Pakistan’s neo-colonial rule in Balochistan by Peter Tatchell
complete demilitarisation of occupied Balochistan, as a precondition for a negotiated political settlement to end six decades of economic neglect, ethnic persecution and military repression by Islamabad.
Echoing the criticisms of Baloch national leaders, the HRCP says the Pakistan government’s current peace and reconciliation package is undermined by on-going military operations and human rights abuses.
It points out that 4,000 Baloch people have been arrested and then disappeared. Only a handful have been released since the western-backed military dictator, Pervez Musharraf, was replaced by a democratically-elected civilian government in 2008.
The torture of Baloch rights campaigners also remains routine. Promises of military de-escalation are contradicted by continued army incursions and air strikes, which have resulted in many civilian casualties.
Successive Pakistani attacks on Balochistan are estimated to have in resulted in 3,000 people killed and up to 200,000 displaced.
Baloch human rights groups report that the kidnapping and torture of peaceful, lawful Baloch activists continues unchecked. Indeed, the Pakistani government has admitted that in 2009 over 1,100 Baloch people were seized by the security forces and disappeared.
These crimes against humanity are still happening in Balochistan, despite Pakistan’s ostensible transition to democratic government. They are well documented by Pakistani and international human rights groups, including the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the
Asian Human Rights Commission, the International Crisis Group and Amnesty International.
These abuses were also recounted to me in 2007, when I interviewed Mehran Baluch, the Baloch representative to the UN Human Rights Council, for my Talking With Tatchell internet television series. You can watch the interview here.
In response to national and international criticism, on 1 May 2008 the then newly-elected Prime Minister of Pakistan, Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani, publicly apologised for the persecution of the Baloch people and pledged to halt military assaults in Balochistan:
"It has been decided that no army action will be carried out in the province (of Balochistan) until a strategy is formulated in consultation with representatives of the provincial government to deal with the issue of law and order in the province,” he said.
Despite Gilani’s assurances, military attacks have continued. The attacks have been aided and abetted by military supplies from the UK, such as small arms, artillery, helicopter components and military communications equipment. The US has sold the Pakistani military $10 billion in arms, including F-16 attack aircraft, and Bell and Cobra attack helicopters. These have been used to
indiscriminately strafe and bomb Balochistan, killing civilians and also livestock, with the aim of intimidating the population and starving them into submission.
A 2006 report by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan documented arbitrary arrests and detention, torture, extra-judicial and summary executions, disappearances and the use of excessive and indiscriminate violence by Pakistan’s police, military and intelligence forces. These findings are corroborated by Amnesty International. Typical tortures include being hung upside down, sleep deprivation, electric shocks and cigarette burns.
Many nationalist leaders have been jailed or assassinated.
Akhtar Mengal, a former Chief Minister of Balochistan, was jailed without trial from 2006-2008, on trumped up charges. Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti and 26 of his colleagues were
killed in 2006 by the Pakistani army. Two years later, in November 2008, another Baloch national leader, Balach Marri, was murdered.
The killing has continued without respite, even as the government of Pakistan was talking peace and reconciliation. In April 2009, the body of Ghulam Mohammad, chair of the Baloch National Movement (BNM), was found semi-decomposed in a vat of toxic chemicals. Four months later, in August, Rasool Bux Mengal, joint secretary of the BNM, was
abducted. His tortured dead body was discovered hanging from a tree. The intention of these assassinations is clear: to decapitate the Baloch nationalist leadership and to terrorise the Baloch people.
To cover up its human rights abuses, Islamabad restricts media access to Balochistan and refuses to allow the UN and international aid agencies to provide humanitarian assistance to most parts of the region.
The historic territory of the Baloch people was carved up by the Great Powers in the nineteenth century. Parts of it ended up in Afghanistan and Iran, as well as in Pakistan.
Pakistani Balochistan comprises nearly the whole south and west of the country, bordering Afghanistan and Iran in the west and the Arabian Sea in the south. It accounts for nearly half Pakistan’s land mass and is immensely rich in natural resources, including oil, gas, coal, silver, copper, gold and cobalt. Despite this huge mineral wealth, Balochistan is the poorest region of Pakistan. Much of the population is malnourished, illiterate and semi-destitute; living in squalid housing with no electricity or clean drinking water.
According to the Asian Human Rights Commission’s 2009 report:
“88% of the population of Balochistan is under the poverty line. Balochistan has the lowest literacy rate, the lowest school enrolment ratio, educational attainment index and health index compared to the other provinces. 78% of the population has no access to electricity and 79% has no access to natural gas.”
How did this oppression of the Baloch people come to pass?
From 1876, part of what is now Balochistan was a self-governing British Protectorate, the Kalat. It was never part of the British Indian Empire. In response to representations from Baloch leaders, in the late 1940s the British government agreed the Kalat state should become an independent nation and include other adjacent regions such as the Marri and Bugti tribal areas. In August 1947, coinciding with India’s and Pakistan’s independence, Balochistan also declared independence.
Soon afterwards, Pakistan's founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who had previously supported a separate Baloch state, began strong-arming Balochistan into joining Pakistan. But both houses of the Baloch parliament rejected incorporation.
Balochistan’s independence was, alas, short-lived. Less than a year later, on 1 April 1948, Pakistani soldiers invaded and annexed the territory. At gun-point, the arrested Baloch leader, Mir Ahmedyar Khan, surrendered and was forced to sign an Instrument of Accession to merge with Pakistan. Khan was not mandated by the Baluch people to sign. They never voted to be part of Pakistan.
