- This is a great book about a great people caught in the vortex of great power rivalries in a strategic piece of real estate that links south Asia to West Asia.
- Jain has done us a great service by bringing the plight and fight of the Baloch to our notice.
The tragedy of being situated on the highways of history, if you happen to occupy a valuable piece of real estate with a small population footprint, is that you may ultimately be only roadkill for the global powers that are steamrolling through.
This is the story so far of the Balochis, the hapless people Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke about in his 2016 Independence Day address. They are being massacred by the Pakistani Army in a bid to keep the Baloch subjugated. But a Baloch insurgency that began in 2004 continues, with no signs of resolution.
If you want a good understanding of Balochistan and its people, and why they have gotten nowhere near freedom nearly 74 years after the British exited the Indian sub-continent, you can do no better than read Sandhya Jain’s book Balochistan: In the Crosshairs of History.
A wonderful writer and journalist, Jain never calls a spade a shovel purely for the sake of political correctness. Superbly researched and annotated, Jain’s work covers the entire history of the Baloch, and especially the years running up to 1947, with a great eye for detail that could only have come from deep research.
I found the book to be a revelation not just because of the way it portrays the Baloch and their history, but because Jain places them in the context of the great power rivalries that have always ended up squashing the aspirations of proud and fearless people.
Comprising roughly 44 per cent of Pakistan’s land area, with Iran on its west and Afghanistan to its north, Balochistan was seen as strategic by the British, who did not want the Russians to obtain access to a warm water port in the Arabian Sea.
Today, with China reducing Pakistan to a vassal state and investing in Balochistan’s Gwadar Port – which is central to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and Chinese access to the Indian Ocean and west Asian oil routes – the Baloch are wedged between a rock and a hard place. Even if the Pakistanis were to deliver them a better deal, the Chinese will not let go.
At the time of British departure from the sub-continent in 1947, Balochistan, which was not a part of British India (it had separate treaties with the Brits), had the theoretical option of independence.
One part of Balochistan, the Khanate of Kalat, headed by its ruler Ahmad Yar Khan, seemed likely to be given the option of independence, but Khan seems to have played his cards badly. He chose to naively believe Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s vague promises of support for independence. But, as Jain tells the story, neither the Pakistanis nor the retreating British had any intentions of doing so.
They also had internal weaknesses. The Baloch, despite having a common sense of nationhood, were riven by feuds and factions. It was not one common administrative unit even at that time.
Apart from the Khanate of Kalat headed by Ahmad Yar Khan, there was a British part of Balochistan and semi-autonomous regions like Lasbela, Kharan and Makran. Two powerful tribes, the Marri and the Bugti, were never fully under Khan’s thumb.
So, when independence day approached, Lord Louis Mountbatten colluded with Jinnah to suggest that Balochistan was too weak to survive on its own, and thus would be better off as a part of Pakistan.
The British plan was obvious: vivisect India and make Pakistan a strategic western ally to contain the Soviet Union after the Second World War. The British were clear that an insecure Pakistan would serve as a better ally than India post-1947.
It is the same thinking that now enables a China to hold Pakistan hostage to its own ambitions of dominating Asia, and Balochistan is a minor cog in that wheel. Control of Balochistan makes China a two-ocean power. It is no longer about Pakistan holding Balochistan, but China willing it to do so on its behalf.
Jain’s book, which contains six chapters, starts with the saga of Balochistan’s proposed independence that ended with annexation by Pakistan. It details how Jinnah and the British outfoxed Ahmad Yar Khan in the latter’s feeble bid to unite all the Baloch areas under him before independence.
So, when the Khan declared independence for Kalat on 15 August 1947 (even while keeping the option of allowing Pakistan some say in defence, foreign affairs and communications), Jinnah simply refused to accept the declaration and, after a nine-month diplomatic standoff, annexed Kalat in March 1948.
By 1952, the Pakistanis bought off all resistance by Balochi feudals, by granting federation status and privy purses to the rulers of Kalat, Makran, Lasbela and Kharan.
In the subsequent chapters, Jain deals with the idea of Baloch nationhood, which is not based on religion or race, but largely language (the Baloch have two different languages, Balochi and Brahui, but the national identity transcends even this division).
A shared sense of history goes back to the period between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. The earlier era involves the establishment of an early Baloch confederacy in the Makran under Mir Jalal Han, and the latter period marks the high point, when Mir Chakar Rind, considered one of the greatest Baloch rulers, brought various Baloch tribes and rulers under one confederacy.
Post 1947, the Baloch have periodically rebelled against their Punjabi (or Pakistani masters), with insurgencies breaking out in 1948, 1958, 1962, and 1973.
The fifth one, which began in 2004, is still on. It is being suppressed by the Pakistani Army with a degree of ferociousness and bloody-mindedness that would put even the non-squeamish Chinese to shame.
The fourth, fifth and sixth chapters relate to Pakistan’s exploitation of Balochistan’s abundant natural resources like an extractive colonial power, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which passes largely through Balochistan and terminates in Gwadar port, and a wider discussion on a multipolar world and multipolar Asia.
Despite China’s wishes, and probably because of its expansionist instincts and aggressive behaviour towards all neighbours, Japan, Vietnam, India and Australia, among others, are slowly banding together to contain China.
Multi-polarity is inevitable when one pole seeks to wield power all by itself and against the interests of neighbours.
This is a great book. It is about a great people caught in the vortex of great power rivalries in a strategic piece of real estate that links south Asia to West Asia.
After the British, it has now drawn the unwelcome attentions of the Chinese.
The Balochis, distributed over three states – Pakistani Balochistan, Iran, Afghanistan, and with small diaspora communities in north America and Europe – do not have the demographic heft (they number anywhere between 10-15 million) to fight the Godzillas battling for supremacy in their backyards. But if any people deserve to have their own country, it is surely the Balochis.
Jain has done us a great service by bringing the plight and fight of the Baloch to our notice.
Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi
Balochistan: In The Crosshairs of History
KW Publishers Pvt Ltd
Price Rs 1,560
An e-book version is also available