Volume 6, No. 2, February 2024
Editor: Rashed Rahman
Rife with historical tensions, the region of Balochistan has erupted into insurrections against the Pakistani state since 1948. Convinced of being historically wronged, the Baloch view their fight as one against repression and for self-determination. Though residing in the same region, the ethnic identity of the Baloch has remained in sharp contrast to the ultranationalism that defines the Pakistani state. Therefore, the Pakistani security forces, who see many of the Baloch nationalist groups as terrorists, have crushed any opposition or demand for reform. This, in addition to a deteriorating human rights scenario has further cemented Baloch opposition against Pakistan. Drawing on such dynamics, this article will seek to highlight the fact that even though the fight for Balochistan is one of international significance, most observers have ignored the situation, leaving the Baloch in a drawn-out insurgency with no support and an increased feeling of uncertainty. In this context, many have termed the Baloch freedom movement as dying or dead. Nevertheless, recent instances have shown that the tensions in the region are still relatively on the rise. This article will seek to highlight and contextualise such events and happenings in a gradually deteriorating environment.
Today, the land of the Baloch is divided among the countries of Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Almost evenly portioned between Pakistan and Iran, it is categorised as the provinces of Balochistan and Sistan-Baluchistan respectively. Within Afghanistan, a small portion of the Kandahar, Helmand, and Nimruz provinces are also part of Balochistan. The division of the region among three different countries goes back to the era of empires in southern and western Asia.
Sandwiched between the Persian and Indian empires on either side, the region has been at the crux of power play throughout history. In the 1500s, Balochistan was carved up between the Mughals to the east and the Safavids to the west.1 However, after the consecutive demise of these vast empires, the region collapsed into a number of principalities, with Kalat emerging at the forefront of these. The Khans of Kalat emerged as the primary forces behind attempts at sovereignty and consolidation of the state of Balochistan in the years to come. Nevertheless, in the 1800s, with the emergence of the British Raj in India and the Qajar Empire in Persia, Kalat and the larger region of Balochistan was once again at the centre of the regional power play. While the British transformed Kalat into an associated state of the British Empire in 1854, 2 Persia reconquered western Balochistan, a region that Iran retains to this day.
While it has been assumed and held as the truth by many that Balochistan was accorded the status of a Princely State under British administration during the 19th and first half of the 20th century, the Baloch themselves hold a different position. According to both separatists as well as Baloch mainstream politicians, Balochistan or more specifically, the Khanate of Kalat, was never a part of British India and, thus, could not be treated as a part of Pakistan. Treating Balochistan as a state of the erstwhile Empire would be a violation of the treaty agreements between the Kalat state and the British Raj. The aforementioned treaty is that of 1876 between the Viceroy and Governor General Lord Lytton and the Khan of Kalat Mir Khudadad Khan, which mentioned that the British government would respect the independence of Kalat as long as it would act in “subordinate coordination”. 3 In accordance with this, the Baloch observe that the Kalat state had a different direct relationship with the British government that was separate from the British Raj in India. Nonetheless, during the process of Indian independence, before the Partition was decided upon, even Indian leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru held that Balochistan was an integral part of India. 4 A border state of a newly emerging nation could not be allowed to gain independence after all.
In this context, the independence of Pakistan in 1947 brought increased pressure on the Khan of Kalat to allow for accession of the Kalat state to the state of Pakistan. However, the lower house of the Balochistan parliament unanimously passed a resolution declaring that relations with Pakistan should be established as between two sovereign states and not by accession. 5 It is to be noted that when Pakistan declared independence in August 1947, so also did the Khan of Kalat declare independence for Balochistan. While this signified a unified Baloch dissent against accession to the Pakistani state, the newly formed Pakistani government would not adhere to it. Pakistan sought to carry out the accession forcefully.
Initially capitalising on the rivalry and feuds between the Khan and the surrounding regions, it motivated many of Kalat’s feudatories to join Pakistan. This, along with the mounting pressure of a possible military offensive against Kalat, served as the final straw. The Khan eventually signed the instrument of accession in March 1948, less than a year following Balochistan’s declared independence.
