The November 23 attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi by Baloch separatists brought into global view, once more, the Baloch trauma. The Balochistan Liberation Army, which claimed responsibility for the attack, had warned the Chinese authorities against “exploitation of Balochistan’s mineral wealth and occupation of the Baloch territory”.
Regrettable as violence in any form is, this incident is an unfortunate reminder that Baloch complaints cannot forever be ignored. In fact, the constant refrain through Pakistan’s 70-year history is this: Balochistan appears to be on the boil again.
Baloch resentment goes back to the very beginning when, with the initial encouragement of Pakistan founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Mir Ahmad Yar Khan, the Khan of Kalat, declared Balochistan’s independence on August 12, 1947. Thereafter, the Balochistan parliament rejected merger with Pakistan on several occasions between December 14, 1947, and February 25, 1948. Finally, to end the impasse, Pakistani troops entered Balochistan on April 15, 1948, closing the argument and seizing the province. The Baloch demand may have been suppressed, but the resentment continued to simmer.
With around 46 per cent of the country’s total area, Balochistan is Pakistan´s largest province, but has the smallest population, representing around five per cent of the country’s total. While the Baloch are in the majority, Pashtuns make up around 40 per cent of the population, with the Hazara community being the third-largest ethnic group.
Baloch anger is not against the ethnic mix, it is rooted in poverty and the systematic denial of opportunities by the Pakistani establishment. Despite its vast natural wealth, Balochistan is desperately poor; barely 25 per cent of its population is literate (the national average is 47 per cent), around 30 per cent are unemployed and just seven per cent have access to tap water. While Balochistan provides one-third of Pakistan’s natural gas, just a few of its cities are linked to the supply grid.
The Baloch have many grudges; in some respects these are an even graver reminder of the suppression that was practiced in East Pakistan. They complain that Baloch territory is just the arena where nuclear arms are tested, and their vast mineral wealth is exploited for the benefit of the rest of Pakistan. The latest addition to this list is the bizarre phenomenon of Gwadar port and its development. The area lies in Balochistan, but thousands of acres of its area have been fenced to keep the Baloch out.
The discrimination practiced by the Pakistani state began early and so did the rebellion against it. Balochi tribesmen, led by Sher Mohammad Marri, rebelled against the government in the tribal areas of Mengal, Marri, and Bukti between 1963 and 1969. The Baloch Students Organisation (BSO) was established in support of Balochi independence in 1967. Since then, and despite severe repression, the resistance has continued. On occasion, even foreign governments have aided the Baloch separatists. Iraq and neighbouring Afghanistan did when they provided military assistance to Baloch rebels around 1973.
Currently, there are two sources of violence in Balochistan. After 2001, an ISI-sponsored conflict began to rock the province by way of a backlash. This was largely north of Quetta, close to the Afghan border. This is the home of the Quetta Shura, the Taliban’s war council. The Taliban insurgents shelter in madrasas and lawless refugee camps there, taking rest between battles with the US forces in Afghanistan.
The second, and more longstanding indigenous conflict, is against the Pakistani state by the Balochis. This derives support from the area stretching south of Quetta up to the Arabian Sea. The people here have been reluctant Pakistanis and the first Baloch revolt erupted in 1948, barely six months after Pakistan was born. The current revolt is the fifth. Sadly, the Balochis have been the worst sufferers all along. Since 2009, more than 40,000 Balochis have gone missing, and over 10,000 have been killed.
As a report in The Guardian (March 29, 2011) described it: “The bodies surface quietly, like corks bobbing up in the dark. They come in twos and threes, a few times a week, dumped on desolate mountains or empty city roads, bearing the scars of great cruelty. Arms and legs are snapped; faces are bruised and swollen. Flesh is sliced with knives or punctured with drills; genitals are singed with electric prods. In some cases the bodies are unrecognisable, sprinkled with lime or chewed by wild animals. All have a gunshot wound in the head… If you have not heard of this epic killing spree, though, don’t worry: Neither have most Pakistanis.”
Have the killing fields of Balochistan spilled enough blood? The answer to that is an unqualified no. Yet, the Baloch case is unlikely to be heard by the wider world because their access to the outside is rare. And the Pakistani Army finds it convenient to silence the Baloch rather than listen to their lament.
(The author is a former Indian Ambassador and author of the book ‘Durand’s Curse: A Line across the Pathan heart’. The article is in special arrangement with South Asia Monitor)