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The Curse of the Corridor

By Dr Mohammad Taqi 

The separatists are capitulating in droves or so the federal and Balochistan provincial government officials would have one believe. Over 90 men purported to be Baloch militants have ‘surrendered’ to the two provincial ministers Jangez Marri and Sanaullah Zehri over the last week or so.

The ostensible rebels repented, claimed the separatist leadership misled them, handed over their rather primitive weapons and were immediately given clemency by the state in the glare of the cameras. Just like the supposed United Baloch Army (UBA) commander Haji Wali Qalati’s surrender right after the UBA allegedly claimed to have slaughtered 22 Pashtuns in Mastung two weeks ago, these surrenders too looked suspicious, as did their timing and the setting.

The self-proclaimed separatists handed over arms to the aforementioned two ministers who are in a rat race for Balochistan’s Chief Minister’s (CM’s) position. Jangez Marri and Sanaullah Zehri are falling over each other to prove their “separatist-taming” credentials to the powers that be. While the veracity of an under-the-table deal between the coalition partners in the Balochistan government to rotate the CM’s slot is hard to confirm, things do appear to be headed that way. The state’s idea seems to be to bare its iron teeth as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) fleshes up and upend even the faux nationalist dispensation of the incumbent CM, Dr Malik Baloch.

Senator Hasil Khan Bizenjo’s National Party (NP) was enabled to form a minority government after the 2013 elections and as its nominee Dr Malik Baloch has occupied the provincial high office since. Dr Baloch had pledged a dialogue with and assuaging the grievances of the Baloch on the separatist-militant side of the nationalist spectrum. No formal dialogue was to ever take place, however, and Dr Baloch has nothing to show in terms of his will or capacity to create an environment for rapprochement. The legitimacy of the 2013 elections in the Baloch parts of the Balochistan province was flimsy at best and downright dubious at worst. For example, CM Dr Malik Baloch was elected to the provincial Assembly with 4,539 votes in a constituency of 74,374 voters while the current deputy speaker of the Balochistan Assembly, Abdul Qudoos Bizenjo, was elected with 544 votes out of the total 57,656 registered votes, which even by the province’s usually low turnout standards was absolutely abysmal. The Baloch had simply stayed home on the polling day.

Just a couple of months ago, Senator Bizenjo had conceded with unusual candor in an interview, “If a referendum were held in Balochistan today, the militants would win. But there will be no referendum. There will be elections and they cannot win elections.” The reason the separatists cannot win an election is because they obviously do not participate in an electoral process in which the dice is loaded against them, and those who won by merely showing up are pawning away the Baloch resources. From the state’s perspective, keeping the NP’s nationalist facade may still have some utility but it sure is running out fast.

The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a lightning rod for both the Pakistani state and the separatists. The state seems gung-ho on going through with the highway network and in the process routing the nationalist-separatists and assimilating the resource-rich Baloch territory. The separatists on the other hand stick to the late and much-lamented nationalist leader Nawab Khair Bux Marri’s line that spurns the colonial and exploitative character of ostensible development projects. Nawab Marri had told Selig Harrison in a 1980 interview: “Most of the roads built in Balochistan were not for our benefit but to make it easier for the military to control us and for the Punjabis to rob us. The issue is not whether to develop, but whether to develop with or without autonomy. Exploitation has now adopted the name development.”

Sadly, not much has changed for the Baloch in 35 years and a project that would be an absolute naught without their coastline and the Gwadar deep seaport is being presented as a favor to them. The state, by rejecting former Balochistan CM Sardar Akhtar Jan Mengal’s six-points template for a peaceful settlement to the Balochistan conflict that was presented in 2012 , had made clear its intention to crush, not reconcile, with the Baloch.

In his book, The Baloch and Balochistan: A Historical Account from the Beginning to the Fall of the Baloch State, the scholar Naseer Dashti notes in the section titled ‘The curse of the telegraph link: “Establishing a communication link between India and Britain became one of the urgent goals in the context of the ‘Great Game’. By late 1860, the British authorities in India embarked upon an ambitious project of a telegraph line from Karachi to Basra passing through Southern Balochistan. The British telegraph project changed the geopolitical balance of relations in the area...after the completion of the Indo-European Telegraph Line it was the security of the line which became the prime concern of the British authorities in India. From the British point of view a strong administrative control over the unruly and independence seeking Baloch chiefs was necessary, who had been engaged periodically in disruptive activities, damaging installations and robbing British camps.” That curse, it seems, has kept transferring from the telegraph link, to natural gas fields and copper mines, to Chaghai Mountain, to now the CPEC. The Baloch, however, are not prisoners of any curse but that of their strategic geography with hundreds of miles of coastline leading to the mouth of the oil-rich Persian Gulf, sparse population and abundant natural resources. Yoking in the Baloch is not to give them constitutional rights but to appropriate these very resources on the federation’s terms. Crushing insurgency and incorporating the Baloch is diametrically opposite to the state’s policy for the Pashtun-inhabited Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which have been denied constitutional rights to maintain FATA as a buffer and bridgehead against Afghanistan.

The ostensible surrenders claimed by the state in the absence of a genuine political process and, contrarily, vehement denials of such claims by the separatists suggest that things will heat up further in Balochistan with neither side willing to budge. The Baloch nationalist-separatism has not only been devolving to the nascent middle class but has also become more intense in each wave since 1948. The squabbling among the nationalists has been both its boon and bane. A monolithic movement runs the risk of a complete rout in the face of overwhelming odds while a multipronged resistance has survived such assaults. Missing though is a robust political narrative and leadership in tandem with the resistance or as an alternative to it. Absent such political discourse, genuine Baloch grievances run the risk of being buried under the curse of the corridor.

(The writer can be reached at and he tweets @mazdaki)



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