April 10, 2012

‘Balochistan’ As A Strategic Issue Vs The ‘Baloch’ As A Political Problem – Analysis

Written by: IPCS

By D Suba Chandran

Immediately after the introduction of the Balochistan resolution in the US Congress, there has been an increased discussion within Pakistan and amongst the Baloch intellectuals/political elite on the problems being faced in Balochistan and its future. Until now, the Baloch have always complained of there not being much of an international interest in their problems. The current debate involved the US Congress listening to the testimony of scholars, activists and human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch. What is the end game of this international interest? Is Balochistan as a geographic territory of international strategic importance? Or is it seen as a political problem, where the Balochis are struggling for autonomy, better governance, and perhaps even independence?

Location of Balochistan in Pakistan

Unfortunately for the people of Balochistan, international interest starting from the 19th century has always primarily remained strategic due to the region’s location, rather than its people or its rights. Balochistan gained international significance primarily in the 19th century, as a part of the larger interests of colonial powers: the British, Russians, and surprisingly even the Germans.

While there is ample discussions and literature on Afghanistan as a part of the Great Game debate, the significance once attached to Balochistan by British India as a part of their efforts to create buffer zones in the north west of the Indian subcontinent has gone under noticed. The summaries of Henry Pottinger (Travels in Beloochistan and Sinde, 1816), Thomas Henry Thornton (Colonel Sir Robert Sandeman: His Life and Work on our Indian Frontier, 1895), Sir Edward Wakefield (Past Imperative: My Life in India, 1927-1947, 1966) and the numerous Administration Reports of the Baluchistan Agency of the British Indian government would highlight that the policies and strategies adopted by the British government vis-à-vis the Khan of Kalat and the various tribal Sardars was primarily aimed at the sole objective of keeping Balochistan as a frontier region and protect the interests of the empire.

Though the Russian empire was primarily concentrated on Afghanistan, the German empire sent few missions (political and intelligence) up to Afghanistan and Balochistan to explore the possibility of exploiting the religious sentiments of the people to revolt against the British empire.

During the Cold War, the US and the former Soviet Union took over the strategic importance of this region from the British and the Russians, and started viewing this region (comprising Afghanistan and Balochistan) with the same perspective: Balochistan would provide an access to sea via Afghanistan. While the former wanted it, the latter aimed to block such an access.

The current interest of the international community should be seen from this perspective. While the resolution in the US Congress has a humanitarian angle to it, the real intentions seem to be strategic. This is especially in the wake of declined US-Pak relations, and the reluctance of Pakistan to reopen the NATO supply lines from Karachi into Afghanistan, which is extremely important for American troops and its efforts in their ‘war against terrorism’. If it a coincidence that the introduction of the resolution in February 2012 on Balochistan follows in the heels of the American failure to reopen the NATO supply route, then it should be a strange one. If the resolution is guided by American philanthropic interests and Washington’s role as a champion of the human rights and defender of democratic values, it would be another coincidence because that the same values did not apply during the last decade when the Balochis were being massacred.

The real intentions of the US could be seen from the writings of Peter Ralphs and his testimony to the US Congress in February 2012. Though the US administration has distanced itself officially from both the resolution initiative and that of Peter Ralph’s idea of redrawing the map of the Middle East with a Greater Balochistan, there is no reason to believe that the administration would fight for the democratic rights and human values of the Balochis in Pakistan.

Unlike the Sri Lankan Tamils and the Kashmiris, the Baloch diaspora is yet to become an effective instrument. Except for a few individuals and journalists, there are very few Balochis who are seriously engaged with the international community. Even in the blogosphere, the Balochi presence is limited. Except for a few websites such as Baloch Unity and online portals such as Baloch Hall, there is a lack of any serious online presence of the Balochis and their problems.

As a result, the Baloch political issue will always been seen as a collateral, rather than the primary issue. The strategic importance of Balochistan will subsume the human and political problems faced by the people. Unless history stops repeating itself. Unless the Balochis garner more interest in their day-to-day problems, rather than the strategic location of their land.

D Suba Chandran
Director, IPCS & Visiting Professor, Pakistan Studies Programme, Jamia Millia Islamia
email: subachandran@gmail.com

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