A Ballot for the Baloch
by Peter Tatchell
by Peter Tatchell
Four Baloch prisoners were boiled alive earlier this year by Pakistan’s army during operations in occupied Balochistan. According to the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), the victims were asked to identify local supporters of the Balochistan Liberation Army. After refusing to reveal names, they were immersed in scolding hot coal tar.
These crimes against humanity are still happening in Balochistan, despite the resignation of Pervez Musharraf, and despite Pakistan’s ostensible transition to democratic government.
The AHRC reports that during Pakistani attacks on Balochistan in recent years, 3,000 people have died, 200,000 have been displaced, and more than 4,000 have been arrested, many disappearing without trace.
They are victims of a war waged by the Pakistani army, which invaded Balochistan in 1948 and forcibly incorporated it into Pakistan, against the wishes of its inhabitants. Since then, the Baloch have been subjected to a quadruple whammy of military occupation, political domination, economic exploitation, and cultural hegemony.
On 1st May 2008, the new democratically-elected Prime Minister of Pakistan, Syed Yousaf Raza Gillani, publicly apologised for the persecution of the Baloch people and pledged to halt military assaults in the region:
It has been decided that no army action will be carried out in the province 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.
Despite these assurances, military attacks are continuing. The army is a law unto itself, and well-equipped, having been armed by Britain and the United States. US-supplied F-16 fighter aircraft and Cobra attack helicopters are indiscriminately bombing the region, killing innocent civilians and also livestock, with the aim of starving the inhabitants of pro-independence towns and villages.
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 Pakistani police, military and intelligence forces – findings 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. Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti and 26 of his colleagues were killed two years ago by the Pakistani army in a targeted strike intended to decapitate the nationalist leadership. Late last year, another Baloch leader, Balach Marri, was murdered.
To cover up these 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. 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, copper and gold. Despite this huge mineral wealth, Balochistan is one of the poorest regions of the country. Much of the population is malnourished, illiterate and semi-destitute, living in squalid housing with no electricity or clean drinking water.
From 1876, part of what is now Balochistan was a self-governing British Protectorate, the Kalat, although never part of the British Indian Empire. In response to representations from Baloch leaders, 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. But soon afterwards, Pakistan’s founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who had previously supported a separate Baloch state, began strong-arming Balochistan into joining Pakistan. Both houses of the Baloch parliament rejected incorporation.
Balochistan’s independence was short-lived. On 1st 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 Baloch people to sign: they never voted to be part of Pakistan.
To pacify the Baloch, Jinnah promised semi-autonomy. Alas, genuine self-government was never realised, and a succession of democratically-elected Baloch Chief Ministers have been dismissed from office and jailed by Islamabad. Pakistan has waged five major wars to suppress the population; the latest major military offensives were in January and July 2008.
Pakistan’s army have remained in Balochistan since 1948, blanketing the country with hundreds of military garrisons. If the Baloch are happy and free, as Islamabad claims, why is there a need for this pervasive, suffocating presence? And why has Pakistan always refused Balochistan a referendum on independence?
Islamabad also has a scheme to colonise Balochistan with Punjabis, the largest and dominant ethnic group in Pakistan. The aim is to make the Baloch people a minority in their own homeland. 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 ‘un-civilised’ Baloch. Accordingly, they have imposed an alien language, Urdu, on the Balochi-speaking people, and Islamabad has dictated that Urdu be 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 intolerant interpretation of Islam.
The Pakistani contempt for the population is also 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.
Despite over 60 years of subjugation, the Baloch people have never given up their quest for self-rule. They demand 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 meaningful self-government.
Last year, 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.
The West’s attitude towards the plight of the Baloch is less than honourable. Because Britain and the United States desire Pakistan as an ally in the ‘war on terror’, they have armed it and acquiesced with its regionalist suppression.
But 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 population and seek to enforce the Talibanisation of Balochistan. The Pakistani government mostly tolerates the extremist influence, on the grounds that its presence acts as a second force to crush the Baloch people and weaken their struggle for independence. Baloch nationalism could yet act as a powerful bulwark against Talibanisation.
The bases in Balochistan are also hide-outs from where Taliban fighters mount military operations to overthrow the imperfect but democratically-elected government of Afghanistan. This campaign to usurp power in Kabul and reimpose a fundamentalist régime seems to be taking place with the tacit collusion of the Pakistani military and intelligence services.
Whether self-determination means the restoration of independence or regional autonomy within a federal Pakistan is a matter for the Baloch people. The best way to resolve this issue would be for the new democratic government of Pakistan to authorise an internationally supervised and monitored referendum to allow the people of Balochistan to freely determine their own future.
Peter Tatchell is a leading human rights campaigner. His website is petertatchell.net.