By Malik Siraj Akbar
Foreigners who have never heard of Pakistan’s Balochistan crisis are often comforted by the fact that they are not the only ones who do not know much about the raging conflict. Even most Pakistanis are equally ignorant about the gruesome developments taking place inside Balochistan because of a nearly complete blackout of news from the province in the national media.
Pakistan’s media rarely covers Balochistan seemingly on the dictations of the military authorities who call the shots in the gas and oil rich province. Democracy means nothing to Balochistan. In fact, the Commander of the Southern Corps of the Pakistani army and the Inspector General of the Frontier Corps (FC), a federal border security force, overpower the symbolic provincial governor and the chief minister.
If Pakistan has no problems then Balochistan will continue to feature as the only lingering problem. If Pakistan is confronted with multiple problems at one time then the only problem that the government and the media can agree to sacrifice is most probably Balochistan.
The quest to know more about Balochistan has gained momentum internationally after the following developments.
First, the U.S. government had hinted at expanding the drone strikes to Balochistan capital, Quetta, where the Taliban leader Mullah Omar is allegedly taking shelter along the other members of the Quetta Shura.
Second, Balochistan has now begun to feature in almost all discussions between Pakistan and India. Pakistan accuses India of backing the Baloch nationalist movement, a charge the latter vehemently brushes aside. Prime ministers of both the rival countries discussed Balochistan for the first time in the Egyptian resort city of Sharm el-Shiek, conceding Balochistan as a new chapter of dispute between the two countries.
Third, international human rights groups such as the Amnesty International, human Rights Watch and the media watchdog, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CJP), have all expressed concern in the recent times over increasing violation of human rights in the province which is oftentimes attributed to the state intelligence agencies.
What actually is happening inside Balochistan? What is the conflict all about?
A one-day long Baloch International Conference held at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace by the Baloch Society of North America (BSO-NA) in Washington D.C. last week tremendously helped in finding answers to most of the questions raised above.
One was taken aback to learn about the rise of a situation inside Pakistan similar to 1971 East Pakistan crisis when the country disintegrated paving the way for a new independent state of Bangladesh on the map of the world.
Dr. Abdul Wahid Baloch, president of BSO-NA, said Islamabad had betrayed and exploited the Baloch over six decades. The will of the people of that region was never accommodated by the government of Pakistan while forcefully incorporating the autonomous state of Kalat (present day Balochistan) into the state of Pakistan.
“What the international community should realize about is the growing cases of state-sponsored arbitrary arrests, torture and murder of Baloch youth by Islamabad’s military establishment,” said Mr. Baloch.
“The Balochs are not Taliban or supportive of Al-Qaeda,”he insisted, “We are a highly liberal, peace loving people who have become the victim of Pakistan’s forced Islamic identity. Today, our culture inside Pakistan is jeopardized because Pakistan is endeavoring to submerge our distinctive identity.”
Since its forceful annexation with Pakistan, Balochistan has had to face deadly military operations from the civil and military governments in 1948, 1958, 1962 and 1973. The Balochs, whose land accounts for 43% of Pakistan’s total landmass and bulk of its natural resources such as gas, gold, copper and a 700-kilometer long coast, are spread in Iran, Pakistan and some parts of Afghanistan.
While the Baloch demand in the past revolved around provincial autonomy and control over natural resources, most of the speakers in the conference no longer remained content with that kind of a demand. They said the Balochs wanted an independent state of their own because they argued that they had a different culture and history which had been systematically overshadowed by a process of Islamization.
Mr. T. Kumar, Director International Advocacy for Amnesty International, expressed disappointment over Pakistani authorities ‘failure to stop the “kill and dump” policy of the Baloch political workers, lawyers, students and journalists.
“We are very concerned over the developments taking place in Balochistan,” he said, “the government of Pakistan must stop the violation of human rights in that province and respect Baloch people’s democratic demands.”
It was shocking to learn how Islamabad used the same weapons to crush the secular Balochs which Washington had provided to fight Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgents.
The Balochistan International Conference provided an insight to the international audience about the situation in that province.
Why should we care for Balochistan? Because it is the only part of Pakistan that has resisted Islamabad’s every effort to radicalize the liberal population. Balochistan matters because that region no longer can afford to fall in the hands of obscurantists.
Michael Hughes, an American journalist with a focus on South Asian politics, also spoke at the conference. You can read his experiences from the conference in an article published in the Huffington Post.