Bitter Battles in Balochistan 22 July 2013

Bitter Battles in Balochistan                                                        22 July 2013

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(Photo from

Two incidents in Pakistan’s Balochistan Province that were reported yesterday in the Pakistan press—an attack against some petrol tankers and the arrest of twelve militants planning acts of anti-state terrorism—suggest that this province continues to pose major strategic and political problems for Islamabad. These incidents follow three major incidents in June: the burning of Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s nationally symbolic residence in Ziarat; the brutal killing of fourteen women university students on a bus in Quetta; and, a seemingly related attack against senior government officials at the Bolan Medical Complex, Quetta, after they went to visit casualties from the bus attack. Additionally, there have been numerous sectarian attacks in the Quetta area against Shia Hazaras originally from Afghanistan.

Comprising 347,190 sq kilometres or some 44 per cent of the nation, Balochistan is Pakistan’s largest province. It also is Pakistan’s most resource-rich province, having natural gas, coal and other minerals. In 1998, Pakistan conducted six nuclear tests in the Chaghai Hills of western Balochistan. However, Balochistan is also Pakistan’s most lightly-populated province. In 1998 (the last time Pakistan conducted a complete census), Balochistan’s population was only 6.5 million, or five per cent of Pakistan’s population of 132 million. Some 3.6 per cent of Pakistanis used Balochi as their mother tongue. The majority of the people of Balochistan—only just—comprised ethnic Balochis: 55 per cent. Pakistan’s current estimated population is 193 million. The percentages related to Balochis remain much the same.

There are three important factors in relation to Balochistan. First, populations of Baloch also straddle Pakistan’s border with Iran and Afghanistan. Among some of these Baloch, there is a desire to create a united greater Balochistan state. Second, in the north of Balochistan Province, about 30 per cent of the population comprise ethnic Pakhtoons. This is a substantial minority with whom Balochis compete for political and economic power. Third, many Baloch dislike so-called ‘Punjabi domination’. They feel that, among other things, their province’s significant mineral and energy resources, chiefly gas, have been, and continue to be, exploited to the advantage of other Pakistanis, particularly the majority ethnic group, Punjabis, who comprise 44 per cent of Pakistanis. These Punjabis also dominate the Pakistan military and bureaucracy, which traditionally have had few Baloch participants and which have been used to suppress Balochis. Since the recent Pakistan election, Punjabis now also dominate Pakistan’s democracy.

Apart from being exploited, Balochi antipathy partially arises because some Balochis have been reluctant Pakistanis since at least 1948. In that year, the Pakistan Army brutally integrated Kalat, a large princely state located in what now is eastern Balochistan, into Pakistan. The Khan (ruler) of Kalat had wanted independence, which Pakistan (and India) was not prepared to countenance for any post-British princely state. Kalat’s position contrasted with the nearby princely states of Makran, Las Bela and Kharan, all of whose rulers willingly joined their states with Pakistan. These four former princely states, along with British administered parts of the Baluchistan Agency, now comprise the modern Balochistan provincial entity.

Since 1948, Balochistan has seen other upheavals and violence. In 1958, the Pakistan Army again was involved in action there when a tribal leader opposed the creation of the unified province of West Pakistan and the subsequent diminution of his power, a significant negative factor in a province and society where tribal leaders have traditionally held (and still hold) enormous sway. A similar action took place in the mid-to-late 1960s as Balochis sought to assert themselves and gain some control over the exploitation of their assets. From 1973-1977, the Pakistan Army brutally suppressed an uprising in Balochistan using ‘scorched earth’ tactics, with Balochis possibly partially inspired by the 1971 victory of Bengalis (formerly East Pakistanis) and their creation of Bangladesh. Since about 2004, some Balochis in separatist organisations such as the Balochistan Liberation Army (which claimed responsibility for the abovementioned Ziarat incident) have been trying to obtain independence, or at least greater control over Balochistan’s resources and assets. Other separatist bodies include the Baloch Liberation Front, Baloch Republican Army, Lashkar-e-Balochistan, Baloch Liberation United Front and the Baloch Students Organization. In a recent development, Pakistan’s former president, Pervez Musharraf, has been arrested and charged with the 2006 murder of the senior, aged and respected Baloch tribal leader, Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti. If Musharraf is convicted, that could be a positive development for Balochis.

Apart from internal issues, Balochistan is interesting for two other reasons: the role that foreigners may be playing there and Gwadar Port. These two matters are related. On occasions, Islamabad has claimed that a ‘foreign hand’ is responsible for inimical activities occurring in Balochistan, with Islamabad usually pointing the finger at India. Other nations such as neighbouring Iran or the nearby United Arab Emirates (UAE) may also have been involved. Apart from wanting to destabilise its enemy, any Indian involvement, and that of the UAE and Iran, is possibly because of Pakistan’s development of Gwadar on Balochistan’s far western Makran Coast. This deep-sea port competes for trade with UAE ports such Abu Dhabi and Dubai and with Iran’s Chah Bahar, which is located 380 kilometres to Gwadar’s west and with which India has an involvement. Gwadar was developed with Chinese assistance. To Balochi chagrin, non-Baloch personnel generally administer this port. After a period of lease to a Singaporean company, the China Overseas Port Holding Company now controls Gwadar. India therefore has a double reason for keeping a keen eye on developments in Balochistan.

Given Balochistan’s size, its disgruntled population and its strategic significance, stabilising this province and integrating it fully and successfully into Pakistan are important and ongoing issues for Islamabad. As things stand, Baloch independence seems unlikely in the short term, with one major reason being Baloch disunity. Equally, the latest (Punjabi-dominated) government in Islamabad is unlikely to turn this issue around soon, given the array of significant and urgent problems that it currently confronts. In the short term, therefore, disgruntled Balochis will continue to offer Pakistan’s rivals significant opportunities to meddle and cause problems.

Christopher Snedden
22 July 2013


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