The year began on a subdued note with the assassination of journalist and activist Karima Baloch, one of Balochistan’s few, fiery and brilliant women freedom fighters. Her dead body was found in a lake in Toronto, Canada. The death is strongly alleged to be that of the Pakistani deep state. It, however, did not ignite international passions as the farmers’ protests in democratic India did, for example. Yet, this was not a one-off assassination. It was part of a broader pattern of continuous death, destruction and dispossession of an entire community by the very state that is meant to protect and ensure their rights. Just in September another Baloch female journalist was killed, her perpetrators went scot-free.
According to the Human Rights Council of Balochistan 18 murders and 28 people were forcibly disappeared in Pakistan’s Balochistan province in September alone. The Voice of Baloch Missing Persons states that between 2002 and September 2018, at least 6,428 persons were forcibly abducted by security agencies. Prominent Baloch tribal leaders have been assassinated, forcing yet others to seek asylum abroad.
Yet, Balochistan rarely makes it to the headlines in the international media. This is what makes Balochistan: In the Cross-Hairs of History by veteran journalist Sandhya Jain a timely intervention.
Jain, in great details, traces the history of Balochistan’s merger and inclusion in the state of Pakistan. Those who believe Jammu and Kashmir’s merger with India is disputed will find Balochistan’s association with Pakistan even more tenuous. The province is strategically located: at the crossroads of Afghanistan, Iran and the Gulf, at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz.
In a cloak and dagger game, machinations of the British (for whom securing the province was essential to controlling the Gulf), the Muslim League, and its leader Mohammad Ali Jinnah, together with Baloch tribes jostling for power, the Khan of Kalat finds himself outwitted, and the territories which comprise Balochistan province today ceded to Pakistan. Thus, for instance, when Ahmed Yar Khan, the last Khan of Kalat, under tremendous pressure from Jinnah to sign the instrument of accession when he only wanted to sign “an agreement on defence, foreign affairs and communications” summoned the Dar-ul-Awam to deliberate on the matter, it “voted unanimously for independence”.
Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo made this impassioned speech: “We have a distinct civilization and a separate culture like that of Iran and Afghanistan. We are Muslims but it is not necessary that by virtue of being Muslims we should lose our freedom and merge with others. If the mere fact that we are Muslims requires us to join Pakistan, then Afghanistan and Iran, both Muslim countries, should also amalgamate with Pakistan. We were never a part of India before the British rule. Pakistan’s unpleasant and loathsome desire that our national homeland, Balochistan, should merge with it is impossible to consider…”
From there follows a familiar pattern, seen in the earlier history of East Pakistan (and which ultimately decided it’s destiny as Bangladesh), in that of Pakistan occupied Kashmir, Northwest Frontier Province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) – the steady depletion of the natural resources of these provinces, the dispossession of its populace, the erosion of local autonomy, the negligence of development, suppression of ethnic identity and culture, demographic changes and the brutal crushing of any dissent or opposition.
According to the UNDP, 71 per cent of the population in Balochistan lives below the poverty line, second only to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the country’s poverty index. This should never have been the case. After all, Balochistan is a resource rich province, with natural gas, and mineral deposits including coal, chromites, barytes, sulphur, marble, iron ore, quartzite, uranium, limestone and 95 per cent of the world’s asbestos. Jain points out that 40 of the 50 minerals being mined in Pakistan currently are from Balochistan. Nevertheless, the province continued to languish in neglect and development, even as Baloch people alleged “internal colonization by Pakistan’s demographically, politically and economically dominant province of Punjab”. Thus, while gas from Balochistan’s Sui gas fields reached Punjab in 1964, Quetta cantonment received gas only in 1982.
Never having acquiesced to its merger with Pakistan, the Baloch have rebelled periodically, with the latest ongoing round of insurgency breaking out in 2004. The Pakistani state and army have used high handed measures to quell it, which includes among other things, death squads. Unsurprisingly, the people of Balochistan have opposed Chinese and other foreign investments into the province to develop the strategic Gwadar port, part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor – the flagship project of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as no local stakeholder is involved.
Jain points out that at the agreement signing ceremony over which then President Musharraf and Chinese premier Wu Bangguo presided in 2002, no Baloch representative was present. Consequently, the insurgency has also begun targetting Chinese interests and representatives in the province.
The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the ensuing jihad and civil war in that country has further exacerbated the agony of the province with an influx of refugees and arms adding to the economic duress, violence and chaos, while the drug trade of landlocked Afghanistan has introduced “drug economy” to the province.
Pakistan’s support for the US war on terror encouraged its war against the Baloch as it received both funds, arms, and silence from the US in return. In fact, to Pakistan’s credit it has got silence from major quarters: Balochistan rarely figures on the radar of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation or the Arab world, or even the EU or the UN. Turkey and Malaysia so vocal about rights of Muslims elsewhere have not uttered a squeak for the Baloch, Iran’s suppression of its own Baloch dissidents makes it a partner for Pakistan. India alone espouses the Baloch cause but with many limitations; Baloch insurgency is blamed on Indian collusion by Pakistan.
Today South Asia stands at a cusp of major geo-political changes. There is the ascendancy of the Taliban in Afghanistan, US and NATO troops will soon be withdrawing from the region, the CPEC runs through Balochistan and other disputed territories, China, Pakistan, and Turkey have entered into a close alliance, each with its own view of exceptionalism, political Islam is gaining in currency, the problem of Balochistan acquires greater salience.
Rich in data culled from numerous sources with an extensive bibliography Jain has done a yeoman’s service. A detailed work, the volume also delves into Baloch ethnicity, language, and culture. This is probably the author’s greatest achievement — she has not dealt with the subject through the prism of India-Pakistan rivalry. Given the paucity of literature on Balochistan and research on it being few and far in between, this volume becomes a go-to book for a range of stakeholders and hopefully will further evoke interest in and awareness of such a critical a subject.
(Aditi Bhaduri is a columnist. The views expressed are personal) –IANS
On 28 February 2021: