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Sunday, June 11, 2023

Baloch insurgency enjoys support but lacks critical mass: Capt. Alok Bansal

The Baloch community sandwiched between Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan has been waging a nationalist struggle for over seven decades. During this time, it has seen vicious attacks through helicopter gunships and an almost daily routine of State-sponsored kidnappings and arbitrary killings by the Pakistani army and spy agencies.

Balochistan’s human development indicators lie at the bottom of the index with little educational facilities, few livelihood opportunities and almost no basic facilities like water and electricity. The mineral-rich region is exploited by the ruling Pakistani classes for its extensive deposits of energy, coal, gold and copper wealth.

India Narrative speaks with Captain Alok Bansal, Director of the India Foundation about the future of insurgency in Balochistan. Capt. Bansal is the author of the book, Balochistan in Turmoil: Pakistan at Crossroads. He has been the Executive Director of the National Maritime Foundation (NMF) and has worked with the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) and Center for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS) earlier.

Excerpts from the interview:

IN: Is the Baloch insurgency one of the longest running insurgencies in the world? It has been going on continuously since 1948.

AB: It is definitely one of the longest running insurgencies in South Asia, maybe not in the world. The Irish insurgency is longer. Even the Catalonian insurgency and the Kurdish struggle have arguably been there for a long time. Ever since Prince Abdul Karim, the brother of the Khan of Kalat, led the first rebellion against Pakistan, the Baloch struggle started and has been continuing till date.

One thing is clear—there is a complete sense of alienation among the Baloch people from Pakistan. However, the insurgency lacks critical mass. The Baloch are barely five per cent of Pakistan’s population while the Balochistan land mass is nearly 43 per cent.

Also, the question arises – who is a Baloch? This is a complicated question as they do not speak a single language. They speak two languages—Brahui and Balochi. Brahui is a Dravidian language which resembles Gondi that is spoken in the states of central India. There is another viewpoint that Brahui resembles Tamil. So, the other language that the Baloch speak is the Balochi, which is an Iranian language. Despite speaking totally different languages, the people have come together with a Baloch identity.

IN: What was the situation of the Baloch territory in 1947?

AB: The Partition of India was based on the 1946 elections. The Baloch had a peculiar system as they were divided into various parts. One of these was the princely state of Kalat along with the vassal states of Las Bela, Kharan and Makran. In his memorandum to the Cabinet Mission, the Khan of Kalat had clearly said that Kalat’s position was akin to Nepal as it had a treaty with Whitehall.

Another part of Balochistan were the tribes—Marri and Bugti. Though autonomous and notionally under the British, the tribes did consider the Khan of Kalat as their ruler. The British had already trifurcated Balochistan with portions in Iran across the Goldsmith line and in Afghanistan across the Durand line. The Goldsmith line serves as the border between Pakistan and Iran while the Durand line is the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

So, in 1947, the British got the Shahi jirga of the Baloch and the Quetta Municipality to vote on behalf of British Balochistan and made them join Pakistan. This merger of British Balochistan with Pakistan was done through subterfuge as the people who should have been rightly involved were not there.

IN: Three Baloch activists—Sajid Hussain, Karima & now Saqib Karim Baloch—have died in the last three years in three different countries. All of them were found dead by drowning. Do you see a conspiracy?

AB: My hunch is that these three Baloch activists have been eliminated by Pakistan’s ISI. The manner in which they have been found dead indicates that there is a common link.

Drowning is to prevent tell-a-tale signs. It is to erase the evidence. Drowning bloats a body. Sniffer dogs too become ineffective. I think forensic evidence becomes difficult to get. But these are conjectures on my part.

Karima Baloch was a highly visible and vociferous lady.  Pakistani authorities would be wary of her.

ISI is active in different parts of the world. Sweden and Canada are sparsely populated countries. A committed attempt by a trained agency agent can succeed. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, is supported by Turkey and we know that Pakistan and Turkey are allies.

Also, the Baloch people have not been able to present any kind of evidence that their activists were murdered.

IN: What can you predict about the Baloch insurgency?

AB: Like I said, it lacks critical mass because of various factors. Even though the larger Baloch community is with the rebels, the numbers are not there. For any insurgency to succeed, you need numbers.

Also, the Baloch insurgency is a grand alliance of oppressed minorities in Pakistan which includes the Pashtuns and the Sindhis. There are issues between the Baloch and the Pashtuns as they are jostling over the same piece of land. On the other hand, the Sindhi and Baloch relationship has worked reasonably well as the Sindhi outfits are trained and sheltered by the Baloch.

Besides that, they do not enjoy an external support base. The Baloch are surrounded by Afghanistan and Iran. Afghanistan is in a mess and Iran does not support the Baloch. In fact, the Shah of Iran had lent helicopters to help Zulfikar Ali Bhutto suppress the Baloch rebellion during the seventies.

IN: One can understand that the immediate neighbours are not supporting the Baloch but what about the global powers like the US? Is India supporting them or not?

AB: As far as the US is concerned, I think the US is supporting the Baloch but it wants to keep the pot boiling. The US wants to keep this an open option.

Supporting Baloch nationalism helps the US in many ways. It keeps a stranglehold on China in Gwadar, where it is building a port. It also allows the US to keep an eye on the Iran-Pakistan pipeline. At a different level, the Baloch insurgency is an antidote to Taliban radicalisation as the Baloch movement is Left-oriented. It is entirely possible that US agencies are continuing their links with the Baloch.

Regarding India’s support to the Baloch, it is the only province of Pakistan that does not share a border with India. Also, India has mentioned about the sufferings of the Baloch a few times lately, including by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

(The story has been published via a syndicated feed.)

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