This forceful accession of Kalat to Pakistan signified the end of the brief period of national sovereignty for the Baloch and, thus, immediately caused anti-Pakistan protests to engulf Balochistan. This marked the beginning of a struggle that has endured for decades. Pakistan’s penchant for ignoring the concerns and identities of the minor ethnic groups fuelled rebellion and restiveness throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. While certain achievements were made within the autonomy provided for the Baloch in the 1970s, Islamabad quashed this too. The 1970 election that brought to power the prominent National Awami Party, which began to make significant structural changes in promotion of the Baloch people, was ousted by the government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in Islamabad. 6 Such interference sparked a renewed rebellion in Balochistan, which resulted in the loss of 3,000 Pakistani soldiers and about 5,000 Baloch guerrilla fighters, in a conflict that lasted nearly four years. And while the Pakistani army and government were able to quell the insurgency in the 1970s, they were not able to win over the Baloch, who once again led an insurrection against the quasi-military government of Pervez Musharraf in the early 2000s.
Even though this latest uprising has shown signs of faltering or completely dying out over the past two decades, it persists today. Numerous groups that carry out acts of political violence against the Pakistani forces have emerged over the years. However, the fight for Balochistan now shows signs of desperation. Provoked by the neglect of the Pakistani government in ensuring economic or social stability and development in the region, the Baloch see a great need in separating from Pakistan. Today Balochistan’s Human Development Index (HDI) ranks below 0.40 as compared to the other provinces of Pakistan that lie above 0.50. 7 In sharper contrast, a 2016 study by the Social Development and Policy Centre showed certain districts in Balochistan ranking below the 0.30 mark. 8 In fact, out of the 15 districts with the lowest HDI indexes in Pakistan, 11 were from Balochistan. According to a UNDP report from 2003, nearly 47 percent of the 31 districts with the lowest HDI indicators were in Balochistan. 9 In the context of the 2016 study, it is evident that not much has changed.
Today there has possibly been increased development in the region due to the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). However, this merely serves greater strategic aspirations and is not to be understood as beneficial to the Baloch in any way. The neglect meted out by the Pakistani state to the region of Balochistan has always been a sticking point. It is a clear indication of the lack of attachment Pakistan shares for a people and land it sought to possess rather than assimilate.
For decades, Pakistan has suppressed and ignored the Baloch people, infuriating them and yet reducing their capabilities of protest. Out of fear of a resurgence, the government in Islamabad has only sought to consolidate more power and maintain complete control of the region through Pakistan’s security forces. However, this has resulted in a deplorable human rights situation in Balochistan. The general approach adopted by the Pakistani state toward any dissent in the region has been that of force, often disproportionate to the threat. Using the military to quell any Baloch uprising into submission has become a norm, and any attempts at protest have been reduced to naught. The main cause of the Baloch failure to launch an all-out offensive against the Pakistani army has been a shortage in numbers. While undoubtedly empowered by a feeling of commitment to the Baloch nationalist cause, the fact that the Baloch comprise less than five percent of the total population of Pakistan, hinders any progress. Though the province of Balochistan accounts for nearly 44 percent of the Pakistani state, its population is equal to only 12.3 million as compared to approximately 200 million in the rest of Pakistan. 10
Such contrast in the numbers has meant that none of the uprisings against the government have been able to sustain themselves. Additionally, not only is the region of Balochistan sparsely populated but also the Baloch themselves only account for 60 percent of the population in Balochistan. The rest of the population consists of Pashtuns, Sindhis and Punjabis. 11 In countering such contrasting difficulties, the Baloch have adopted tactics of guerrilla warfare, which has given rise to groups like the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) and the Balochistan Republican Army (BRA). In dealing with these groups as well, the Pakistani government has not sought methods of mediation or resolution but instead once again delegated the task to the military. To this end, activists and politicians like Naela Qadri Baloch, who fled Pakistan in 2016, have accused the Pakistani government of committing genocide in the region. (She has since been killed in Toronto – Ed.). Even though such accusations are plentiful, the international community has largely ignored the Baloch cause.
While some may perceive claims of genocide as exaggerations, they are not baseless, and certain activities currently occurring in Balochistan lend support to such accusations. There are two primary methods of repression adopted by the Pakistani state: bribes and all-out bludgeoning of the Baloch. 12 The military has thus been accused of destroying and depopulating the Baloch as well as being responsible for a multitude of forced disappearances in urban and rural Balochistan. Any person considered a supporter or sympathiser of the Baloch freedom movement is considered a threat and kidnapped, tortured, or killed. This has not only affected the common people but also high-ranking officials. The denial of basic prison rights is the least the Pakistani state has done. Their atrocities in the region are far worse.
The number of cases of disappearing Baloch being attributed to either Pakistan’s security forces or Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) has slowly been on the rise. Many political activists, members of the Baloch Students Organisation, and journalists have been abducted in broad daylight by pro-Pakistani gunmen and security forces. Islamabad makes extreme attempts to censor media coverage of tensions in Balochistan. A famous human rights activist, Sabeen Mahmud, was killed by gunmen in Karachi for hosting an event called “Take 2 of Unsilenced Balochistan”. While the attack was pinned on random Pakistanis who felt threatened by a woman talking about human rights issues in a province of Pakistan, fellow activists have accused Pakistan’s powerful ISI of playing a role. 13 There are a number of other cases that have plagued both Baloch and other activists fighting for their rights. This has continued to such an extent that with hundreds of bodies being uncovered every year, Balochistan is now being viewed as Pakistan’s land of mass graves. 14 Thus it is evident that Naela Baloch’s accusations of genocide are perhaps not too far from the truth.
However, Pakistani repression does not stop there. Not only have the Baloch people been ignored and repressed but the Pakistani state has also exploited the resource rich region for oil and mining – with no benefits to the people of the province. While gas was discovered in the province in the 1950s, it was largely used to supply Karachi and Punjab, with Quetta, the capital of Balochistan, only receiving access to these local resources in the 1980s. 15 Since then, Islamabad has provided this natural gas only to supply the army cantonments in Balochistan, and as of 2014, 59 percent of the urban population of Balochistan did not have access to the resource. As of January 2020, the Sui Southern Gas Company, which supplies gas to Sindh and Balochistan, reported the shortfall of gas at nearly 40 percent. 16 The federal government’s continued marginalisation of the province stands as the cause of this problem and is also at the crux of Baloch dissent against Chinese investment and the CPEC. Such deprivation, combined with the repression and blatant disregard for the Baloch people, is held as justification for their increasing resentment and larger aspirations for freedom.
The Baloch National Freedom Front (Baloch Raaji Aajoi Sangar or BRAS) dominates the landscape in Pakistani Balochistan. Launched in November 2018, BRAS is a unification and consolidation of three Baloch subnationalist groups, the BLF, the Baloch Republican Guards (BRG), and a splinter faction of the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA). 17 However, this unification is symbolic of recent developments, and the fight under such militant groups has continued since the beginning of the fifth uprising in 2002. Initially adopting a hardline approach against the military, the militants’ use of guerrilla warfare has drawn out the conflict for almost two decades. The early years of the conflict saw Balochistan descend into an all-out insurgency, with militants capturing and controlling vast regions under the BLA, the primary group at the time. It was claimed at the time that nearly 2,000 Marris, among other tribes spread across Balochistan, were resisting the Pakistani forces. Today, many key leaders of the Baloch have sought exile or been killed by the Pakistani state in a bid to reduce dissent in the region. This has undoubtedly reduced the intensity of the insurgency of the early 2000s. However, BRAS and other militant groups active in the region still carry out frequent attacks against the Pakistani establishment.
There are clear indications that while the intensity of the uprising has been reduced, it has not been quelled completely. With this, the Bugti-Marri areas, the Quetta region, central Balochistan and the Makran belt have continued to bear the brunt of these attacks. A possible reasoning behind the same is the support the movement still receives. Even though many key leaders of the Balochistan militant groups are in exile, they still direct affairs from abroad. Brahamdagh Bugti, the grandson of Akbar Bugti, is currently in the UK, apparently still in control of the Balochistan Republican Army, the alleged militant wing of his Balochistan Republican Party (BRP). 18 The late Balach Marri’s brothers are also in exile but are still viewed as influential among the continuing nationalist movements. Mehran Marri, who was granted political asylum in the UK, is allegedly the leader of the United Baloch Army, a splinter faction of the BLA, which was apparently led by Hyrbyair Marri, his other brother. 19 Finally, the Lashkar-e-Balochistan, another nationalist group in Balochistan, is allegedly headed by Javed Mengal, the son of former chief minister Ataullah Mengal and brother of Akhtar Mengal. 20 While unable to directly contribute to the groups in Balochistan, they have apparently sourced funding and seek to globalise an issue that has failed to garner international attention and aid.
