The extent to which the so-called “second War of Independence” in Baluchistan has been galvanized in the aftermath of the “martyrdom” of the octogenarian, Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, on August 26 can be gleaned from three developments.
First, the three main Baluch tribes — Bugti, Mengel and Marri — have sunk their traditional differences and joined hands in what the Khan of Kalat has called a search for options to preserve the Baluch “identity and sense of belonging”. The issue, he stated ominously, “is far from getting resolved within the parameters of Pakistan’s statehood”. While Bugti’s killing has given Baluch nationalism a fillip, the separatist movement has been nurtured on long-standing grievances over the lack of local involvement in economic development and the demographic transformation of the region. The Baluch tribes have realized the strategic and economic importance of their region to the Punjabi-dominated Pakistan establishment, and are determined to extract their pound of flesh.
Secondly, the president, Pervez Musharraf, has blamed the resurgence of Baluch nationalism, after a two-decade hiatus, on the assistance and encouragement of India. The Indian consulates in Kandahar and Zahidan in Afghanistan have been identified as the source of the problem — an accusation that has acquired intensity after India publicly expressed its concern at Pakistan’s penchant for a military solution to the Baluchistan uprising.
Finally, and as a direct response to the deteriorating situation in Baluchistan, Pakistan cocked a snook at the Nato forces in Afghanistan and suspended its military operations in neighbouring Waziristan. Although the August 5 agreement committed the warlords of the region to not using Waziristan to wage war against either Pakistan or Afghanistan, it is being widely interpreted as a licence to the taliban to confine itself to military operations against the Hamid Karzai government in return for sanctuary in Pakistan. Musharraf, it is quite clear, wants to avoid over-extending his army in both Waziristan and Baluchistan. Since he requires the political support of the Islamists to extend his tenure as president and army chief, he would rather settle with the taliban and be free to sort the Baluch rebels “so fast they wouldn’t know what hit them”.
Despite some comparisons with the movement for autonomy in East Pakistan which soon escalated into a full-fledged movement for a separate Bangladesh in 1971, it is still premature to forecast the trajectory of Baluch nationalism. The parliamentary opposition in Pakistan has, no doubt, used the disturbances in the provinces as a stick to beat Musharraf with, but it is doubtful whether its disagreement extends to more than the strategies of containment.
Baluch nationalism finds itself confronted with very serious odds. To begin with, there is the opposition of the oil companies which are loath to be faced with any movement that threatens the exploitation of large gas reserves and the passage of pipelines that should, ideally, link central Asia and Iran to the huge market in India. In the past, the oil companies paid significant amounts of hush-money to tribal chiefs, not least to pre-empt the possibility of a united nationalist movement, and it is likely that these moves will persist.
Moreover, China has invested heavily in the development of the Gwadar port at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, which also serves as a naval base. At present, Gwadar has docking facilities for freighters with a 30,000 ton capacity and oil tankers of up to 25,000 tons. The second phase of development, scheduled for completion in 2010, will raise the capacity for oil tankers to 200,000 and involve the creation of a free trade zone. Beijing is unlikely to acquiesce meekly in developments that threaten its toehold in this strategic region.
Neighbouring Iran too will be justifiably concerned over Baluchi nationalism spilling over and influencing its own Baluch minority. It should be remembered that when Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto took on Baluchi separatists with a massive show of force in 1973, he was backed all the way by the erstwhile Shah of Iran.
As things stand at present, an independent Baluchistan has few worthwhile takers internationally. The best Baluch nationalists can hope for is a measure of support from a small section of America’s strategic community that sees ethnic nationalism as a possible counter to a ummah-centric Islamist radicalism. By this logic, the whimsical colonial cartography of the early-20th century has to be undone and replaced with national boundaries which promote, in the language of Ralph Peters, writing in the Armed Forces Journal, “ethnic affinities and religious communalism — and, in some cases, both”. Assuming such a process is ever set in motion, Pakistan will be among the big losers. Thanks to the vagaries of history, Pakistan incorporates two anomalies: the Pushtun-dominated North-West Frontier Province that should rightfully have been a part of Afghanistan but for the Durand Line, and the province of Baluchistan which makes for a composite unit when merged with the Baluch-dominated provinces of neighbouring Iran.
Given that the idea of an independent Baluchistan has even less support than the demand for a Kurdistan which incorporates parts of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria, what should be India’s attitude to the “second War of Independence” now troubling Islamabad' Linked to this is a broader issue: is India better served by a stable and united Pakistan'
That Indira Gandhi clearly thought otherwise was demonstrated by her readiness to fish in the troubled waters of East Pakistan after 1969. However, at Simla in 1972, she more than made up for giving the neighbour a bloody nose by being unduly magnanimous to a beleaguered Bhutto. Since then, Indian foreign policy has operated on the dubious principle that an incumbent regime is better than any uncertain alternative. The Atal Bihari Vajpayee government which should have, in view of its ideological baggage, been sceptical about this approach was even more accommodating — witness Vajpayee’s remarks at Lahore’s Minar-e-Pakistan in 1999 and India’s benign neglect of the struggle in Baluchistan.
The United Progressive Alliance government has hesitantly undertaken a course correction. It expressed concern over the Pakistan army’s over-reaction in Baluchistan in December 2005, and further incensed Islamabad with its carefully-worded advice to Musharraf after Bugti’s killing. It is entirely possible that India’s concern for Baluchistan stems from a desire to take a side swipe at Pakistan for its persistent “political and diplomatic” support for the Kashmiri secessionists. But does India have a larger strategic vision about Pakistan'
To be fair, Pakistan has never deviated from its larger strategic objective of wanting the eventual dismemberment of the Indian state. The principle of a “thousand cuts”, approved first by Zia-ul-Haq, is aimed at ruthlessly exploiting every possible contradiction in Indian society and nurturing terrorism.
India has persisted with the idyllic, almost neo-con, view that a genuinely democratic Pakistan is the panacea for peace. Unfortunately, every democratic interregnum in Pakistan has belied Indian expectations — not because a Benazir Bhutto or a Nawaz Sharif was insincere, but because of the special role of the Pakistan army and the ISI in the polity. Any enduring peace in the subcontinent has to be prefaced on the premise that these two pillars of the Pakistan establishment, now bolstered by a dose of fanatical Islamism, are no longer in a position to carry forward their destructive agenda.
The struggle in Baluchistan is significant in three ways: it hits at Pakistan’s strategic nerve centre, it proffers a localized alternative to the rampaging Wahabi Islam that threatens the civilized world and, above all, it further exposes the hollowness of Pakistani nationhood. India and the Baluchi nationalists are natural allies.