Pakistani officials have tried to insinuate that the Balochistan rebellion is of India’s making. In India, there is denial of any role by covert agencies; and a reaffirmation that Balochistan is Pakistan’s domestic business. Reality is more complex. For some time now, Balochistan has been emerging as the locus of a new Great Game. Regional powers have been using and abetting Baloch tensions for their own reasons. India knows what’s going on, but is more an informed spectator than an active player. If nothing else, its ability to operate in Balochistan is circumscribed by its relationship with Iran.
As far back as the 1970s — just after the Bangladesh war — the then Soviet foreign minister told his Indian counterpart that India should collaborate in fomenting a rebellion in Balochistan. New Delhi demurred. At the time, caches of Iraqi weapons had been found headed towards Baloch tribal chieftains. Iraq was seeking to use Balochistan as a base to instigate violence in neighbouring Iranian Balochistan.
The Iranian Baloch have a different tribal composition from the Pakistani Baloch. However, they too mistrust their national government. Iran’s Baloch are a Sunni minority in a Shia-majority country.
In the early 1970s, India was improving relations with the Shah of Iran and did not want to disrupt that process. Have things changed? Not really. Iranian Balochistan — where India has a consulate in the city of Zahedan — is crucial to the back-up strategy for Afghanistan. In the 1990s, the Iranian and Indian governments collaborated here to provide logistical support to the Northern Alliance.
The possibility — however thin — that the Americans will walk out of Kabul with their job only half done has never quite been dismissed. As such, India has to keep open the option of working with Iran (and Russia) in Afghanistan. That is a compelling priority. The price for it is India steers clear of the Baloch opportunity.
So who then is responsible for Islamabad’s Balochistan headache? The western edge of South Asia is experiencing a tectonic shift. For 30 years, since the Soviet invasion of 1979, successive regimes in Kabul were destabilised by Islamabad. Today, positions have been reversed. The Afghan establishment, at least the faction surrounding President Hamid Karzai, is doing its utmost to destabilise Pakistan. Balochistan is where this experiment is being played out.
Northern Balochistan is a Pushtun stronghold, home to many refugees from the Afghan war of the 1980s. A wing of the Taliban, led by Mullah Omar, is in Quetta, the provincial capital. In the southern part, nomadic Baloch communities have been restive for decades. Islamabad’s writ doesn’t run very far. Kabul has long smelt its chance.
This suits India, but still doesn’t mean India is responsible. Indeed, even the Americans are not quite innocent. Their intelligence agencies are known to have a network in the Baloch belt, in the hope of some day causing a problem for Tehran. The Pakistani Baloch region is a way-station in this journey.
What does it all add up to? Far from converting a domestic insurgency into a bilateral issue, and pinning the blame on India, Pakistan is actually trying to box in an international situation and somehow fit it into a two-country framework. In truth, even if India were to disappear off the face of the planet tomorrow morning, the Baloch mess would remain.
There is one other prism through which to look at the Baloch issue: it offers an alternative model of Muslim oppression. In the past few years, sources of Islamic grievance have become the subject of passionate debate. These are generally seen as Arab/Middle Eastern- Palestine; the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia — or South Asian, as in Kashmir.
This template offers no space for grievances of Muslim peoples, as opposed to Islamists. The Baloch are one such, and so are the Uighurs and Kurds (people of the BUK, to coin a handy acronym). These are predominantly secular Muslim communities. Each has a small sliver of al-Qaeda-type zealotry but that is not the defining characteristic.
In all three struggles, the Crusader-Zionist-Hindu triumvirate that Osama bin Laden talks about is not the principal villain. In two of the three, a small Muslim minority is being oppressed by other, locally dominant Muslim ethnicities. A notional Kurdistan, with oil-rich Kirkuk as its capital, would be the most pro-West territory in the Middle East after Israel. No wonder it is not bin Laden’s rallying cry.
The Islamists are not the only hypocrites. The US would be happy to have Iranian Balochis demand autonomy but not Pakistani Balochis. Turkey protests against China’s treatment of Turki-speaking Uighurs but is scarcely as generous to Iraqi Kurds, lest it gives Turkey’s own Kurds ideas. China lectures India on Kashmir and America on Iraq. When it comes to Xinjiang, it brutalises its Muslim minority, no questions asked.
Like the Uighurs and the Kurds, the Baloch are the forgotten underdogs of the Muslim world. India should stop pretending they don’t exist.
Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based writer