On September 9, 2019, banners calling attention to the acute human rights violations in Balochistan appeared in Geneva, Switzerland, in front of the venue for the 42nd session of the UN Human Rights Council. The key drivers of such protests and campaigns have been the BRP and the Free Balochistan Movement (FBM) headed by Hyrbyair Marri. The BRP and the World Baloch Organisation have also held a number of campaigns across the UK, raising banners of “End Enforced Disappearances in Balochistan.” 21 In 2019, there was an increase in the campaigns across London in the form of newspaper advertisements, billboard signs, and joint awareness campaigns. In the month of June, the BRP flew “Free Balochistan” banners during a Pakistan-Afghanistan cricket match in Headingley Stadium. 22 Such campaigning has not only been prominent in London but also at events held in Switzerland, South Korea, and across Balochistan. A conference titled “ The Humanitarian Challenges in Balochistan” was held in Germany by the Human Rights Council of Balochistan, the Baloch Human Rights Organisation and the Baloch Human Rights Council – three organisations dedicated to the Baloch cause. However, it is doubtful that this has resulted in much for the movement as a whole.
Nonetheless, within Balochistan, inflammatory actions aimed at escalating tensions with the Pakistani government have surfaced once again. Dr. Allah Nazar Baloch, the leader of the BLF, has made such statements within the last year. When asked in an interview why democratic means have not been used to resolve grievances with Pakistan, he said, “There is no democracy in Pakistan and the Baloch are compelled to rebel against oppression.”
Such statements have seemingly coincided with the increasing attacks in the region over the past few months. Largely centered around Balochistan’s capital city of Quetta, the attacks draw attention to the increasing unrest in the province. This unrest reached a tipping point in the beginning of June 2020, with mass protests being held across the province in retaliation for the shooting of a mother and her child by the Pakistani army-supported criminals. Protests have erupted across Balochistan demanding justice for four-year-old Bramsh, who was shot along with her mother, Malik Naz, in Turbat city in southern Balochistan. 23 According to reports, thousands of protestors pelted stones and burned a number of military establishments, forcing Pakistani Army soldiers to abandon their border patrol posts. The problem with the situation in Balochistan is that protests or campaigns do not suppress the brutality of the Pakistani forces but seem to only incite more of the same.
While reports of the large protests in the province surfaced on June 11, 2020, the Pakistani military abducted eight Baloch youths four days later. 24 It is alleged that nearly 47,000 Baloch have been illegally abducted by the Pakistani armed forces. Since the protests on June 11, 2020, reports have shown a significant increase in the number of enforced disappearances, raids, and arrests being carried out by the Pakistani security forces. 25 While the Baloch have strived endlessly for either a separate state or at the very least autonomy, representation, and an end to exploitation, none of their uprisings have gained them much in these regards. It remains to be seen if the recent protests and an increase in attacks will serve to change the current scenario.
The increased chances of protest and uprisings in Balochistan have not only destabilised the region but also affected the interests of a number of external actors. While undoubtedly compromising for some, it has also been used as a strategic tool by others.
On the other hand, for the Baloch, the biggest external threat comes from China. The Baloch approach toward Chinese investment, which was initially accusatory of Islamabad and Beijing’s exploitation of Balochistan’s resources, has gradually turned violent. Within the last two years, militants have carried out a number of shootings and bombings against Chinese infrastructural projects and Chinese workers. In March 2019, the BLA attacked a 22-vehicle convoy with a remote-controlled bomb that killed several Chinese engineers and workers. The BLA, which is greatly opposed to further Chinese investment in the region, also targeted the Chinese consulate in Karachi in November 2018. The organisation also claimed responsibility for an attack on a bus carrying Chinese mining workers in August of the same year. 26 This increase in attacks against the Chinese stems from the Baloch’s feeling of being exploited and cheated out of their rightful resources. With the region already being majorly ignored and deprived by the Pakistani government, additional exploitation is unacceptable to the Baloch.
