During his 2016 Independence Day address, Prime Minister Narendra Modi at one point “thanked the people of Balochistan and PoK for their good wishes to the people of India”. This caused a flutter in the international community, especially in India and Pakistan. It was the first time – after the 2009 Sharm-el-Sheikh joint statement – that the Balochistan insurgency assumed a prominent place in India’s foreign policy discourse.
Balochistan borders Iran, Afghanistan and the Indian Ocean, and is at the crossroads of Central, West and South Asia. After China selected Gwadar city for building a deep-sea port in 2002 to gain direct access to the Arabian Sea, the region is now at the forefront of regional geopolitics.
Since the 1950s, the major cause of conflict between the Baloch rebels – chiefly the Mengal, Marri and Bugti tribes – and Islamabad has been the lack of economic development in the province. About 71% of the population continues to live in ‘multidimensional poverty’.
Baloch insurgency peaked between 1973 and 1978, when Iraq-backed separatists fought the Pakistan Army, resulting in the deaths of around 5,000 rebels. Tensions subsided for the next two decades before the assassination of veteran leader Akbar Bugti triggered the current round of hostilities, with outfits like the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) frequently targeting government installations and security forces.
What has also complicated the issue is that after US-led forces overran Kabul in 2001, Balochistan became a Taliban sanctuary: U.S. officials blame the Quetta Shura for directing attacks in Afghanistan from there.
The region is rich in energy and mineral resources, holding six trillion barrels of oil and 19 trillion cubic feet gas reserves, amounting to 22.7% of total Pakistani energy reserves. A part of the $2 billion Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, originating from Asalouyeh in Iran passes through Balochistan’s Khuzdar and Sui. In addition, the province’s Reko Diq mine holds world’s fifth largest reserves of copper and gold.
Baloch nationalists have complained of lower payments of royalties on oil and gas drilling and arrears that have been running into billions of dollars. They have also complained of the diversion of profits to Islamabad and the lack of control over companies having a monopoly over natural resources in the province.
A major part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) goes through Balochistan. This has fuelled anger among locals who already face a water crisis precipitated by the Gwadar port project and also fear of the influx of non-Baloch workers. These fears were highlighted by the European Parliament’s Vice President Ryszard Czarnecki, who condemned Pakistan’s handling of local grievances on the CPEC at an event organised by the U.S. Congress to discuss China-Pakistan relations.
The Balochistan problem is also to do with the aspirations of outfits like the Baloch Republican Army – a ‘Greater Balochistan’ comprising of Baloch-speaking areas in Iran, where the insurgency against Tehran is backed by Israel and the U.S.
While Washington, Islamabad’s traditional ally, officially opposes Baloch self-determination, it has strongly raised concerns over human rights abuses committed by separatists, Islamists, as well as security forces.
According to the Voice for Baloch Missing Persons, a Quetta-based group formed in 2009, over 19,000 people have been subjected to enforced disappearances since 2001. More than 2,600 ‘unattributed deaths’ have been linked to the “kill and dump” policy of security forces to silence suspected Baloch dissidents. Organisations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, along with the Balochistan Bar Association, have slammed the policy.
India has never exploited the Balochistan issue to its benefit, considering it Pakistan’s internal matter. Instead, it has been hounded on Kashmir at the UN since 1947, thanks to Pakistan’s relentless tirade to internationalise the issue. Considering the current unrest in J&K, the perception battle seems to have been won by Islamabad. But can India turn the tables on Pakistan and expose the atrocities being committed in Balochistan?
India has already begun the process by raising the issue of human rights abuses in Balochistan at the UNHRC to counter Pakistan’s diatribe over India’s alleged human rights violations in Kashmir. However, this tit-for-tat approach may yield no long-term diplomatic benefit and keep the Kashmir problem unresolved.
A better approach may be to raise CPEC-related human rights violations, although with a focus on Gilgit-Baltistan rather than on Balochistan, as the corridor also passes through this disputed territory. There are media reports which suggest that the locals are protesting against the exploitation of water resources for the CPEC and Pakistan has sought to clamp down on these protests.
India can also drag Chinese firms working for the CPEC into the conundrum, highlighting China’s dismal human rights record while pursuing its international projects. This strategy can pressurize Beijing to further soften its stance on India’s entry into the NSG, while also forcing it to abide by the UNCLOS verdict on the South China Sea dispute.
By raising the Baluchistan issue, India seems to have notably deviated from its traditional non-interventionist policy. Baloch nationalists look at New Delhi as their international voice. However, they also face the threat of becoming a pawn in the great game unfolding in South Asia. Whether New Delhi’s gamble is a long-term strategy or a short-term deterrent against Pakistan is yet to be seen.
Aprameya Rao is a research intern at Gateway House.
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