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Thursday, March 15, 2012

Balochistan: Pakistan’s second Bangladesh?

Flag of independent Balochistan

THAT RELIGION alone cannot constitute the sheet anchor of national identity was convincingly demonstrated by the breakup of Pakistan leading to the emergence of Bangladesh as a sovereign, independent country in 1972.

Indeed, as pointed out by Mir Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo, a respected political figure of Balochistan, which had stridently opposed its inclusion in Pakistan in 1947,”We are Muslims but it is not necessary that by virtue of being Muslims we should lose our freedom and merge with others. If the mere fact that we are Muslims requires us to join Pakistan then Afghanistan and Iran, both the Muslim countries, should amalgamate with Pakistan.”

A distinct ethnic identity and a fierily independent nature along with a rich past makes an essentially tribal Baloch population yearn for a separate nation. Being secular and liberal minded, Balochs are not swayed by the kind of religious fundamentalism sweeping through parts of Pakistan.

All along, Balochs have been despising the ruling dispensation in Islamabad as an exploitative colonial lordship dominated by Punjabi elites and Urdu speaking Mohajirs. It is against this backdrop, that Baloch separatist rebels have abducted and killed many Chinese technicians involved in the infrastructure development projects in this largest Pakistani province rich in natural resources.

Baloch nationalists have vehemently opposed the move to bring in Chinese expertise and investment to develop copper and gold mines in the province whose developmental index are much below the national average.

Balochs look at mega developmental projects as a camouflage to colonise their land with migrants from other parts of the country.

Indeed, Balochs are not enamoured of the plan to transform Gwadar on the Arabian Sea coast into another Karachi. China, not willing to be sucked up into the savage Baloch separatist movement, declined Pakistani invitation to build a naval base at Gwadar.

Setting up of a string of cantonments and military bases in Balochistan over the last one decade has further fuelled Baloch anger against Islamabad. Balochistan, which constitutes 44% of the total area of Pakistan with just 5% of its total population, is a major supplier of gas to the country.

With Balochistan separatist movement gaining momentum, Kashmir is no more a national obsession in Pakistan. In public perception, USA has replaced India as enemy No.1 of this most disturbed South Asian country.

The reason for this is a recent resolution moved by a group of US Congressmen supporting the right of the self determination of Baloch people.

According to Republican Congressman Dan Rohrabacher, a key figure behind the resolution, relentless exploitation and subjugation of Balochistan by Islamabad has turned the Baloch homeland into Pakistan’s poorest province. Pakistan condemned the resolution saying it violated the sovereignty of the country.

Indeed, a section of US defence experts is of view that Washington should support the creation of a separate Balochistan so that US and NATO troops will not only have unfettered access to Afghanistan but also be in a position to keep an eye on Iran.

For both Afghanistan and Iran, which have pockets of Baloch population, borders on Balochistan. In fact, a report appearing in the Pakistani daily The Express Tribune had revealed that US has been pushing Pakistan for a permission to establish bases in Balochistan for intelligence operations ostensibly aimed at Iran.

For long, Islamabad has been alleging that intelligence agencies from USA, Israel and India are active in formenting Baloch separatist movement.

Meanwhile, exiled Baloch nationalist leader Brahumdagh Bugti has sought Indian support for Baloch separatist movement in the context of the flagrant human rights violation in this troubled and violence prone Pakistani province. Another influential Baloch leader Sardar Akhtar Mengal, who was also a former chief minister of the province asks, “If Pakistan justifies seeking Kashmir’s right of self determination, then why does it abhor the same idea for us?”

However the recent offer of amnesty to Baloch leaders in exile made by Pakistan’s interior minister Rehman Malik is not taken seriously by Balochs. For the “double game” and “back stabbing” indulged in by Pakistani rulers on earlier occasions is still fresh in their memory.

Baloch nationalist leaders allege that abductions, torture and brutal killing of Baloch political workers, lawyers, intellectuals and youth by Pakistani defence forces are on the ascendance.

They say the plight of Baloch families whose members have gone missing is too deep for words. According to Zohra Yusuf, chairperson of Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission the “missing are increasingly turning up dead”.

Whether Pakistan will apply a soothing balm to the festering wound called Balochistan or as was the case with Bangladesh, unleash its military might against those spearheading movement for independence, which from being a sporadic tribal rebellion, is drawing increasing support from urban, educated youths with global reach.

In this task, Pakistani generals in Rawalpindi and ruling elite in Islamabad should display a spirit of generosity, give and take as well as forget and forgive. Otherwise chances of Balochistan going the way of Bangladesh are for certain.

Radhakrishna Rao specialises in defence and aerospace issues

First published in Daily News and Analysis (DNA), March 15, 2012

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