Written by Apurbaa Sengupta
Final Year, BA Political Science (Hons.), Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University, Kolkata
Disclaimer: Please note that the views expressed below represent the opinions of the article's author. The following does not necessarily represent the views of Law & Order.
The latest turbulence surrounding the Pakistan-Balochistan dichotomy occurred on 28th June 2020 when four heavily armed militants stormed into the Pakistan Stock Exchange building in Karachi and killed three security personnel and a police officer (Hashim, 2020). Although Pakistan’s immediate response was to direct the blame at its neighbouring nemesis (echoed in the comments of Prime Minister Imran Khan and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi) the real responsibility for the attack was claimed by the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) (The Telegraph, 2020). In light of the freshly erupted insurgencies, it is imperative to understand the contestation in Balochistan as well as the significance of the BLA.
Balochistan: A Land of Perpetual Anarchy
Nestled in the South Western section of Pakistan, Balochistan is a sparsely populated and a highly persecuted territory that covers only 43 per cent of Pakistan’s total area. Its geopolitical significance emanates from the presence of the regional neighbours –– Iran to the West, Afghanistan to the Northwest and the Arabian Sea to the South. Over the years, the region has culminated into a hub of international unrest. For the longest time, the Baloch province has been subjected to insurgencies, the roots of which trace back to the British departure in 1947. With its fate unknown and undecided, the then Baloch ruler, Khan of Kalat signed an agreement which granted a forceful accession of Balochistan to the Pakistani administration (Veena, 2015). The unrest has birthed a number of separatist groups over the years that have fought to diminish Pakistani hegemony in the region. The most significant among these groups is the BLA.
What is the Balochistan Liberation Army?
The BLA or the Balochistan Liberation Army is recognised as one of the oldest insurgency groups established in the Southwestern province of Balochistan, with its leadership (Hyrbyair Marri) seated in the United Kingdom.
The main objective of this group is to exterminate Pakistani influence from their country and establish a Greater Balochistan province by incorporating the Iranian and Afghani Baloch territories (Worldwide Conflicts, 2013).
Regarded as an ethno-nationalist militant organisation, the BLA was formally instituted in 2000. Spread over the region with 6,000 cadres, the component group members of the BLA hail from the Marri, Bugti and Mengal clans (Shukla, 2020). In the period between 1973 and 1977, that is identified as the ‘Independent Balochistan Movement’, the Baloch had engaged in two massive guerrilla wars against the Pakistani administration. The leaders of the Baloch movement have been claiming sovereignty over the Southeastern province and Northern Pashtun region (Hashim, 2013). Although deemed as a terrorist organisation and banned by the United States, the BLA has once again re-appeared in the international domain (The Tribune, 2012). Having consolidated its base in Pakistan and Balochistan, the group is said to have been active since 2000 and is fighting against unequal allotment of jobs to Punjabis as compared to Balochi natives and mineral exploitation by Pakistan’s powerful provinces (Yousufzai & Jorgic, 2017).
Epicentre of Exploitation
Balochistan is a region endowed with natural resources. Besides having a long coastline overlooking the Arabian Sea, it has an abundant collection of resources like coal, natural gas, oil, copper, zinc, lead and so on. The geostrategic importance of the region has drawn international attention towards the region and made it an epicentre of global contestation. However, the wide array of resources has contributed the least to the development of the Baloch province.
What has agitated the Balochi separatist movements is Pakistan’s handing over of vast sections of the region to China for its million-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project.
The low level of infrastructural development and lack of investment in the disputed zone has resulted in a low level of economic activities and hurt the province of Baloch on the fiscal front (Dorsey, 2019). Another case in point to argue for its geopolitical significance is the Gwadar port, that holds economic and geostrategic importance for Pakistan. In recent years, China has invested nearly $19 billion in the Gwadar port and other infrastructural developments in the Baloch province as a part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) (Pauley & Shad, 2018). Such developments have triggered a surge of unemployment in Baloch, where jobs are mostly handed out to workers from China and Pakistan. Only 8 out of 330 CPEC projects have been allotted to Balochistan. In fact, Pakistani security analyst, Muhammad Amir Rana has explained the province as ‘an environment of fear’ and one where journalists cannot intrude and report about local problems (Rana, 2019). Plundering activities carried out in the region by the Chinese have thus, given birth to anti-Chinese sentiments that have manifested itself several times in the form of attacks on Chinese targets such as the one in the Chinese consulate at Karachi in 2018 or the very recent bombing at the Pakistani Stock Exchange (Dorsey, 2018).
