The Balochistan issue is picking up steam as Baloch nationalist leader Brahumdagh Bugti has announced that he will seek asylum in India now. The founder and leader of Baloch Republican Party (BRP), who has been in exile in Switzerland since 2010, faces pressure from Pakistan which has tried to secure a red corner notice against him and his close associates to stifle their free Balochistan movement. India’s grant of political asylum to Bugti will allow him to manage his movement more freely with the security of an Indian passport. In the same light, India approaches another 1971-like situation when it will be expected to help a separatist movement in helping gain freedom.
However, the one issue that is not finding much airtime is that fact that a free Balochistan will also rile Iran and Afghanistan with whom India has cultivated a good relationship in recent years. Balochistan is the largest province in Pakistan. However, its territory historically extends to Iran and Afghanistan as well — split majorly between Pakistan and Iran with a smaller part in Afghanistan. The region has witnessed decades of violence and confrontation with native tribes being oppressed and persecuted by both Pakistani and Iranian forces. Pakistan-supported Taliban has meanwhile contributed to killings of common Balochis in Afghanistan.
When India and Pakistan were split in 1947, Balochistan was assured freedom from British rule along with shared economic, defence and foreign policy resources with Pakistan. However, in 1948, Pakistan invaded Balochistan and occupied it. The often bloody Baloch freedom movement has continued since then. One of the royal masters of Balochistan, Khan of Kalat, had in the past acceded territory to Iran to act a buffer zone against an aggressive and Czarist Russia. Also, Iran only has about 2 per cent of Baloch population and is majority Shia as against the prominent Sunni population in Pakistan. Since 1948, the Baloch leaders have tried to exploit this conflict between Pakistan and Iran to their benefit. Balochis claim to be the only secular group in the state, but religious and ethnic factors complicate the situation more than what is easily perceived. The tribes refuse to accept the writ of Pakistan and insist on following the traditional governance practices like Riwaj and Jirga instead of Pakistani law.
Balochistan, though not developed as such, is rich in natural resources and thus a prized asset for Pakistan. The Balochis also take this as a reason for scorn against Islamabad and the Punjabis who lead the country economically and politically.
Meanwhile, International human rights watchers, American house committees and other third-party stakeholders have raised the issue of atrocities on Balochis in Pakistan and Iran. Bugti and his BRP are one of the frontrunners batting for free Balochistan. India’s support to them highlights its intention to counter Pakistani human rights violations and atrocities in its territory at a time when the latter continues to interfere in India and promotes or supports terrorism in India, particularly Kashmir. The larger Balochi population is disillusioned with Pakistan and its leadership and has struggled for decaded in their fight for independence, much like Bangladesh which saw the Pakistani army carry out one of the bloodiest genocides in history.
However, India’s role here will be tricky given that India shares amiable ties with both Afghanistan and Iran. Its recent forays into Afghanistan in helping their efforts to revitalise Afghan infrastructure has boosted bilateral ties. India’s support to Iran, their renewed economic relations and the fact that Iran is an important route for bringing natural gas and oil resources into India will influence any possible role India may play in dealing with, or facilitating discussions of Baloch leaders, with Iran for Balochistan territory. Indian policymakers would have factored in this possible collateral damage.
Incidentally, India could also raise the issues of atrocities in FATA, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh in Pakistan. Balochistan will set a precedent for other oppressed regions in Pakistan to raise their voice. Although a crumbling Pakistan is not a favourable scenario on Indian borders, India’s efforts to make Pakistan accountable for its atrocities shows a resolve that New Delhi will not sit back and defend on all fronts.