Since the beginning of January this year, Baloch militants have gotten exponentially effective in conducting terrorist incidents not only in Balochistan but also in Pakistan’s urban areas such as Lahore and Karachi. This development has raised concerns in the security quarters as well as the defense analysts and academics. Pakistani mainstream media still woefully downplays the threats posed by the Baloch militancy. The causes of the insurgency, the coverage of organic protests in Balochistan, or the general disconnect between the rest of the country and the Southern province, hardly receives any attention from mainstream Pakistani discourse, including the media and the academics.
Recent reports show that Baloch militant organizations have regrouped and enhanced cooperation among each other. However, the bigger concern is that most of the new leadership and recruits belong to the educated middle class. The previous Baloch militant groups were dominated by tribal chiefs who, usually owing to strong tribal affiliations, continued to fight among themselves, the case being the Bugtis vs the Marris. With the inclusion of younger middle-class Balochs, the old guard of tribal chiefs who did not see eye to eye, are actually influenced to see beyond the tribal affiliations and join hands for the common cause.
Understanding the matter better
The monopoly of the tribal elite among the Baloch separatists/insurgents/militants benefited Pakistan’s security apparatus, the message remained limited to a smaller number of people and in specific locations which these tribes generally inhabited. The inclusion of the middle class has changed the game ad implications for Pakistan’s security. The participation of nationalist Baloch into the folds of Baloch separatists means the possibility of the message resonating with the rest of the public is much greater. The sardars no matter what, remain elite, for the common ethnic Baloch, his fellow educated middle-class Baloch, is much more persuasive than the orders of a tribal chief. The Baloch are angry and frustrated with the state of affairs in Balochistan.
There has been a gradual influx of Balochi students in Punjab and Sindh in recent years. The exposure to the most developed provinces of Pakistan has resulted in a much more heightened sense of victimization and magnification of the severe underdevelopment in Balochistan. This disparity increases the nationalist feelings even among the most apolitical Balochis. The distribution of resources further deepens the sense of “Punjabi imperialism”. The belief that Punjabis are leeching on the province’s resources while enjoying the biggest share in the state’s bureaucracy and the military is as old as British colonialism.
The developmental disparities between Balochistan and the rest of Pakistan solidify this belief among the Balochi youth. The Baloch youth and nationalists are increasingly aware of the fact that Balochistan lacks ownership of its own resources. Despite being the biggest Pakistani province in terms of territory, and population-wise, Balochistan remains scarcely populated, with vast uninhabited territories. The average size of a national constituency in Balochistan is almost thirteen times higher than in other provinces. This by default, shrinks Balochistan’s representation in the National Assembly of Pakistan. The representation in bureaucracy is also minimal, even though President Gen Zia ul Haq had promised to align Baloch representation in bureaucracy with its share in the population, the promise never materialized even though now ethnic Balochs make up six percent of Pakistan’s population.
Being home to an abundance of natural resources, including gas and coal, Balochistan provides forty-two percent of the country’s total energy needs. Seventy percent of Balochistan’s residents don’t have access to Sui gas, the province’s own resource. Most of Balochistan’s districts are among the worst performer on the Human Development Index, with Dera Bugti, the home of Sui gas, at the bottom. The recent water crises in Dera Bugti and the Cholera outbreak are a manifestation of the extremely poor living conditions in Balochistan.
60-70 % of the entire population is at direct or indirect risk of droughts
Balochistan’s share in Pakistan’s unemployment rate is a staggering twenty-two percent, two of the three families in the province cannot afford a proper meal, while over eighty percent of children are vulnerable to malnourishment. CPEC was celebrated as a beacon of development in Balochistan and has instead increased resentments. Baloch nationalists consider the project as a colonial design to capture Balochistan’s resources and change its ethnic demographics. The belief that the development of Gwadar or the Saindak copper-gold project yields no benefits for the local population has escalated the sense of discrimination by both Pakistani and Chinese authorities.
According to agreements, Gwadar port has been leased to China for forty-two years with forty-eight percent share in total profits generated, the Pakistani government holds fifty percent share while Balochistan is to receive only two percent of the total revenues. Eighty percent of the local population are fishermen. According to local accounts, the Chinese trawlers are allowed by the Government of Pakistan to trawl in Gwadar Fish Harbour, which has severely damaged the livelihoods of the local fishermen who cannot, with their small fish boats cannot compete with advanced Chinese boats.
The illegal trawlers from Sindh, as well as some foreign nationals also curtail the locals’ opportunities. The Gwadar Huqooq movement, a month-long protest led by a local JUI leader Maulana Hidayatur Rehman in November 2021, was focused mostly on basic rights for the district, including an end to illegal trawling. The speculations of a large gated community for Chinese workers and engineers in Gwadar have also been a cause of much grief and resentment among the Balochs, further heightening the fears of demographic changes. The protests ended in December 2021, only when both the provincial and federal governments agreed to the demands and pledged an end to illegal trawling.
The Saindak copper mines located in Balochistan, leased to a Chinese company since 2002, provides a mere two per cent of the total profit generated to Balochistan, while the Pakistani government receives eighteen per cent of the profits and the Chinese company bags a staggering eighty percent of the revenues. The underdevelopment of Balochistan is fueling anger among the Balochi population. The poor human development index and contrasts with other provinces do nothing to soothe the disappointment. The protests in Gwadar show that locals are rightfully unhappy with their living conditions. In the midst of such feelings of actual as well as perceived discrimination, the populations become much more susceptible to extreme ideas of separatism.
The lack of development edges the Baloch nationalism towards separatism. The youth, whether separatists or not, feel disenfranchised by the system. It is important for the State of Pakistan to ensure the province’s development and allow the Baloch middle and lower class to participate in the province’s as well as national parliament. The sirdars and chiefs, though still important, are no longer the primary actors in Balochistan’s political landscape. The clean sweep by Maulana Hidayatur Rehman’s sponsored candidates in Gwadar in the recent local bodies elections proves that the Baloch are now looking for alternative leadership.
The common Balochis deserve to have their say in the national discourse as well as national and provincial politics. The government of Pakistan must ensure the participation of Balochis in all state organs, and the provision of basic human rights and necessities must also increase. Balochistan deserves a just share of its own resources such as the Sui gas, CPEC as well as the Saindak project. Balochis must receive the largest share in terms of employment, royalties as well as revenue generated through these projects. The increased political participation of the common Baloch is the only route to end the simmering resentment in the local populace and prevent the descent into separatism.
The writer is a Political Scientist and Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science in Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.