In the international discussion on Pakistan´s many problems, the low-level conflict in its Balochistan province does not get much attention. The issue of nuclear arms, for instance, is considered more immediately frightening; Balochistan is just the area where these arms are tested. But the province is also the arena for a long-standing, complex and multi-faceted conflict, which, with every new upturn, is becoming more intractable. Even in Pakistan itself, the situation in Balochistan tends to be ‘crowded out’ by other dramatic events. The lack of media access to areas under military control is another cause for whatever goes on in Balochistan to remain in the background. Yet, the province is crucial to several infrastructural mega-projects, among them the huge investment programme signed with the Chinese government in April 2015. These projects are regional in nature – and so is the conflict in Balochistan. Ann Wilkens, member of AAN’s Advisory Board, provides an overview of this complex issue and concludes that political dialogue is urgently needed, if economic investment is to bring the intended, regional uplift and, most importantly, bring peace to a long-suffering population.Map: Major Ethnic Groups of Pakistan in 1980, Source: Wikipedia
The province, the people
With around 46 per cent of the total area, Balochistan is Pakistan´s largest province, but it has the smallest population, representing around five per cent of the country’s total. (1) This is not the only dichotomy. While, as the name indicates, Balochistan is the home of the Baloch, there is also a large Pashtun contingent, making up around 40 per cent of its population, and the Pashtuns form the majority in the province´s capital, Quetta. Another spill-over from Afghanistan, dating back to the rule of Abdul Rahman Khan in the 1890s, is the Hazara community, who form the third largest ethnic group, also with a strong presence in Quetta. Another ethnic group, normally included in the Baloch but originating from Southern India, are the Brahui, whose Dravidian language is spoken by a dwindling population mainly in central Balochistan, notably in and around the former princely state of Kalat, the historic centre of the Baloch quest for self-rule.
Balochistan is the least developed province of Pakistan. Marginal living conditions have prompted a large part of the population to leave in search for a better existence, mainly in Karachi or abroad. But the province has huge reserves of natural gas, as well as other natural resources yet to be fully explored, which have the potential to provide a basis for economic development. Geographically, it is on the path of several regional infrastructure projects, which have been stalled for various reasons, one of them being the lack of stability in the region, including in Balochistan. Thus, lack of stability results in lack of development, while lack of development is also a major source of instability.
Economic migration aside, the Baloch are spread over three countries. The largest group is in Pakistan, around six million, but there is also a sizable Baloch population in Iran, around two million, and a smaller group in Afghanistan, estimated at around 600,000, most of them in the southwestern province of Nimroz. (2) Balochi is an Iranian language (like Farsi, Pashto and Kurdish). The majority of the Baloch are Sunni Muslims. For the Iranian Baloch in the equally deprived Iranian province of Sistan Balochistan, the marginalisation of the Sunni sect is an important reason for conflict with the Shia-led theocracy in Teheran, regularly resulting in attacks directed at the Iranian state, which in turn accuses Pakistan of hosting these opponents (see for instance here).
During the course of the Pakistani Baloch insurgency, the militants among them have become increasingly secessionist and are now commonly referring to Pakistan as an occupying state, rather than a problematic homeland. In Pakistan, after the breakup of the original nation and the forming of Bangladesh in 1971, secessionist talk has been a trigger of existential anguish, and that may be one reason why intransigence rather than dialogue has been characteristic of the Pakistani state’s response to Baloch insurgencies. Moreover, although rooted in a more or less secular orientation, many militants are becoming increasingly radicalised in religious terms, in tune with a growing global movement of religious extremists transcending national borders.
With the concept of ‘Greater Balochistan’ overshadowing the borders of three countries, the Baloch national issue provides a reflection of the Kurdish conflict in the Middle East, as well as other areas around the world where ethnic, linguistic and cultural identity do not square with geographical boundaries. From the point of view of the Baloch tribespeople, many of them still nomads, their territory stretches across the boundaries between Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan, a vast area where they believe they have ancestral rights to move around.
From the point of view of the three governments involved, however, such movements add to the already complicated relations between them. Support for each other’s rebel groups is a component in this picture, which may be used in a tit-for-tat manner. For instance: India, claiming that Pakistan is infiltrating insurgents across the Line of Control into India-controlled Kashmir, may respond by cooperating with Afghanistan to support Baloch rebels. Pakistan may be irritated when Baloch leaders fleeing from Pakistani security forces are allowed to settle in Afghanistan, but Afghanistan may then point to the presence of the leadership council of the Afghan Taleban, known as the Quetta shura, on Pakistani territory.
At the same time, there are grave, humanitarian aspects of the cross-border movements. While large waves of Afghan refugees have been received in Pakistani Balochistan, particularly during the last decades of war, there are also Pakistani Baloch refugees in Afghanistan (for more on the latter, see here).
Quite another facet of the regional interface is the drugs trade, which continues to flourish in what looks like a rare bird of functional, regional cooperation. This is a sign that, when profits are high enough, barriers can be transcended: where there is a will, there is a way.
