Balochistan province in Pakistan is the site of one of the world’s longest-running continuous insurgences as a number of Baloch groups fight the Pakistani army. It is also a movement that has seen little attention – the Diplomat magazine called it “South Asia’s most under-reported armed movement”. That might be about to change as Indian Prime Minister Modi seems to be keen on using the turmoil in the province to counter Pakistan’s support to the insurgency in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.
In his Independence Day speech from Delhi’s Red Fort, Modi said that Balochis had thanked him and sent the Indian peoples their wishes. Last week, at an all-party meeting Modi had mentioned that “Pakistan forgets that it bombs its own citizens using fighter planes”, referring to the Pakistani Army’s draconian actions in Balochistan. The immediate trigger for this Indian belligerence it seems was the Pakistani support for the massive unrest in Jammu and Kashmir, where Indian security forces have implemented a curfew for five weeks now. Nearly 60 civilians have been left dead. On August 14, Pakistan’s High Commissioner to India even dedicated his country’s independence day to Kashmir.
Who are the Baloch?
The Baloch are the Kurds of South Asia. Today they are split between the countries of Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. In Pakistan, the province the Balochis inhabit – Balochistan – is the country’s largest, occupying 44% of Pakistan’s land area.
Balochis are Sunni Muslims and speak Balochi, a northwestern Iranian language. They came to present-day Balochistan quite recently as far as these things go, driven here by the Seljuk invasion of Persia in the 11th century. Situated on the edge of the Iranian and Indian landmasses, the Baloch were divided up in medieval times between the Iranian Safavaids and the Indian Mughals.
How did Balochistan join Pakistan?
With the collapse of the Mughal Empire, a number of Baloch kingdoms sprung up. As British power gained force in South Asia, the Raj annexed up parts of north Balochistan even as the one remaining Balochi princely state, Kalat, became a feudatory – but not a part – of the British Indian Empire. In status, Kalat was like Bhutan or Sikkim (the latter itself annexed by India in 1975).
Mahomed Ali Jinnah was a personal friend of the Khan (King) of Kalat and, ironically, advised him to remain independent from the British Indian Empire till, of course, the hurried creation of Pakistan made him bat for Pakistan’s interests and press for merger. Pakistan started by playing of different tribal sardars, chiefs, against each other – an old British game – gobbling up around half of Kalat even as its Khan refused to accede.
Paradoxically, the final push for Kalat to join Pakistan came from an All India Radio broadcast. Till then, the Khan had been in touch with India, hoping to play off the two countries just as Hyderabad had till then. On March 27, 1948, though, VP Menon, India’s top bureaucrat responsible for the integration of the princely states, made an indiscreet comment to the press, claiming that Kalat had wanted to join India but its request had been rejected given its non-contiguous location. This was incorrect – Kalat had never wanted to merge with the Indian Union. Later, Prime Minister Nehru would have to clarify the point to India's Central Legislature, apologising for his bureaucrat's slip up. But factual or not, the news was broadcast on All India Radio.
Taking advantage of this, Pakistan began applying serious military pressure on the Khan, accusing him of consorting with the enemy. Within a few days the Khan caved and signed the instrument of accession.
What is the Baloch insurgency about?
The accession led to the first Baloch armed action against Pakistan, as the Khan’s younger brother, Abdul Karim, revolted. The issue then – as it is now – was the hyper dominance of Punjabis in the Pakistan’s weak federal structure. Abdul Karim wrote:
From whatever angle we look at the present government of Pakistan, we will see nothing but Punjabi fascism. The people have no say in it. It is the army and arms that rule…There is no place for any other community in this government, be it the Baloch, the Afghans or the Bengalis, unless they make themselves equally powerful.
This ethnic divide is exacerbated by Balochistan rich gas reserves, discovered in 1952, which are spirited away by the rest of Pakistan with very little of the profit being ploughed back into the province. Locally, Baloch-Pathan is another ethnic fault line within Balochistan, with Pathans making up 30% of the province and being more affluent than the local Balochs.
The mega port of Gwadar being developed by Pakistan’s federal government in collaboration with China has been a recent flashpoint. The land acquisition and the compete lack of Balochi control over their own port has led to local alienation.
The latest round of insurgency begun in 2005, sparked off by the alleged rape of a Baloch woman doctor by an army officer, is bigger and larger than any other previous armed movement. There are signs that a pan-Baloch consciousness is emerging and old tribal silos are being dissolved. In turn, Pakistan has been brutal in cracking down on Baloch insurgents, even using helicopter gunships and treating the province more like a colony than a part of the country. Even the August 8 suicide bombing attack in Quetta city in Balochistan which wiped of nearly the city’s entire Baloch lawyer population, has been blamed on Pakistan’s intelligence agencies by Baloch activists.
What does Modi hope to achieve with this sudden move?
Ever since that fateful radio broadcast of 1948, India has kept out of Balochistan’s affairs. In spite of this, Pakistan regularly accuses India of supporting Balochi separatists. In 2009, Pakistan, for example, managed to get a mention of the insurgency in Balochistan into a joint Indo-Pak statement signed in the Egyptian town of Sharm-el-Sheikh – a move that led to a political storm back in India. The mention of Balochistan was seen to be a misstep in which India, curiously, acknowledged to some extent Pakistan’s accusations.
Modi’s speech junks India’s 70-year old strategy completely and attempts to pull a Kashmir on Pakistan, highlighting the country’s human rights abuse to the international community. With this, the Prime Minister also greatly pleases his domestic audience that has been expecting a muscular approach to Pakistan only to get peace overtures such as Modi’s courtesy visit to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Lahore home in December 2015. And most conveniently, it shifts focus away from the actual troubles in Kashmir, where alienation from the Indian state has boiled over into chaos.
Of course, the key difference here is that Pakistan actually supports militancy in Kashmir. India, on the other hand, has done little to support Baloch insurgents on the ground.
It is, therefore, unclear what this public posturing will achieve beyond the posturing itself. In fact, this sudden break might even end up buttressing Pakistan’s position, allowing it to blame a domestic insurgency on India. Already, Pakistan Prime Minister’s Adviser on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz has jumped on Modi's statement, claiming that it “proves Pakistan’s contention that R&AW has been fomenting terror in Pakistan”.