights, writer, and a poet well known for her international lectures on Baloch rights mentioned in her presentation at the Observer Research Foundation in Delhi (July 2016) that “from 2000 to 2016, 200,000 people have been killed and 25,000 plus civilians have disappeared.”
Umar Daud Khattak, a Pashtun born in Karak, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and mission commander of the Pashtunishtan Liberation Army, has said on record, “For Sindhis, Pashtuns and Balochs, the real Pakistan only constitutes Punjabis. The residents of none of the provinces identify themselves as Pakistanis. With India’s support, the separatist leaders of these three provinces will willingly come together. India should help us leave Pakistan.”
At $62 billion CPEC is Pakistan’s largest infrastructure project by far, extending to the oasis of Kashgar in China's Uighur-Xinjiang Autonomous Region... is part of China’s larger Belt and Road Initiative.
Pakistan has been accused of systematic repression and
marginalisation of Balochs. It has reportedly detained thousands of Baloch
nationalists, denied locals positions in government and the military and even
assassinated Baloch leaders. The government is accused of imposing
extraordinary restrictions on press freedoms in Balochistan. It has also
prevented international media from reporting from conflict zones. Foreign
journalists have been physically assaulted by intelligence agents.
s long as it was a poor and backward part of the whole, Balochistan attracted little strategic interest but the announcement of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has changed all that. The southern terminus of that corridor is the port of Gwadar, the “golden gateway” on the Arabian Sea and at the mouth of the Gulf of Oman. It is 533 km west of Karachi and about 120 km from the Iranian border at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, just outside the Straits of Hormuz. Some 17 million barrels of oil, representing 30 per cent of all maritime-traded petroleum, passes through this region each day along shipping lanes to Africa, Asia and Europe.
At $62 billion CPEC is Pakistan’s largest infrastructure project by far, extending all the way to the ancient oasis of Kashgar in China’s Uighur-Xinjiang Autonomous Region. The CPEC is itself part of China’s larger Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) , a staggering $3 trillion plan to build roads, railway lines, energy hubs and ports across 68 countries in the next several decades. BRI is more than just economic grandstanding, however; it is a plan to extend Chinese influence across the globe as well as provide it with strategic access at key points.
Gwadar’s location makes it the keystone of the CPEC arch and its importance is impossible to overestimate. Not only will it become the economic and trade transit point for Pakistan, Afghanistan, China and Central Asia but it will also give Beijing a foothold in the Arabian Sea and further increase its influence among India’s South Asian neighbours, including Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Maldives. So Balochistan has vaulted into the Pakistani strategic imagination from provincial backwater to perhaps the central place in its economic and security calculations.
India has launched its own plan to develop Iran’s Chabahar
port, 72 km west of Gwadar. Both lie directly opposite the Gulf of Oman and are
adjacent to the Strait of Hormuz. This is part of India’s plan to link with
Afghanistan and the oil and mineral rich Central Asian republics by
circumventing Pakistan which has so far denied land-route access to reach
Afghanistan and Central Asia. The endgame is to use Chabahar to link with
Central Asia by traversing the entire length of Afghanistan. It also provides
an alternate route into landlocked Afghanistan with which India has security
ties and economic interests. Incidentally, it would make the task of helping
Baloch nationalists easier. Pakistani suspicions are at least understandable.
hould India help the Balochs or the Sindhis or the Pashtuns? It is time the international community and India realised that the ability to counter Pakistan’s terror-related activities is the ultimate way to guarantee security against aggression and terrorism in this region. The ongoing turmoil in the Baloch, Sindh and Pashtun areas of Pakistan have potential as diplomatic tradeoffs involving the interests of India and other stakeholders, including Afghanistan, Iran, the US, China, and Russia. India needs to play the Baloch card, especially, in furtherance of its national and strategic interests.
Military intervention is definitely not an option. As history shows, nations that played the Great Game with boots on the ground always tasted defeat. In addition, India’s reputation and interests will be severely affected in the event of military intervention or overt action.
There is a temptation to play it in a tit-for-tat response
but it should be avoided. A measure of prudence is needed as China and Iran
both have a stake and both must be taken into confidence. Gwadar is in
Balochistan and the gas pipelines to China will pass through Gwadar. Similarly,
the Sistan region of Iran is home to 25 per cent of the Baloch people.
Chabahar lies in the Baloch part of Iran and India currently gets 65 per cent of its oil from the Persian Gulf. We need a balanced and pragmatic approach towards these “independence movements”. India could assure the Chinese of support for CPEC and BRI if they help in the Baloch struggle for self-determination. In addition, a promise of connectivity between Gwadar and Chabahar ports would be in China’s interests as it provides an alternate Gwadar for its imports and exports. China, too, is worried about the security of its investments in the troubled Balochistan and Xinjiang provinces.
Military intervention is definitely not an option. The international community no longer supports the redrawing of international borders by force. In any case, as history shows, nations that played the Great Game with boots on the ground always tasted defeat. In addition, India’s reputation and political/economic interests will be severely affected in the event of military intervention or overt action. The objective should be to run a campaign to declare in clear terms its diplomatic and moral support for the Baloch cause and provide financial, logistical and training support to the rebels by involving RAW and other such agencies of Afghanistan, Iran and Israel.
At the same time, raising the Baloch issue with the UN and Amnesty International is another option. The application for asylum by the Switzerland-based leader of Baloch Republican Party, Brahamdagh Bugti—grandson of the late Akbar Bugti should be considered favourably.
Another exiled Baloch leader, Hyrbyair Marri too has also expressed his desire to seek asylum in India.
alochistan and Chabahar thus fit nicely into India’s quest to neutralise China’s “string of pearls” policy and China-Pakistan collusion. India has a foothold in Muscat (Oman) with the navy maintaining berthing rights. It has also signed a defence cooperation, security and law enforcement agreement with Qatar. With berthing rights in Oman and monitoring stations in Madagascar, Mauritius, Kochi and Mumbai, the navy effectively boxes in the region to influence the sea lanes in the Straits region. Further, the navy regularly patrols the waters around Mozambique to keep piracy in check and show its presence in the region.
In the South China Sea, India has berthing rights and a good security understanding with Vietnam. It is also setting up a satellite tracking and imaging centre in southern Vietnam that will give Hanoi access to pictures from Indian earth observation satellites covering the region, including China and the South China Sea.
India also has bases, a military presence or influence in Bhutan, Mauritius, Nepal, Seychelles (Assumption Island), Tajikistan (Farkhor and Ayni air bases). Further, the turmoil in the Maldives notwithstanding, it has set up radars on all 26 atolls of the island nation and networked them with the coastal radar system as part of its strategic outreach. The Indian Coastguard regularly conducts sorties and patrols in Maldivian waters.
India, therefore, needs to be consistent in its policy of supporting the Baloch cause at the international and diplomatic levels until the ultimate objective of neutralising all threats from Pakistan (and China) is achieved. Earlier, Delhi had abandoned its Sindh and Baloch policy as part of the “Gujral doctrine”. We need to formulate an active approach to give direction and support to the Baloch freedom struggle with arms, training and finance in furtherance of our national interest as a riposte to Pakistan’s meddling, especially in the valley.