A history of insurgency
Historically, Balochistan has never been a comfortable part of the Pakistani nation state which was initiated with the division of the subcontinent in 1947 and promoted by a movement of Urdu-speaking, urban Muslims in what is now northern India, who never had much in common with Baloch tribesmen. British Balochistan, which did not include the princely states, was integrated into Pakistan with a special status as a Chief Commissioner´s Province, and was raised to the status of Governor´s Province only in 1953. As for the 570-odd Indian princely states, four of which were in the territory of today´s Balochistan, the provision was that they could opt for independence but, in the end, most of them were integrated into either India or Pakistan. However, for the Baloch princely states, a history of extended autonomy made the situation more fluid, especially for the most well-known one, the Khanate of Kalat, which wanted to retain its independence and tried to establish itself as a tribal monarchy. This did not succeed for long and its accession, under pressure, to Pakistan in March 1948 triggered the first wave of armed revolt against the state.
The imposition of military rule in Pakistan on 6 October 1958, when General Ayub Khan took over the country as ‘Chief Martial Law Administrator’, again exacerbated the situation in Balochistan, where tribesmen refused to turn in their weapons at the local police stations. The following scheme of assembling all of West Pakistan into ‘one unit’ (as opposed to East Pakistan, later Bangladesh) was bitterly opposed until 1960, when the rebels thought they had negotiated an exception to this policy, as well as safe conduct and amnesty for themselves. Instead, they were arrested and seven of them executed. This did not end the opposition to Ayub Khan´s centralisation efforts and a third round of conflict characterised the latter part of the 1960s.
The fourth, and more extensive, uprising in Balochistan came in 1973, again as a reaction to the thwarting of provincial autonomy. After the loss of Bangladesh, Pakistan´s president Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto wanted to strengthen centralised rule in what was left of the country. He was also under pressure from the Iranian government, which feared that its Baloch province might be drawn into a movement towards strengthened indigenous rule in Pakistan´s Balochistan. On a flimsy pretext, Bhutto dismissed the elected provincial government and used the ensuing calls for secession as an excuse to send in the army. The armed clashes peaked in the winter of 1974-75, but did not cease until three years later, when Bhutto was overthrown by General Zia ul-Haq, who again imposed military rule but at the same time tried to restore peace in Balochistan through political and economic means. Accordingly, there has been no consistent and direct link between military rule in Pakistan and active conflict in Balochistan. Rather, disregard for Baloch sensitivities has run through Pakistan´s short history, under various rulers.
The fifth, and still ongoing, Baloch uprising started in 2004, during the military rule of General Pervez Musharraf. While the Marri and Mengal tribes had been at the centre of previous rebellions, this time it was the Bugti tribe that led the uprising and was subsequently targeted. On 26 August 2006, Nawab Akbar Bugti, who besides leading the Bugti tribe had also served as both governor (1973-74) and chief minister (1989-90) of Balochistan, was killed in a clash with the army at his hideout in the hills in north-eastern Balochistan. This provided the nationalist rebels with a martyr of renown beyond the province.
Economic issues were at the centre of this round of conflict, among them the construction of the Gwadar port without much Baloch participation in either the decision-making process or the actual construction work. Another bone of contention was the distribution of the proceeds from the Sui gas fields, situated in the Dera Bugti area, as well as the distribution of the gas itself (which was said to be used to heat Punjabi homes and run Punjabi industries, while the Baloch were literally left out in the cold). Enhanced military presence in the Sui area followed from the conflict, and then subsequently added to it.
Human rights abuses and violence
As usual in situations of conflict, human rights suffer. Among the Pakistanis who have ‘disappeared’ during recent years, presumably after having been abducted by the security forces, young Baloch nationalists form a distinct and particularly recurrent group. Many of them have later turned up as corpses by the roadside bearing marks of torture. Despite attempts by various organisations, including Pakistan’s Supreme Court, to map the disappearances (see for instance here) and end the impunity surrounding them, no clarity has been achieved and bereaved families are still looking for closure. Accordingly, the number of victims cited in this context differs widely, from the tens to the ten thousands – it should be safe to say that at least hundreds of Baloch have disappeared in this way.
The conflict between Baloch nationalists and the Pakistani state aside, the continuing turmoil and lack of strong governance in a multi-ethnic setting has brought a wider range of serious crimes against human rights, as well as a high level of criminal activity, both of which add to the difficulties faced by civilians trying to build a decent life. Various actors are contributing to this sad state of affairs, sometimes reflecting conflicts of interest between different population groups, and sometimes lending themselves to exploitation by, for instance, anti-state militants and/or perpetrators of sectarian violence. Punjabi settlers in the province, in many cases going back several generations, have been targeted by Baloch nationalists, leading to the exodus of a relatively well educated segment of the population. The Hazara Shia population in Quetta has also been particularly targeted, through a series of sectarian bomb attacks leading to hundreds of casualties.
