When PM Narendra Modi referred to Balochistan in his Independence Day speech, he did not just touch upon a sensitive spot in Pakistan’s political history, but also gave out a clear signal that India will no longer be “cornered and submissive” on the Kashmir issue. Balochistan to Pakistan is much the same as what Kashmir is to India. According to Nirupama Subramanian, who has covered the region extensively, by publicly equating the two regions, the Prime Minister has clearly opened up a new chapter in India-Pakistan relations.
“Today from the ramparts of Red Fort, I want to greet and express my thanks to some people. In the last few days, people of Balochistan, Gilgit, Pakistan Occupied Kashmir have thanked me, have expressed gratitude, and expressed good wishes for me. The people who are living far away, whom I have never seen, never met – such people have expressed appreciation for Prime Minister of India, for 125 crore countrymen. This is an honour for our countrymen,” said Modi.
The government of Pakistan has been dealing with animosity among the tribes of Balochistan since the time the country came into existence in 1947. The causes of the conflict with Balochistan include a ripe ethnic nationalism along with feelings of economic and political exclusion.
Geography of Balochistan
Balochistan is located in the South West of Pakistan and constitutes half of the country’s territory. Demographically though it constitutes a mere 3.6 per cent of the total population of Pakistan. It is one of the four provinces of Pakistan and is strategically extremely important to the country because of the high concentration of natural resources including gas, oil, copper and gold. However, despite the richness in natural resources, Balochistan continues to remain the poorest province of Pakistan.
Becoming part of Pakistan
Prior to independence from British rule, the province of Balochistan comprised of four princely states; Kalat, Lasbela, Kharan and Makran. Three months before Partition, Mohammad Ali Jinnah mooted an independent state of Kalat which would consist of all four princely states. Accordingly a communique, was released on August 11, 1947, which gave an independent sovereign status to Kalat.
By October of 1947, however, Jinnah changed his mind regarding the status of Kalat and voiced his demand for Kalat to formally join the state of Pakistan. The Khan of Kalat refused to let go off his independent sovereign status and a standstill pursued between two leaders regarding the status of present day Balochistan.
On March 26, 1948, the Pakistan Army moved into Balochistan and captured Kalat on April 1, 1948. Following the capture of Kalat, cases of military atrocities have been a recurrent occurrence in the province. Acts of ill treatment by officials in the region included torture, arbitrary arrests, executions and acts of indiscriminate violence. As of 2006, close to 4,000 people had been reported to be missing which included students and political activists.
A growing ethnic nationalism
In an article in the Economic and Political Weekly, Dr. Aasim Sajjad Akhtar opines that “ethnic difference remains the single biggest fault line in Pakistani politics.” When Pakistan was formed, skewed power relations among the different Muslim ethnicities was visible. The Punjabi landlords had an almost unchallenged hold over Pakistan’s bureaucracy.
The Punjabi dominance of the Pakistani state was one of the foremost reasons for the Eastern wing of Pakistan, concentrated by Bengalis to rise in rebellion leading to the formation of Bangladesh in 1971. A similar ethnic exclusion was felt by the tribes of Balochistan as well.
Further, the people of Balochistan felt a sense of separate identity on account of a shared history, language and other cultural aspects. This shared culture among the Balochs led to the ripening of a strong sense of nationalism that propounded for a larger political autonomy and a separate state for Balochistan.
Following the success of the Bengali nationalist movement, nationalists in Balochistan were active in an armed struggle for achieving separation from Pakistan throughout the 1970s. However, the Pakistani government was successful in crushing the movement.
The next time an armed struggle raised its head in Baluchistan was in the early 2000s. This time however, the issue was not so much an ethnic nationalist interest as it was with a demand for higher control over the economic resources of the region.
The Baloch nationalists argued that the development projects initiated by the government in Balochistan do not benefit the Balochs. Reportedly, despite producing 36-45 per cent of gas for Pakistan, the province of Balochistan gets to consume a mere 17 per cent of it.
A major source of grievance for the Balochs is the development of the Gwadar port located in Balochistan. The project initiated by the Pakistani government in collaboration with China is aimed at increasing trade ties with America, Europe and Asia. The construction project resulted in the employment of a large number of non-Balochs, especially Punjabis, even though there is an excess in the number of unemployed Baloch engineers and technicians.
While the Baloch nationalists continue to complain about lack of development in the province, the Pakistani centre claims the nationalist struggle in the region has been thwarting the development process.
The politics behind Modi’s reference to Balochistan
India has long maintained a political stance of not interfering in the internal matters of Pakistan or any other country. Despite Pakistan repeatedly bringing up the Kashmir issue over the years, India had maintained silence on Balochistan.
Modi’s remarks on Balochistan comes in the immediate aftermath of the Independence Day celebration in Pakistan that was dedicated to the independence of Kashmir. India’s response was quick with Modi clearly putting his foot down and reminding the neighbours of the atrocities they mete out upon their own countrymen.
However, the Pakistani government has for years been accusing India of instigating unrest in the province of Balochistan. His speech was immediately met with a Pakistani cabinet official commenting upon it to be proof of India’s role in the region. On the other hand, Baloch nationalists welcomed Modi’s comment with full enthusiasm, saying it is the first time their cause has acquired international support.
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