Even as Pakistan alleges external involvement as an excuse to cover up its atrocities against the Baloch, targeted state action against them is assuming the form of a genocide that the international community cannot ignore
After lurking at the edge of international consciousness for decades, with only the death or assassination of a noted leader acknowledged, the Baloch issue has acquired pungency with high pitched campaigns by diaspora in London and New York, and Islamabad’s diplomatic offensive that led to Switzerland denying political asylum to dissident Brahumdagh Bugti in December 2017. Almost simultaneously, Mehran Marri was prevented from attending a diaspora meeting in Zurich and banned from entering Switzerland for life.
For the Baloch diaspora, which has been going to the UN Human Rights Council to create awareness about Pakistani brutalities in Balochistan Province and the dangers posed by the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the developments were disconcerting and came after the abduction of family members of fighters, Allah Nazar and Ustad Aslam Baloch. This triggered a media blitzkrieg by diaspora activists who painted ‘Free Balochistan’ posters across London to highlight the saga of enforced disappearances, abductions, torture, mutilated bodies et al. As Pakistan tried to curtail the campaign, US-based activists picked up the thread; painted taxis; and billboards have since resurfaced in Britain.
In a meticulous study, The Baloch Conflict With Iran And Pakistan: Aspects of a National Liberation Struggle (Trafford Publishing, 2017), leading Baloch scholar, Naseer Dashti, says his people are victims of the mess created by the British, who divided the Baloch territory between Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan and the ruthless assimilation policies pursued by Pakistan and Iran to swamp Baloch identity. Dashti observes that the decolonisation forced by the end of the Second World War led the departing colonial powers to protect their economic and strategic interests by splitting nations and creating artificial states by forcefully clubbing different entities into single states, ignoring cultural-historical aspects and popular will. This encouraged the dominant groups in the new countries to oppress minorities on grounds of national integrity and sovereignty; hence the confrontation between the Baloch and Iran (dormant) and Pakistan (on-going).
Balochistan is a semi-desert tract stretching West-East from the Great Salt Lake in north-eastern Iran to the south-west of Punjab; and North-South from Khorasan to the Indian Ocean. From 1666, it was ruled by a loose confederacy of tribes under the Khanate of Kalat. Alarmed at Russian advances in Central Asia, the British occupied Balochistan in 1839, gave some portions to Iran (Western Balochistan) and Afghanistan, and retained the rest. After they left in 1947, their protégé Pakistan annexed this portion in 1948 (Eastern Balochistan).
Congress leaders failed to recognise the independent Baloch state despite requests from the Khan of Kalat; the result was Pakistan’s invasion and occupation of one-third of Jammu & Kashmir. Today, as India aspires to be the guardian of the Indian Ocean, helping Baloch and Sindhi aspirations could help achieve this end.
Dashti observes that despite Islamabad’s allegations of Indian interference in Balochistan, there is no grassroots evidence of the same. However, in March 2016, Pakistani authorities arrested Indian citizen, Kulbhushan Jadhav and accused him of aiding Baloch fighters on behalf of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). On August 11 and 15, 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Pakistan needs to explain human rights violations in Balochistan and Pakistani-held Kashmir; India has raised human rights abuses in Balochistan at international forums. However, Dashti laments that India has no Baloch policy, possibly due to ties with Iran and the West.
The Baloch see Pakistan as an artifice based on a false claim of Muslims being one nation despite ethnic heterogeneity (Pashtun, Punjabi, Seraiki, Sindhi and Baloch). It began as an alliance of the Punjabi military-religious elite with Urdu-speaking migrants (Muhajirs) from India, who dominated the political-economic-military landscape for decades, until the Punjabis entrenched themselves and sidelined the Muhajirs.
The Baloch have no complaints with Afghanistan; they are involved in state affairs there and not discriminated. In 1978-79, Afghanistan gave Balochi, Pashto, Dari, Uzbek, Turkmen and Nuristani languages the status of national languages, something denied by Iran and Pakistan. Kabul has given refuge to Baloch political and militant activists, except when Islamabad exerted too much pressure and supported Baloch and (Pakistani) Pashtun right of self-determination at international forums.
Pakistan’s Baloch issue has been aggravated by its building military bases in Balochistan and leasing the strategic port of Gwadar to China. Baloch resent extraction of their natural resources (Beijing has almost exhausted the gold and copper reserves in Saindak) and fear Chinese demographic dominance in their land. Balochistan is a treasure trove of oil, gas, gold, uranium, titanium and many other minerals, and the gateway to the energy rich Central Asia and Persian Gulf. Baloch resistance to the CPEC has increased Pakistani repression to secure the proposed road and rail links from Gwadar to western Chinese cities.
The European Union is becoming concerned over Pakistan’s internal security situation and its ability to protect its nuclear arsenal in the event of collapse. With Beijing pressing Pakistan to secure Chinese investments in the region, and building its (China’s) own military resources there, incidents of torture and abductions by Pakistani forces, including burning of Baloch villages, have increased. Simultaneously, Pakistan’s fragility has grown with the media and some Senators demanding transparency over the debt-financing involved in the CPEC.
Aspirations for a united and independent Balochistan involve unification of traditional Baloch territories in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan; the latter two might be possible at some stage, if Kabul gains the Pashtun lands it seeks. Neither India nor any other external power is keen to support armed action to achieve this goal, though Pakistan alleges external (read Indian) involvement as an excuse to cover its atrocities against civilians, including infants and children.
Dashti claims that propaganda about foreign involvement in Balochistan is a ruse by intelligence agencies of Iran and Pakistan to criminalise expression of Baloch aspirations, whether from militants or legal political parties working within the ambit of the constitutions of both countries; there was no Baloch angle in the December-January unrest over price rise in Iran.
Within Pakistan, however, targeted state action against the Baloch is assuming the form of a steady genocide that the international community cannot legitimately ignore. Balochistan’s strategic location and immense mineral wealth make the Baloch national question important to the energy politics of the region and the world. Pakistan’s utility as guardian of Western interests in South Asia and the Persian Gulf has come under a cloud due to its vulnerability; anything could trigger an internal breakdown. Dashti’s book is a mine of information for those who wish to understand the political dynamics of the region.
(The writer is Senior Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. The views expressed here are p