The Indian Angle: Where Does India Stand in the Balochistan Crisis?
Pakistan has since time immemorial, accused India of playing the Baloch card against it. The fact that stronger Indo-Baloch ties will be fundamental to Indian interest is well known.
Balochistan has always looked at India as a potential ally in their war against Pakistani hegemony in their territory. The roots of the Indo-Baloch ties were further strengthened after Prime Minister Narendra Modi brought up the human rights issue in Baloch during his Independence Day speech on 15th August 2016. In spite of being a majorly Muslim province, the Balochis have always propagated the spirit of secularism. In fact, the Baloch leader Hyrbyair Marri asserted that Balochistan has closer ties with India as compared to Pakistan because the movement has never weaponised religion to win wars (Outlook, 2020). The leaders demand Indian intervention to abolish atrocities meted out by Pakistan in the region. Marri observes that to counter Pakistan in their territory they need more than ‘India’s friendship, support and help’. They demand New Delhi to view Balochistan as an ally and contribute vehemently in stabilising the disputed zone (Asia Sentinel, 2019). Such pro-India feelings among Balochis have convinced Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan to dismiss claims of the Majid Brigade of the Balochistan Liberation Army and instead hold India accountable for the very recent catastrophe at the stock exchange building in Karachi (Deutsche Welle, 2020). Such accusations are not new. Earlier as well, Islamabad pointed a finger at India accusing it of facilitating the swift escape of the chief of Baloch Republican Party, Baramdagh Bugti to Switzerland (Joshua, 2012). Moreover, during the Kulbhushan Jadhav case that was tried at the International Court of Justice, Pakistan hinted at India’s involvement in terrorism in the region (TRT World, 2019).
For the longest time now, Balochistan has made headlines for the wrong reasons. What primarily characterises this fragile zone is perpetual violence and instability. The extraordinary economic and geostrategic significance has transformed it into a hub of conflicting interests.
The Baloch history is testimony to global exploitation that emanates essentially from its abundant resources, extracted by countries to cater to their advantages. Moreover, the Pakistani narrative of a pro-Indian outlook in Balochistan is just another stimulus to its ongoing hostility towards India. Lack of reconciliation efforts will worsen the situation and stretch the civil war furthermore. A democratic transition in the province that is entirely in possession of Islamabad shall prove to be fruitful in addressing socio-economic issues that the people in Balochistan are subjected to. The long history of insurgency makes it fair to surmise that Balochistan favours political negotiation to counter Pakistani marginalisation and aggression. Therefore, brutal repression of interests by military means coupled with a reluctance to accommodate the political interests will cause the insurgency to linger around for a longer time.
Secondly, reducing and balancing complexities in this volatile region also calls for global cooperation.
Several instances across the world have proved how international backing to internal animosities has been effectual—such as the Houthi rebels looking up to Iran in their battle against the internationally recognised Yemeni government or Erdogan pledging Turkish support to Pakistan on its Kashmir stance. Emerging trends in a COVID characterised world order have fuelled anti-Chinese perspectives in many countries that blame it for its failure to contain the spread of the virus. This acts as the US trump card to not only enter into the ‘Baloch game’ but also stand true to its antagonism towards China. As far as India is concerned, the Baloch province has routinely regarded India as an ally in their fight against Pakistan. Moreover, recent engagements with PLA troops along the Indo-China periphery have already propelled anti-Chinese sentiments in the country. Therefore, Indian involvement in Balochistan legitimises the possibility to counter both Pakistani and Chinese aggression in a single stroke. Appeasement of the distressed region, both regional and international shall help to surmount the insurgency to some extent, if not eradicate it wholly.
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