With beleaguered former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf arrested over the slaying of Jamhoori Watan party chief Akbar Bugti in 2006, Balochistan is again in the limelight. As Balochs hit by the recent earthquake and aftershocks clamoured for aid, the province descended into near chaos after chief minister Aslam Raisani's sacking in January and caretaker successor Ghous Baksh Barazai's awaiting the May 11 polls. Balochistan straddles Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan; borders the Arabian Sea and is a vast and sparsely populated province in Pakistan. The province remains a bubbling cauldron of ethnic, sectarian and secessionist violence threatening to spill over. Neither the fall of the Musharraf regime in 2008 nor the subsequent dispensation has been able to rescue the province from near anarchy.
The Pakistani forces have been incapable of dealing with the Baloch nationalists despite discrediting the movement and linking it with terror outfits. While a majority of the populace wants greater autonomy within the Pakistani federal framework, there are motley outfits and factions trying to capitalise on the discontent. Thus the conflict in Balochistan portrays a paradox - subjugation reinforcing the very threat it tried to purge. Islamabad has lost count of the number of proxy radical groups it has harboured and the region has become a breeding ground for extremism.
The comity of nations is unlikely to focus on the imbroglio until the withdrawal of troops from the Afghan theatre in 2014. Three fundamental issues have been fuelling the Baloch imbroglio: expropriation, marginalisation and dispossession. Expropriation relates to the Balochs' claim that their resources are exploited by Islamabad. Marginalisation relates to discrimination against Baloch labour in ongoing development projects, with workers often imported from the other provinces. Dispossession is an issue because Balochs see the best of their land being taken over by 'foreigners' from Islamabad.
Balochistan is economically and strategically important for India too. It is a potential transit zone for a pipeline transporting natural gas from Iran-Turkmenistan to India. Two of Pakistan's three naval bases, Ormara and Gwadar are situated on the Baloch coast. The resilience of Baloch nationalism results from the persistent socio-economic inequalities among the provinces.
The term Baloch nationalism is an embryonic reality reflecting the evolution of the province itself. Islamabad's grave miscalculation has been to club Baloch nationalism with vestiges of feudalism in the province and deny popular aspirations. Hence the turmoil in Balochistan sought to generate separatist and nationalist sentiment within a culturally distinct ethno-linguistic group that had its own autonomous history and has remained frozen in a time warp.
The first Pakistani turmoil came in 1963 when Baloch leader Sher Mohammad Marri resisted the central government's attempt to establish military bases in the province. A ceasefire agreement in 1968 promised greater political autonomy for the Balochs which was soon rescinded. Baloch separatists mounted another insurgency in 1973, fighting for greater socio-political rights and an end to exploitation of its mineral resources. As Pakistani soldiers retaliated sustained by the Shah of Iran's forces, the fallout was a high toll on Baloch insurgents. A truce was arrived at after General Zia-ul-Haq's coup. Zia's development initiatives temporarily quelled the Baloch upheaval. However after three decades of unfulfilled promises for effective local governance and a greater share of state resources, the conflict that erupted in 2005 is yet to be contained.
Balochistan's campaign is receiving more attention among policymakers after the US Congressional hearing, the introduction of a Baloch self-determination bill in the US Congress and a highly-publicised strategy session of the Balochistan National Front in Berlin in March 2012. It will be interesting to see to what extent Baloch nationalist hardliners participate in the May 11 elections; or whether like in 2008, the major actors will boycott the hustings. The former would augur well both for Pakistan and the region as their partaking in Baloch governance can confer legitimacy on the provincial government. A boycott would only worsen the scenario in the absence of provincial legitimacy in a central government. A negotiated solution may be more politically feasible as many surveys suggest a majority of the populace favours autonomy, not secession.
Chiranjib Haldar is a commentator on South Asian affairs
The views expressed by the author are personal