To pacify the resentful Baloch, Jinnah promised semi-autonomy. But genuine self-government never happened. In response to a nascent insurgency, the 1973 Pakistan constitution pledged provincial autonomy for Balochistan. Again, it never materialised. Moreover, ‘troublesome’ democratically-elected Baloch Chief Ministers have been dismissed from office and jailed by Islamabad.
The Pakistani military have remained in Balochistan continuously since the 1948 invasion, blanketing the country with military garrisons to suppress the people. In recent years, there has been a 62% increase in police stations and a 100% increase in paramilitary checkpoints.
If the Balochs are happy and free, as Islamabad claims, why is there a need for this pervasive, suffocating military presence? And why has Pakistan always refused Balochistan a referendum on independence?
Despite 60-plus years of subjugation, the Baloch people have never given up their quest for self-rule. They are demanding an end to Pakistani military operations, the release of political prisoners, a fair share of the natural resources in their own country, and the restoration of self-government.
In 2007, a Baloch grand jirga (assembly) decided to petition the International Court of Justice at The Hague, in a bid to get Pakistan to honour its autonomy commitments under the 1948 Instruments of Accession. Although their legal case is strong, realpolitik may deny the Baloch the justice they deserve.
Ever since its annexation in 1948, Balochistan has been subjected to a quadruple whammy of military occupation, political domination, economic exploitation and cultural hegemony. Pakistan is an oppressed nation turned oppressor nation. It now adopts the imperialist tactics of its former colonial overlords to subjugate and exploit the Baloch – and the people of other victim provinces such as Sindh and North West Frontier.
Just like Israel’s settlement programme on the West Bank, Islamabad has a settler scheme to colonise Balochistan. It encouraging Punjabis, the largest and dominant ethnic group in Pakistan, to move to the region. The aim is to make the Baloch people a minority in their own homeland, as happened to the Native Americans in the US. This goal has already been achieved in major cities like Quetta, where colonist settlers now predominate.
Cultural imperialism is another weapon. Punjabi supremacists believe they have a sacred duty to ‘civilise’ the Balochs. Accordingly, they have imposed an alien language, Urdu, on the Balochi-speaking people. Borrowing from the tactics of the apartheid regime in South Africa, which forced black children to be schooled in Afrikaans, Islamabad has dictated that Urdu is the compulsory language of instruction in Baloch educational institutions.
The cultural conquest of Balochistan also involves the radical Islamification of the traditionally more secular Baloch nation. Large numbers of religious schools have been funded by Islamabad, with a view to imposing Pakistan’s harsher, more narrow-minded interpretation of Islam. This is fuelling fundamentalism.
The Pakistani contempt for the Baloch people is evident in the way they have used Balochistan - not the Punjab - as their nuclear testing ground, staging atomic tests at Chagai. Since then, there have been an unusually high number of deaths of livestock and nomads, and a significant increase in skin diseases and physical deformities in new-born infants.
The West’s attitude towards the plight of the Baloch is less than honourable. Because Britain and the United States want Pakistan as an ally in the so-called “war on terror,” they have armed Pakistan and acquiesced with its suppression of the Baloch people. This is foolish, as well as unprincipled.
Pakistan’s war against Balochistan is strengthening the position of the Taliban, who have exploited the unstable, strife-ridden situation to establish bases and influence in the region. From these bases, the Taliban terrorise the mostly more liberal, secular Baloch people and enforce the Talibanisation of Balochistan. They are also increasingly using these Baloch base areas to launch terrorist bombings in cities across Pakistan.
The Pakistani military often tolerates the Taliban, on the grounds that its presence acts as a second force to crush the Baloch people and weaken their struggle for independence. In other words, the Taliban are used as a proxy force by Islamabad.
The bases in Balochistan are also hide-outs from where Taliban fighters mount military operations to overthrow the flawed but democratically-elected government of Afghanistan. This campaign to usurp power in Kabul and reimpose a fundamentalist regime seems to be taking place with the tacit collusion of the Pakistani military and intelligence services. They are talking no serious action to stop the Taliban using Balochistan as a base for their Islamist war against democracy and human rights in Afghanisatan.
If Britain and the US want to strike a blow against the Taliban and fundamentalism, they should seek an end Pakistan’s repression in Balochistan and support the Baloch people’s right to self-determination. Baloch secular nationalism could act as a powerful bulwark against the Talibanisation of the country, which ultimately threatens all the people of Pakistan – and the wider region.
Whether self-determination means the restoration of independence or full regional autonomy within a federal Pakistan is a matter for the Baloch people. The best way to resolve this issue would be for the government of Pakistan to authorise an internationally supervised and monitored referendum to allow the people of Balochistan to freely and democratically determine their own future. The Baloch people, like all people everywhere, have a right to self-determination, democracy, human rights and social justice.
To learn more about Peter Tatchell’s human rights campaigns, see here: www.petertatchell.net
Further articles on the oppression of the Baloch people:
Balochistan mourns 60 years of Pakistani annexation and occupation – August 2007
Pakistan launches another military offensive – December 2007
More Pakistani military raids in Balochistan – February 2008
Baluch leader Akhtar Mengal remains in prison on trumped up charges – March 2008
Pakistan army burns Baloch prisoners alive – August 2008