Pakistan: The Balochistan Conundrum | A political desert

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September 29, 2019 12:23 AM

Over the decades, the Baloch have not been able to cohere in an effective manner but have resisted the excesses of the Pakistani deep-state through an insurgency and a separatist movement — the latter stoking deep fears in Rawalpindi that the garrison state may have to prepare for another loss of territory exigency.

The volume under review is the third in recent years and follows the widely acclaimed Pakistan: Courting the Abyss and Pakistan: At the Helm.

Balochistan, which was created in July 1970, remains the most anomalous province of Pakistan, given that it is the largest with a land area that is 44% of the country but has a total population that is less than 6% of the whole nation. Its demographic density — estimated to be 19 per sq km while the national average is 281 — is much lower than the more populous Punjab and Sind provinces.

The tragic economic anomaly is that though Balochistan is the richest province of Pakistan by way of natural resources, it has been treated like the proverbial exploited colony of the powerful deep state controlled by the Pakistan army. Consequently the socio-economic development of the province is very poor in relation to other parts of the country, impacting human security indicators like infant mortality and literacy. Endowed with a distinctive strategic geography astride the north Arabian sea and bordering both Iran and Afghanistan, the province has been exploited in a venal manner by a rapacious garrison-state. Long neglected by the powers that be in Islamabad-Rawalpindi, it is currently trapped in poverty, strife, sectarian violence, terrorism, separatism and gross human rights violations.

Yet the literature on Balochistan has been slim, and Tilak Devasher makes a valuable contribution here with his book, thereby consolidating his profile as a diligent and rigorous Pakistan-researcher. The volume under review is the third in recent years and follows the widely acclaimed Pakistan: Courting the Abyss and Pakistan: At the Helm.

The trigger for writing this book is outlined by the author in a poignant manner: “While researching my first book, I came across two laments about Balochistan that moved me deeply.” The first related to the “anguished cry of a father at the ‘enforced disappearance’ i.e. extra-judicial abduction of his son”; and the second was the heart-rending wail of a young student who bemoaned the neglect and torment that the local Balochis have received from Pakistan. “What concerns me most is a word…that is not heard on the lips of people in most parts of the world…that word is Balochistan.”

Devasher explores this word in a very methodical manner and the reader will benefit from the detailed and objective narrative that is neatly divided into six broad sections — the ancient civilisation; times gone by; roots of alienation; Chinese gambit; relentless persecution; and enduring insurrection. These are further sub-divided into 18 compact chapters and the overall canvas is both comprehensive and concise — showing hallmarks of a good intelligence professional, which was Daveshar’s domain expertise while in government.

Balochistan ruled by the Khan of Kalat has a curious pedigree in relation to modern Pakistan. Prior to the partition of the sub-continent in August 1947, no less a legal luminary than Mohammad Ali Jinnah (who later became the founder of the sui generis state of Pakistan) had persuasively “argued the case for Kalat’s independence with the British”.

However, the distinctive strategic location of Balochistan sealed the fate of its people irrevocably. As part of the post World War II ‘great game’, London advised Lord Mountbatten in September 1947 that “because of its location, it would be too dangerous and risky to allow Kalat to be independent”. The imperial die was cast and, as Devasher details, based on secret documents of that period since released, the Britain had masterminded “the events leading to the occupation of Kalat by Pakistan in 1948”. One may conjecture that it was this deeper strategic compulsion that prevented Balochitsan from emulating Nepal or Bhutan.

But this turned out to be a heavy cross, for as another author (Martin Axmann) noted wryly, the death of the Baloch state enabled the birth of the Pakistan nation, wherein the latter relegated the hapless Balochis to a “marginal ethno-linguistic minority”. This, in turn, laid the foundation for an enduring “conflict between the dominating national group of Punjabi-Pakistani and the dominated sub-national group of Baloch”.

Over the decades, the Baloch have not been able to cohere in an effective manner but have resisted the excesses of the Pakistani deep-state through an insurgency and a separatist movement — the latter stoking deep fears in Rawalpindi that the garrison state may have to prepare for another loss of territory exigency.

This is the ‘conundrum’ that Devasher examines in a dispassionate manner. Posing the question, “How plausible is Balochistan breaking away from Pakistan, a la Bangladesh?”, the author opines: “Pakistan’s conundrum is that Balochistan is too large and too strategically important as a province to loosen its grip. Yet, the policies adopted for the last seven decades have done everything to keep the province alienated rather than bring it into the mainstream. Will the next seven decades be any different?”

On page 291, Devasher comes to a tentative conclusion that “without a catalyst like massive international support, Balochistan is unlikely to break away”. The policy suggested for the principal interlocutors to come out of the tragic stasis is utopian . The author avers that the “future development of Pakistan would be a ‘just’ (emphasis added) solution to the Balochistan conundrum, a solution that puts the Baloch in the centre rather than the resources of the province”.

Regrettably, the modern nation-state, including its south Asian exemplars, has shown little empathy or inclination to prioritise the rights of its marginalised citizens in an equitable manner. Balochistan is unlikely to be the exception.

This is a rigorously researched book and to his credit Devasher has included 55 pages of end notes. The China section in relation to Balochistan is illuminating and dwells on the economic corridor that Beijing has ambitiously envisioned as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), but it is a mere two chapters. The implications of the success of the BRI or lack thereof for China, Pakistan and India would have embellished this volume further.

I was also intrigued that in the detailed survey of the origins of the Baloch as a people, the links with Hindu India have not been included. It merits recall that the Imperial Gazetter of India (1908) observed that before the Ahmadzai Khans brought together western Balochistan into an organised state in 1666 “the former rulers of Kalat were Sewai (Hindu) by name”.

Clearly more rigorous historical scholarship needs to be undertaken to better comprehend the many enigmas that envelop the Baloch people — including the origins of the Brahui group and their dialects. For now, Devasher is to be robustly commended for shining the torch on that one word — Balochistan. One hopes that the student whose lament motivated the author will get to see this lucid volume.

(C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi)

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