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The Baloch National Question

By Ishtiaq Ahmed

Over the years, middle class and working class Baloch have been drawn into their nationalist struggle and therefore the hold of the tribal leadership is no longer as total as it used to be 

Alarm bells have been ringing loud and shrill in the corridors of power in Pakistan ever since three members of the US Congress submitted a resolution supporting the right of self-determination for the Baloch people. The main motivator of the resolution is Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher. It is noted in the resolution that Balochistan is divided between Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan with no sovereign rights of its own. It is noted that in Pakistan, the Baloch people are subjected to violence and extrajudicial killing. Therefore, the Baloch have the right to self-determination to their own sovereign country, and they should be afforded the opportunity to choose their own status. It goes on, “The political and ethnic discrimination they suffer is tragic and made more so because America is financing and selling arms to their oppressors in Islamabad.”

It is claimed in the resolution that Balochistan was an independently governed entity known as the Baloch Khanate of Kalat, which terminated after invasions from both British and Persian armies. An attempt to regain independence in 1947 was crushed by Pakistan. It is also noted that: “Today the Balochistan province of Pakistan is rich in natural resources but has been subjugated and exploited by Punjabi and Pashtun elites in Islamabad, leaving Balochistan the country’s poorest province.” The co-sponsors of the resolution are two other Republican Congressmen, Louie Gohmert and Steve King. However, nothing seems to suggest at present that it will be passed by Congress and ratified by the US president.

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar and others have expressed great anguish at such wanton interference in the internal affairs of Pakistan. That must be welcomed but with a pinch of salt. The red herring of internal and external conspiracies against Pakistan has always been a favourite tool of central governments to ride roughshod over the rights of the dominated provinces. The dismissal of the elected government of NWFP (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) on August 23, 1947, the declaration of Urdu as the only national language of Pakistan in Dhaka on March 21, 1948, and many other travesties of democratic norms created a bitter legacy of resentments in the dominated provinces. The separation of East Pakistan in 1971 epitomised that legacy, but Balochistan has probably been the worst sufferer. 

On the other hand, one can wonder if the US Congressmen have on an entirely conscientious basis introduced such a resolution for the rights of a subjugated people. I do not think US legislators would dare introduce a resolution highlighting the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip by Israel. Recently, hawkish Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was given a standing ovation on Capitol Hill. So, the Americans see the world with jaundiced eyes, and that always creates suspicions about their motives and intentions. 

With regard to the fierce reaction of the Pakistan government, it must be said that historically very few power elites of Third World states match the tenacity of our power elite to market Pakistan to foreign powers for military purposes or for something as perverse as falconry to rich Arab patrons.

A friend of mine, Farooq Shah, who lives in London, told me that way back in the early 1960s when Pakistan was the most allied ally of the US, a large number of American soldiers and officers were stationed in Pakistan. They would come to his hometown of Chakwal for pleasure trips and hunting. They were so badly pampered that even for a tin of beans they would ring President Ayub directly who was ever willing to oblige. So, middle-range American officers had direct access to our president! The revelations of the last few years show that things are the same and there is no change though we now have much better actors performing patriotic histrionics.

Anyhow, I do not think the Americans would forthwith embark upon a policy of helping Balochistan become independent. We must remember that in 1971 President Richard Nixon warned Indira Gandhi to keep her hands off West Pakistan. So, if American attitudes have changed towards Pakistan, there is need for introspection at our end to fathom what has gone wrong in the relationship.

The main point is that Pakistani governments have failed to respond fairly and generously to the aspirations of the Baloch. Ruthless exploitation of Baloch natural resources such as natural gas and now them being denied a fair deal in the development of Gwadar coupled with a long history of ruthless deployment of state might against the Baloch have created a terrible legacy. The Baloch took up arms in response and hence a cycle of violence has gone on and on. In recent years, abductions and extrajudicial killings by the security forces seem to especially mark our treatment of the Baloch. 

I do not deny that Balochistan is a tribal society and the Baloch tribal leader is a demigod. All that is true but it is not the whole truth. Over the years, middle class and working class Baloch have been drawn into their nationalist struggle and therefore the hold of the tribal leadership is no longer as total as it used to be. 
I am deeply concerned that ordinary Punjabis or Urdu-speaking settlers in Balochistan are subjected to atrocities by Baloch extremists. It is typical of violent ethnic conflicts that ordinary people of one group who may otherwise live peacefully alongside people of another group are intimidated to such an extent that they begin siding with their co-ethnics. Some Punjabi settlers may have sided with the Pakistani security forces but targeting all Punjabis or Mohajirs is unacceptable.

I have never believed in dividing people on the basis of religion or ethnicity or language. I am against states created on exclusive categories, because such states invariably persecute minorities that do bear attributes considered essential to be part of the so-called true (pure) nation.

A breakup of Pakistan would be bloody and painful, and if we can avoid it we should. However, Pakistan will have to drastically change its policies. The Baloch must be granted substantial autonomy with a fair share in the economic resources of their province and from central funds within a democratic federation. The outmoded sardari system can be taken care of by legal means and democratic procedures. 

Failure to do so could spell disaster. States are not holier than the people who live in them, and if we do not treat a group of people fairly and properly they do have the moral right to secede.

The writer has a PhD from Stockholm University. He is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University. He is also Honorary Senior Fellow of the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. The article first appeared in the Daily Times.This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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