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor
It is in this environment of multi-faceted conflict that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor programme (CPEC) is anchored. The programme amounts to over 45 billion US dollars and was agreed between the two countries in April 2015. The corridor has its starting point in the Chinese-built port of Gwadar, on Pakistani Balochistan’s southern coast at the Arabian Sea, and is linked to Chinese-funded, infrastructural mega-projects that are regional in nature, (for more, see here).
The programme has been flaunted as a turning point for the fragile Pakistani economy and an upcoming backbone of regional connectivity, which is supposed to create jobs and prosperity for everyone, the Baloch included. The government’s reasoning seems to be that, once the recalcitrant Baloch nationalists discover the benefits of improved infrastructure, they will return to the fold of the Pakistani motherland. However, until this spirit of cooperation takes root, the Chinese workers involved in the project will be protected by an additional security division comprising army battalions, as well as civil armed forces.
This smacks of wishful thinking. At the core of the recurrent insurgencies lies the resentment that the Baloch have been marginalised in their own country, and that Punjabis in particular, and the Pakistani state in general, are colonising and exploiting them. For the insurgents the socio-economic backwardness of the province serves as proof that this is so, whereas, on the government side, the argument may go the other way around: Balochistan is perceived to be poor and backward as a consequence of a tribal structure which benefits only self-serving feudal lords and stands in the way of the government’s efforts towards progress and development. So far, neither side has shown much willingness to negotiate and compromise, with both sides preferring to play a zero-sum game. The looming presence of a growing number of Chinese labourers and engineers, working under armed protection, seems more likely to increase the tensions than soften the positions. Even if the programme delivers all the goods promised, it is difficult to see how the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor programme can become the silver bullet leading to stability in Balochistan. Again, the province seems to be stuck in a vicious circle: investments could bring stability, yes, but investments need stability to be carried out and take effect.
Opening for political settlement?
While throughout the history of Pakistan coercion has been the main instrument in dealing with Baloch insurgency, there have also been recurrent attempts to settle the conflict through dialogue and compromise. The present time seems to be such a period, or to at least have the potential to become one. In an interview with the BBC Urdu service in August 2015, Brahumdagh Bugti, the grandson of Nawab Akbar Bugti and the most well-known of the Baloch separatist leaders, did not exclude talks with the government, provided that military action was ended and security forces withdrawn from Balochistan. Even the core question of separation could be discussed, according to Bugti, “if our friends, allies, comrades and the Baloch people want this.” From the government side, the chief minister of Balochistan welcomed this conciliatory overture and expressed the hope that talks might start after the recent Eid holiday. According to a recent report, talks have, indeed, been going on between the two sides and Brahumdagh Bugti might soon return to Balochistan, after having been in exile since the death of his grandfather in 2006.
However, facts on the ground still send mixed signals. Enforced disappearances are still reported and security operations have escalated as a result of the National Action Plan to crack down on terrorism, which was adopted after the army school massacre by the Pakistani Taleban (the TTP), in Peshawar in December 2014. According to the provincial interior minister well over 8,000 people had been detained by the end of September 2015, while over 200 persons had been killed in these operations. Among them, presumably, is Allah Nazar Baloch, the leader of the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF), who was reported killed by security forces in an intelligence-led operation in July 2015. Allah Nazar was the most prominent of the Baloch separatist leaders still in Pakistan. His organisation has been behind a number of deadly attacks, including the one that killed three Chinese engineers in Gwadar in May 2004.
Still, the recent overtures indicate an increased willingness for dialogue on both sides and, thus, provide hope that the vicious circle characterising the development in Balochistan, where rounds of violence have continuously fed into each other, could finally begin to be reversed. Concrete and constructive commitment is now needed. The urgency of the situation is underlined by global trends. The winds of radicalisation continue to sweep through the Muslim world, carrying with them, first and foremost, frustrated young people with poor prospects, such as potential Baloch militants.
In Pakistan´s turbulent history, Balochistan seems to have always come in as the last priority. In the long run – and it is already a long-running conflict – this high-handedness may backfire, and, with it, the infrastructural investments now set in motion. On the other hand, in the alternative scenario of serious dialogue aimed at solving political and economic grievances, these investments could enhance the peace dividend in a long-suffering but potentially prosperous part of the world.
(1) Figures differ between different sources. The figures cited here are taken from “Jago Pakistan – Wake Up, Pakistan”, Report of The Century Foundation International Working Group on Pakistan, May 2015, 53.
(2) These figures, by no means exact, are weighted from several, different sources.
Axmann, Martin: Back to the Future, The Khanate of Kalat and the Genesis of Baloch Nationalism 1915-1955, Oxford University Press 2009
Lieven, Anatol, Pakistan, A Hard Country, Allen Lane 2011
Jalal, Ayesha, The Struggle for Pakistan, A Muslim Homeland and Global Politics, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press 2014
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020