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What’s driving the Baloch insurgency?

Consistent neglect of Balochistan may be at the root of the Karachi terror strike

By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Express/

Four well-armed terrorists, believed to be from the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), were shot dead while attempting to storm the Karachi Stock Exchange (KSE) on Monday. While legitimately claiming credit for foiling the nefarious attempt to disrupt an already fragile economy, Pakistani authorities, including Prime Minister Imran Khan, promptly pointed an accusing finger at an Indian intelligence agency.

But by doing so, they had precluded any consideration of the root cause of unrest, separatism and terrorism in Balochistan, which have plagued the province for decades, virtually from independence in 1947, when the Khanate of Kalat was controversial annexed by the newly established State of Pakistan without consulting the people of the Princely State. While the first revolt in 1948 was crushed quickly enough, the subsequent insurgencies were more difficult to deal with even with the use of superior force.

The consistent failure of the Pakistani State to acknowledge and address the root causes has made the Balochistan insurgency the longest lasting one in Pakistan. Its impact in the coming years will have a huge impact on the economic and strategic situation in Pakistan because the Gwadar port, the end point of the multi-billion dollar China-funded and executed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is located in Balochistan. And CPEC is part of China’s flagship international project the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).  The fact that India has serious issues with the CPEC and BRI adds to Pakistan’s insecurity.

While interested outside forces might be fishing in troubled waters, the root cause of unrest in Balochistan lie deep in the step-motherly treatment meted out to it and the Baloch people over the last five decades. Willful neglect of Balochistan by successive Pakistani governments has been stressed in all the reports of human rights organizations and writings by scholars, both within and outside Pakistan.

In her Ph.D. thesis entitled: “Explaining the resilience of the Balochistan insurgency” submitted to the University of Maine in 2019, Tiffany Tanner notes  that Balochistan is home to substantial energy and mineral reserves. It meets  36% of Pakistan’s energy needs. But the royalties given to Balochistan are significantly less than those given to Punjab and Sindh, which, in 2009, received $1.65 and $2.35 per thousand cubic feet of gas supplied respectively, while  Balochistan got only  $0.29. Also, only 4 out of 28 districts in Balochistan were able to avail of the gas.

Tanner quotes Dr. Kaiser Bengali and Mahpara Sadaqat to say that Balochistan’s share of Pakistan’s GDP from 1973 to 2000 had declined. Balochistan’s share of national GDP had only been 4.5 %, while Punjab’s was 52.7% , Sindh’s 31%  and the North Western Frontier Province (NWFP)’s  11.7%.  By 2000 Balochistan’s share had decreased to 3.7%. However, it is important to note that Balochistan has only 5% of Pakistan’s population.

As regards per capita GDP, Balochistan started off in 1973 with a higher average than Punjab and NWFP. But by 2000, whereas all provinces drastically increased their per capita GDP, Balochistan’s essentially stagnated with only a marginal increase comparatively, Tanner says.

Another contention is over the  Gwadar port, built by China as part its BRI and the CPEC. The agreement with China for CPEC was signed in 2002 without taking the Balochis into confidence. The Balochis have never felt that the project has benefitted them. Tanner quotes a resident telling Al Jazeera in 2012: “They promised jobs for all of Gwadar’s unemployed people….But the residents here are still unemployed. Some have college degrees, but none of them have jobs.”

According to Tanner the land used for the project was “sold off at superficially low rates for development under government land-grabbing schemes that exploited residents’ inability to provide official land-ownership documentation.”

Tanner says that within close proximity of the Gwadar port, there is a “parallel town” with elite amenities intended for settlers and tourists, blocked off by paramilitary checkpoints that deny entrance to locals. Within the city of Gwadar itself, there are signs of serious underdevelopment, and the port has brought more problems than success to the residents, she adds. A leading Pakistani analyst, Ikram Sehgal, who is no supporter of insurgencies, recently described Balochi villages as “miserable.”

The Pakistan Stock Exchange was the target the BLA on Monday because, for the Baloch nationalists, it is a symbol of Chinese economic and financial power and domination.  According to Ikram Sehgal,  the Chinese secured management control after acquiring 40% of its shares in 2016. The shares are held by Shanghai Stock Exchange, Shenzhen Stock Exchange and China Financial Futures Exchange. Another 5% is held by a local company linked to the Chinese investment.

Monday’s attack on the KSE was not the first Baloch insurgent attack on a Chinese target. In 2018, the Chinese Consulate in Karachi was attacked.

Tanner observes that the presence of China in Balochistan, coupled with Pakistan’s critical need for Chinese investment, puts significant pressure on the Pakistani state to deal with the insurgency firmly. This internal security pressure elevates Pakistan’s threat perception vis-à-vis India, which opposes the BRI and CPEC.  India feels that CPEC violates its sovereignty in certain crucial parts of the project like Gilgit-Baltistan.

Tanner quotes reports of human rights organizations and watchdogs like the Crisis Group, Human Rights Watch and others from Pakistan itself which say that the security forces have often resorted to abductions and torture to quell the insurgency and dissent. These methods have only exacerbated the situation instead of ensuring lasting peace.

Over the years, the base of the Baloch insurgency has shifted from the rural traditional power structure comprising tribal chiefs to the educated urban middle class. This has given a new kind of strength to the movement. The new insurgents use modern weapons and communication technologies. At any rate, the old chiefdoms have been divested of their power. And they have also discredited themselves.

Tanner points out that with the tribal chiefs losing their influence, tribalism or tribal rivalries are no longer a weakening factor. The State of Pakistan had tried to weaken the ethnicity-based insurgency by instilling the fear that because of alleged foreign influences on the insurgency, Islam was in danger in Balochistan. But this has not worked because the Balochis are good Muslims and did not, and still do not, see Islam as being in danger in Balochistan.



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