Making Sense of The Conflict Kaleidoscope in Balochistan

A dried up riverbed in Balochistan, Pakistan. (Wenchmagnet/Flickr)

Congressman Dana Rohrabacher convened a hearing on February 8, 2012 on the various crises in Balochistan and their impact on U.S. interests in the region. A week after the hearing of Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee on Oversight and Investigations, Rohrabacher introduced a House Concurrent Resolution calling for the right of the Baloch people to self-determination. According to a press release from the congressman’s office, the bill which is cosponsored by Congressmen Louie Gohmert and Steve King, states that the Baluchi people “have the right to self-determination and to their own sovereign country; and they should be afforded the opportunity to choose their own status.”

The press release from Rohrabacher’s office comments that historically Balochistan was an independently governed entity until the British and later the Pakistani armies subjugated the people of the state. “Today the Baluchistan province of Pakistan is rich in natural resources”, it continues, “but has been subjugated and exploited by Punjabi and Pashtun elites in Islamabad, leaving Baluchistan the country’s poorest province”. However, the reality in Balochistan is not as straight forward as put forward by Rohrabacher’s office. The conflict is not just between the Baloch people and the government and military of Pakistan, there are multiple layers of sectarian, religious, political and nationalist divides within Balochistan that exacerbate the conflict.

Prior to the British rule over India, Balochistan was an autonomous confederation of tribes which was coerced into accession to Pakistan in 1948 through military pressure. Since then no civilian government or military dictator who has ruled Pakistan has made much effort to integrate the province and it’s population into the federation, nor have they worked on any form of economic development of Balochistan.mIn the past 60 years, the province has seen four armed insurgencies (1948, 1958-1959, 1962-1963, and 1973-1977) which were violently suppressed by the Pakistani armed forces. A fifth insurgency has been underway since 2003 and until recently it has received very little public attention in the media in other provinces of Pakistan. Since their accession to Pakistan, the Baloch people have been asking for the right to self-determination, control of their major sea port at Gawadar, more control over the revenues from their natural resources such as natural gas and increased funding for development projects among other things.

The Baloch Sardars (tribal leaders) are themselves divided on the issue of separatism versus autonomy as prominent Pakistani journalist Najam Sethi points out. On the one side are those who want autonomy and self-determination within the federation and on the other side are the people who want complete independence from the state of Pakistan. According to Sethi, most of the tribal leaders are aligned with the military and the federal government as they receive large grants for development projects in the province. A significant amount of this development money gets pocketed by the elite themselves while very little is spent on infrastructure and other services that would benefit the local people.

In recent years, the counterinsurgency and resistance movements have led to killing and disappearance of hundreds of people. Many of the persons missing, tortured or murdered by the military are not insurgents, they are part of the growing urban middle class professionals such as lawyers, professors, doctors, students, engineers, journalists and activists. On the other side, the Baloch are also responsible for violence against ethnic and religious minorities in the province.

The population of the province is not homogenous and there are ethnic, sectarian and religious divides which lead to violence. According to the last (and extremely outdated) census of Pakistan held in 1998 the demographics by language which indicate the ethnicity of the population are: Balochi (55 percent), Pashto (30 percent), Sindhi (5.6 percent), Seraki (2.6 percent), Punjabi (2.5 percent), and Urdu (1 percent). In addition, the province has the poorest literacy rates of all the provinces, poorest access to health, education and infrastructure which makes for the highest unemployment rates in the province.

Therefore, another major source of grievance for the Baloch people is the dominance of Punjabi professionals who have moved to the province as they see the Punjabi settlers as extensions of Islamabad’s colonial designs since the Punjabis have better access to jobs due to their higher levels of education. Therefore, the Punjabi settlers who are often required to occupy positions providing basic services like education and health care become victims of misdirected anger.

Although over 98% of the population in Balochistan is Muslim, the less than 2% who are Hindu, Christian, Ahmadi or other religious minorities are especially vulnerable. A news report from September 2011 indicated that the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has discovered that minorities, especially Hindus are being increasingly kidnapped for ransom and forced to convert to Islam.

The province has also been deeply impacted by the war in Afghanistan and the influx of refugees and extremist elements pouring in from across the border. Moreover, in order to suppress the nationalist movement as well as in support of the Taliban, the military and intelligence establishment of Pakistan allowed extremist groups to to take root in Balochistan. Ahmed Rashid notes in his book Descent into Chaos, that by 2004 U.S. and NATO intelligence sources had confirmed that the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) maintained Taliban training camps in the north of Quetta, Balochistan’s major city.

Of course no story related to Pakistan is complete without the “the Indians did it” angle. The Pakistani military justifies it’s violent suppression of the Baloch people by maintaining that the separatist movement is supported by India as a payback for Pakistan’s support of Kashmiri insurgents. Both Najam Sethi and Ahmed Rashid admit that there is some amount of support from India for the separatists especially in terms of financial support directed through Baloch diaspora in the Gulf states, however the Indians only taking advantage of a situation that has been created by aggression from the Pakistani state directed at the Baloch people. Furthermore, after the fall of the Taliban government, the new Afghan government found it beneficial to provide safe havens to Baloch insurgents for leverage against Pakistan until recently when Karzai had to break with them in order to continue dialogue with Islamabad.

As mentioned earlier, in terms of land mass and natural resources, Balochistan is the largest province of Pakistan and the most richest. However, it is also the least populated and least developed province of the federation. Having spent half my life in the heart of Pakistan’s Punjab province, I have had very little exposure to the ongoing conflict in Baluchistan through the media. Until recently, it was uncommon to speak about the human rights abuses inflicted upon the people of Balochistan by the Pakistani government and the military.

To this day Balochistan receives little space in national media and earlier this year the Baloch Student Organisation (BSO) threatened to suspend transmission of private channels in Balochistan due to their “failure to properly highlight the plight of the people”. On Friday night, Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) allegedly warned private television channels not to highlight the views of certain discontent tribal leaders as such debates are against sovereignty and integrity of Pakistan. In the past, Pakistan has banned over 70 Baloch newspapers including The Baloch Hal, the first Baloch news website.

While there is little mention of Congressman Rohrabacher’s resolution in the U.S. media, the proposal has stirred up heated debates in Pakistan’s political and media circles where the conflict has been largely ignored in the past. It also hurts the already strained U.S.-Pakistani relationship even more as Pakistanis find such ideas a threat to their sovereignty.

According to C. Christine Fair, a witness at the hearing, Rohrabacher’s action is not inspired by concern for the human rights violations perpetrated against, and by, the Baloch people by the Pakistani military and government. Rohrabacher along with Gohmert has been advocating for U.S. support in creating a separate Balochistan carved out of Pakistan for a long time. In a somewhat similar move, they have also suggested changing the Afghan constitution to reflect a federal form of government to lessen the Taliban’s ability to dominate Afghanistan. The move which favors the Northern Alliance warlords casts the Taliban as “violent and illegitimate actors who have killed tens of thousands” and threatens the Afghan government’s key role in negotiating the future of the country.

In both cases, the actions hurt the U.S. relationship with Afghanistan and Pakistan by seeking to interfere in the internal affairs of each country at a time when both South Asian countries need to build a relationship of trust with the United States in light of the fast approaching 2014 withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan.

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