What the Baloch see as exploitation, Islamabad sees as development and Beijing sees as strategic influence. As part of the BRI, the CPEC has been touted as one of its biggest and most controversial projects yet. Initially valued at $ 46 billion, the total cost had risen to $ 62 billion as of 2017, 27 which has undoubtedly increased even more by now. With infrastructural projects spanning the length and breadth of Pakistan, it is perhaps the biggest project undertaken under the BRI. However, a majority of these projects are found in the province of Balochistan. The Gwadar International Port as well as its airport, along with a vast array of pipelines, railways, and highways all run through this region. These projects are meant merely to facilitate trade and mining for Pakistan and grant China access to the Arabian Sea. For the Baloch, however, there is not much to gain – not only are their resources being exploited but also their land. Gwadar, which constituted the crux of China’s strategic plans for the region, has seen an entire special economic zone leased to China for a total of 40 years. Recent reports regarding the construction of a high-security compound near Gwadar Port, which will apparently be used as a naval base by China, have also surfaced. 28
There is another problem that the Baloch face from increased Chinese investment in the region. As is the case with other Chinese projects around the world, projects and investment under the BRI, including the CPEC, bring with them an influx of Chinese workers. It is believed that China plans to settle nearly 500,000 Chinese in Gwadar port as part of the CPEC, which will have serious repercussions on the national, economic, and historic rights of the Baloch. With so many Chinese set to enter Balochistan, the Baloch fear irreversible demographic changes and increased marginalisation. 29
While appeals for support have been directed at the US government time and again, Washington has largely turned a deaf ear. The role the US plays in Balochistan is undoubtedly one of interest. Under the Obama administration, while some voiced support for a separate Balochistan, the official stance of the government was one against “carving out Balochistan from Pakistan”, thus leaving the Baloch to an uncertain fate. In recent times, the uncertainty of US support has increased, with President Donald Trump going so far as to label the BLA as a terrorist group. Coming merely a year before the US presidential elections, this has been viewed as a move to appease the Pakistani government and spur on the Afghan-Taliban peace negotiations. 30 Amid the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, the Trump administration considers the support of Pakistan to be critical to the peace process. Therefore Washington has finally banned the BLA after years of Pakistani appeals for such action. This approval, however, has had serious ramifications for the Baloch freedom movement, reducing its autonomy and freedom to revolt.
While other issues within Asia have gained significant attention, the Baloch freedom struggle has been largely unreported or ignored. Though Washington has expressed concern over the human rights abuses in Balochistan, it remains adamant in its opposition to self-determination for Balochistan. In July 2019, 16 members of the European Parliament sent a letter to President Trump, urging him to take cognizance of the human rights violations and exploitation in the region in response to him terming the BLA as terrorists. While this may mark a certain divergence in stance by a portion of the international community, there has been minimal mention of Balochistan by EU member countries themselves. The international media has largely ignored the atrocities committed by the Pakistanis in Balochistan. In this scenario, the Baloch are yet again left to fend for themselves.
The future of the Baloch and their freedom movement is embedded in uncertainty. While there are many who see the possibility of a resurgence as likely, the odds are stacked strongly against the Baloch. Lacking in both military prowess as well as economic financing, the Baloch have only been able to sustain their movement for this long due to sheer determination. The Baloch freedom struggle has suffered a shortage of numbers that will never be a match for the Pakistani military. However, this is not the only obstacle to a united state of Balochistan: the lack of international support and internal unity have also had similar effects. Most of the current leaders of Balochistan are subsumed by their own self-interests and internal political tensions and lack the motivation to form a common front against the Pakistani state. Not only have some sought to fight their own fight, causing the movement to splinter, but many leaders have also been wooed by the government in Islamabad and have thus turned against their own. 31
The insufficiency of support from the international community for the movement has become apparent. Though the issue is one of international significance, owing to a number of external stakeholders and cross-border aspirations, it has still been ignored. What is quite apparent is the Baloch will never be able to make any significant gains or even win their freedom from the Pakistani state without external assistance. This has granted the Pakistani government a free hand in dealing with the region, allowing the military to sustain much of its activities in repression of the Baloch. The insurgency in Balochistan is likely to intensify. However, it is more likely that this too will result in no gains for the Baloch, as the Pakistani state’s repression against the Baloch is in fact intensifying in like fashion. According to the Human Rights Council of Balochistan, the attacks and military raids against the Baloch have significantly increased, especially during the COVID-19 lockdown. 32
The determining factor for the Baloch in the end will be that of external influence, whether for benefit or for harm. While the US has chosen to either remain silent or make decisions that are detrimental to the survival of the Baloch freedom movement, the Chinese have been able to retain their presence in the region and almost complete CPEC. This is clearly indicative of the fact that the Pakistani state has the influence and ability to constrain the insurgencies in the region and carry on with its projects and plans for Balochistan. Already deprived of their resources and repressed by the Pakistani state, it is likely that the Baloch may soon become a marginalised population in their own land. With the military becoming more repressive, the cases of enforced disappearances mounting daily, and the insurgency failing, it has become evident that the Baloch are running out of time.
(Excerpted from a longer paper published on the media.defense.gov website of the US Department of Defense).
The writer is the centre coordinator of the Centre for Security Studies (CSS) at the Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University. He is also a research assistant at the Centre for Security and Strategy Studies.