“I’m hoping for a miracle,” says Malik Siraj Akbar, “a general in Pakistan who realizes that the country’s future lies with respecting its own people.” Akbar is a Pakistani expatriate and Baloch specialist living in Washington, D.C. He is unable to stay in his homeland of Balochistan because if he did so, he would probably already be dead.
The miracle that Akbar is hoping for is greater autonomy for the Baloch people, an ethnic minority in Pakistan that has been trying since 1948 to secede from Pakistan. The only diplomatic solution to the Baloch problem is for the Pakistani Army to stop its campaign of forced disappearances and political assassinations and for the Pakistani government to give the Baloch people greater rights and autonomy in their region. Education, hospitals, and a reasonable stake in profitable local businesses — these are the surest ways to build the confidence of the Baloch people.
Balochistan is a province in Pakistan roughly the size of Germany, home to 5 million Pakistani citizens and members of a distinct tribal ethnic group known as the Baloch. Present in Iran and Afghanistan as well as Pakistan, the Baloch are an ethnic and linguistic minority group loyal principally neither to Islam nor the Islamic state of Pakistan, but rather to their traditional tribal structure, leaders, customs, and to the historical state of Kalat.
From within this population of 5 million, insurgent groups have been fighting a losing battle for independence against the full might of the Pakistani Army since 1948, protesting decades of exclusion from the political process and humanitarian crimes. Pakistan will never give up the land due to its riches in oil, copper, and coal, as well as its key ports with direct access to the Indian Ocean. It’s also a place where local journalists and political activists turn up mutilated and dead in remote locations on a daily basis.
In the late 17th century, the monarch Mir Ahmad Khan convinced the various Baloch tribes to band together into single kingdom, the Khanate of Kalat. Though Khan and his successors ruled in a state that was far from democratic, the Baloch were united as an ethnic group and successfully governed their own affairs. Even from 1839 onwards, when the British occupied India, the state of Kalat remained a self-governing princedom in subsidiary alliance with the British.
Following the Partition of India in 1947, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the newly appointed Governor of the Dominion of Pakistan, and then legal counsel to the Baloch, asked the Baloch to join the new Islamic state. He proposed that the Baloch would have maximum internal autonomy, only to depend on Karachi for foreign affairs, communication, and currency. Under duress, the Baloch accepted. Then, in 1948, Jinnah ordered an invasion of Balochistan, took Kalat, and deposed the tribal chief, forcibly incorporating Balochistan into Pakistan.
But this was only the beginning of the Baloch’s woes. The Baloch revolted against Pakistan’s forceful accession of Balochistan and fought a war against Pakistan in 1948. A cycle of violence in Pakistan would repeat every ten years or so after a new dictator would appear. In 1958, General Ayub Khan took over Pakistan in a military coup. Nabab Nauroz Khan, a 90-year-old Baloch tribal chief, took to the mountains and led his children and kinsfolk in the second insurgency against the Pakistani government.
After hundreds had been killed on both sides, the army offered a truce, promising that if the Baloch disarmed themselves, the army would forgive all. To symbolize the importance of the occasion, the Baloch and the army placed their hands on the Koran and swore fealty to one another. Having received the Baloch’s sacred pledge, the army executed them all. “Every time you talk to the Baloch,” says Akbar, “they’ll take you back to the 1950s, ’60s, and discuss what happened then. That’s why we don’t trust the Pakistanis.”
In ensuing years, such as in 1970, democratic elections were held and the Baloch occasionally gained certain freedoms and privileges. Such gains were nearly always quickly swept away, leading to more insurgencies — one in 1962-63, when Ayub Khan carried out a military operation in Balochistan, and worse yet in 1973-77, when Prime Minister Zulfiqar dismissed a provisional Balochistan government and executed a brutal military operation against the Baloch people. The most recent insurgency was ignited in 2006 with the killing of yet another Baloch leader, 79-year-old Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti.
“The Baloch narrative is dominated by stories of old men, tribal notables, who were promised amnesty by the Pakistani authorities but then betrayed, humiliated, and then killed,” says Akbar. “Every time Pakistan reneges from an earlier commitment, it deepens the Baloch narrative that Pakistanis are not trustworthy to negotiate with.”
Presently, the Pakistani Army is engaged in a massive operation of “forced disappearances” across Balochistan. Led by the Army’s notorious Internal Service Intelligence (ISI) agency, hundreds, even thousands, of Baloch have been disappeared. With the goal of terrifying the population, their dead bodies are thrown in the streets in what Amnesty International has called a “Kill-and-Dump Policy.” Akbar says he knows hundreds of people, many falling squarely between ages 17 and 24 — classmates, kids he played cricket with, activists, journalists, doctors, lawyers, and family friends — who have all been killed. “People would tell me at dinner that they were at risk, and then in the morning, you would hear the news that they were shot dead.”
“I outlived,” he adds, having left Balochistan for the U.S. to continue writing about his homeland without fear of death.
“It’s a black hole of human rights,” says Ozy contributor Laura Secorun Palet. Further worsening the problem worse is what amounts to “a media blackout,” says another anonymous Pakistani academic. Most of the information available about the Baloch people is one-sided and portrays the Baloch as puppets from India, bent on destroying Pakistan. “Anyone who questions the military’s line is labeled a traitor,” says the anonymous source.
Despite the odds against them, the Baloch are unlikely to ever stop fighting. Having watched brothers, sisters, uncles, fathers, and cousins die at the hand of the Pakistani Army, those who remain are utterly fearless and continue to join resistance groups in increased numbers. These groups, though fervent, will never have the weaponry or manpower to defeat the Pakistani government, which commands a nuclear state with an immense military force. On the other hand, Pakistan will never let go of Balochistan, a landmass so rich in natural resources that its domination is inseparable from Pakistan’s sense of territorial supremacy.
The solution? “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out how to fix Balochistan,” says Akbar. “We are only 5 million people. You just educate them. Give these kids scholarships. Give them a sense of ownership. Include them in big institutions. Give them a share, respect, and representation.”
This contributor wishes to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.
[Photo by Sharnoff’s Global Views]