By Stanly Johny
August 17, 2016
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reference to Balochistan in his Independence Day speech signals an aggressive shift in India’s approach towards Pakistan. The Prime Minister, while addressing the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort in Delhi, said, “I am grateful to the people of Balochistan, Gilgit and PoK who have thanked me in the past few days.” Last week, in an all-party meeting on the unrest in Kashmir, Mr. Modi had said, “The time has come for Pakistan to answer the world, on atrocities against people in Balochistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.” The Indian strategy could be drawing the global attention towards one of the oldest internal problems of Pakistan.
Balochistan is Pakistan’s largest, but least developed province, which is home to over 13 million people, mostly Balochis. The roots of the conflict, like India’s Kashmir issue, go back to the country’s independence. When Pakistan was born in 1947, the rulers of the Khanate of Kalat, which was a princely state under the British and part of today’s Balochistan, refused to join the new nation. Pakistan sent troops in March 1948 to annex the territory. Though Yar Khan, the then ruler of Kalat, later signed a treaty of accession, his brothers and followers continued to fight, triggering the first conflict between Balochis and the Pakistani Army. So far, there were five waves of insurgencies. After the 1948 rebellion was put down, crisis erupted in 1958. In 1962-63 and 1973-77, there were violent campaigns by the Baloch nationalists for independence from Pakistan. The two decades after that was the calmest period in the history of Balochistan.
But tensions started building up after General Pervez Musharraf seized power in 1999. When the military started building new cantonments in Balochistan, it was seen by radical nationalist factions as a bid by the Army to tighten control over the region. The fifth wave of insurgency that broke out in this context is still on. There are several separatist groups in the province. The strongest among them is the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), designated as a terrorist group by Pakistan and the U.K. Islamabad has claimed that India is backing the BLA.
Insurgency and Human Rights Violations
According to a WikiLeaks cable, Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the former Director-General of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), said in a presentation to parliamentarians (which was later shared with the U.S.) that India, Russia and the UAE are backing insurgency in Balochistan. Mr. Pasha said India had set up nine training camps along the Afghan border, where they were training members of the BLA. The Baloch Republican Party, led by Brahmdagh Bugti, the grandson of Akbar Bugti, and the Baloch Liberation Front are the other two major nationalist groups operating in the province.
The Balochi nationalists accuse Islamabad of deliberately keeping the mineral-rich province poor, while Pakistan’s rulers say the pace of development is slow due to insurgency. But a bigger allegation that the Pakistan is facing, and something which Prime Minister Modi tried to highlight in his Independence Day speech, is the large-scale human rights violations in the region, both by the Army and the militants. Every time there’s unrest in the region, the Pakistani Army used brute force to retain order. Even the Air Force was used against the civilian population many times.
The Pakistani atrocities in the province had attracted international condemnation. “The surge in unlawful killings of suspected militants and opposition figures in Balochistan has taken the brutality in the province to an unprecedented level,” Brad Adams, Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, said in a July 2011 report.
According to Amnesty International’s 2015-16 annual report on Pakistan, “enforced disappearances continued with impunity” in Balochistan and other parts of the country. Marc Tarabella, Vice-chair of the EU Parliament's delegation for relations with the countries of Southeast Asia and ASEAN, wrote last year that the EU cannot ignore the dire human rights situation in Balochistan. “The main victims of this violence are the people of Balochistan who are being systematically targeted by paramilitary groups, allegedly sponsored by the Pakistani authorities. Extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances are the most common practices,” he wrote in an article in The Parliament Magazine.
The province is now holding greater importance in Pakistan’s grand economic and geopolitical strategies. It’s one of the important locations in the economic corridor China has proposed to build at an investment of $46 billion linking the deepwater port of Gwadar with the city of Kashgar, a trading hub in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang.
The much publicised the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline is also planned to go through Balochistan. To implement these big-ticket projects successfully, Pakistan should either buy peace with the insurgents or put them down militarily. Either way, it would prefer to deal with the issue on its own, and the last thing it would want is the internationalisation of the conflict.