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August 9, 2013

Balochistan — A blind spot

Balochistan is burning. It is high time the world noticed the flames.

The tragedy of Balochistan can be explained in numbers. Since the beginning of this decade, Balochistan has seen 200,000 displaced, 4,000 Shias systematically cornered and killed and over 23,000 missing—most thought to be tortured and killed. But the greater tragedy of Balochistan lies in its absence from all national and international discourse, kind courtesy Pakistan. It is not that little attention is being paid to the gross human rights violations currently taking place in the province. It is that in more than six decades of its existence as a battered province of Pakistan, not once has Balochistan’s cause been emphatically raised in the international space. The genocide has gone on unquestioned and unheard.

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Since its forced amalgamation in 1947 to the newly independent Pakistan, Balochistan has fought off the Punjabi dominated Pakistani state four times. And each time, the Baloch have been put down brutally by the Pakistan army. 1948, 1958 and 1962 saw the Pakistani state violently squash the vestiges of the Baloch movement. These military operations were accompanied by superficial conciliatory stances that Pakistan hoped would assuage the demand of an independent Baloch state. But the most vicious military crackdown followed the dismissal of the civilian government in Quetta in 1973 by ZA Bhutto under trumped up charges of treason. It was led by the infamous General Tikka Khan, the “Butcher of Balochistan”. 80,000 troops took over the province to quash the strong resistance movement led by the Marri and Bugti leaders. More than 8,000 Baloch lost their lives at the hands of the Pakistan Army. It ended in 1977 with some dubious promises and imposition of martial law by Zia-ul-Haq, who had earlier ousted Bhutto in a coup.

The current resistance movement for an independent Balochistan began in 2005, triggered by the gang rape of a Baloch lady doctor, stationed at Sui, by an army major. Two subsequent events, both ordered by Musharraf—the murder of Balochistan’s much respected ex-governor Akbar Bugti by Pakistan army in 2005 and the abduction and torture of Baloch National Movement (BNM) President Ghulam Baloch— brought the situation to head. This war is now in its eighth year. A 50,000 strong Frontier Corps (FC) mans a province that has less than five percent of Pakistan’s population. Murder of journalists, teachers, doctors, healthcare workers and NGO workers have become common place as have disappearances, abductions, death threats, torture and maimed dead bodies of the innocent Baloch. Most of these have been attributed to the FC and the army. Despite sporadic interventions by the judiciary, few of these cases have been investigated into and no arrests have been made.

Even the recent elections, that placed Dr Abdul Malik Baloch as the Chief Minister of the province, have made little difference to the status quo. With abysmal voter turnout in most constituencies (including a less than 1 percent turnout in one), the elections carried little credibility. The polling staff refused to man many polling stations and more than 20 bodies were found, dumped after torture, during the polling phase. Much was made of Abdul Baloch’s middle class credentials in the Pakistani media even though he carried little credibility with the Baloch. That credibility has further declined after he made compromises, allowing Islamabad to exert more control over the province’s resources without addressing the grievances of the Baloch people.

The economic numbers that trickle out of Balochistan tell more gruesome stories than those of the dead and the disappeared. Spanning 44 percent of Pakistan’s land area, Balochistan is home to a variety of resources including the second largest copper and gold mines in the world. It has iron reserves of more than 200 million tonnes and copper reserves of over 1.2 billion tonnes. The Sui and Dera Bugti regions account for almost 19 trillion cubic feet of proven gas reserves. The federal government of Pakistan and the Metallurgical Construction Company (MCC) of China have bestowed on themselves the legitimacy to own, operate, produce and buy these resources, thereby depriving the Baloch of their own wealth. With control of two of its biggest natural resources, China has made deep inroads into Balochistan. It controls the copper mines of Saindak and the lead and zinc mines of Duddar, Lasbela. Pakistan recently handed over the Gwadar port to China and has also unveiled plans for the construction of a Gwadar-Kashgar highway with Chinese investment. This highway will provide China unfettered access to the best of Baloch resources, while the Baloch themselves will earn nothing from the deal. This coming of Chinese corporations and their labourers has resulted in the Baloch losing ownership of their land, access to their resources, and all hopes of a better future.

Despite its vast reservoirs of natural resources, severe economic exploitation by Pakistan has resulted in Balochistan becoming one of the poorest in that country. Plagued by low income and high unemployment, 46 percent of the population in Balochistan lives below the poverty line. A severe water crisis has crippled agriculture in the province. The ongoing energy crisis only underlines the fact that Balochistan’s resources have failed to benefit its people. Balochistan is at the lowest possible measures on Human Development Indices. 34 percent of the women in Balochistan die of malnutrition while it has an infant death rate of 130 per 1000 live births. The province has a literacy rate of 37 percent, with female literacy down to a mere 27 percent. Over 300 schools have been closed, teachers threatened and killed. Health workers are a rarity and the increasing Islamisation of a historically secular province has led to women being pushed into the fringes of society.

The Islamisation and the rise of radical Sunni outfits—fuelled by the increasing influence of the Deobandi School of thought—have destroyed the social fabric of Balochistan. The public and unpunished elimination of minorities, particularly the Shia Hazaras, brings to mind the images of Nazi Germany at its worst. The Lashkar- e- Jhangvi (LeJ), with its avowed goal of eliminating Shias from Pakistan, has been systematically working its way through Balochistan torturing and murdering Shias. The brazenness with which LeJ operates, without being taken to task by any of Pakistan’s institutions, indicates tacit acceptance by the state if not active connivance. By censoring their media coverage and labelling these genocides as foreign conspiracies, Pakistani officials are able to keep the truth hidden from the outside world.

Currently, there are two wars being fought in Balochistan. One by the government against the Baloch nationalists that involves the army, the ISI and other agencies, and the other by publicly validated terrorist outfits like the LeJ and its sister organisations, seeking to annihilate Shias. Pakistan has repeatedly attempted to tarnish the secular and political nature of the nationalist movement while granting platforms to recognised terrorist outfits. In fact, it is widely accepted that Pakistani agencies are using these sectarian terrorist outfits to target the nationalist movement. The price for this proxy war is being paid by the ordinary Baloch. The harrowing tales of ordinary Baloch taking arduous boat journeys to Australia are a result of their compulsion to escape the brutality of the Pakistani state and savagery of these terrorist organisations.

There is a need to look beyond the violent policies of successive Pakistani governments and address the core issue–-the genocide that masquerades as kill and dump, sectarian violence, armed resistance, foreign sponsored militia and many other euphemisms–all aimed at destroying a group that shares the Baloch identity. After all, the convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”.

In an eerie throwback to what happened in East Pakistan, the international community’s reluctance to talk about the ongoing genocide in Balochistan is inexcusable. Neither publicly nor privately have the United States, the European Union and the United Nations raised the subject with Pakistan. Obama’s much touted Atrocities Prevention Board (APB) does not mention Balochistan as a cause of concern, neither does the international NGO, Global Center for Responsibility to Protect (GCR2P).

The nomination of Samantha Power as the US ambassador to the UN was a source of great hope. As one of the pioneers of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, her work on genocide has attracted much attention worldwide. There was some hope that she would use her ambassadorial position to bring attention to Balochistan. Those hopes have been belied so far. Her confirmation hearings covered ground on Syria, Rwanda and Myanmar but there was no mention of Balochistan. Regardless of the controversies surrounding the R2P and the use of the Power of Protection, the fact that not a single country stood up to take the cause of Balochistan in the international arena is despicable. What credibility do the exhortations of the White House to secure an international stance against atrocities committed by a state against its own people carry when Balochistan is missing from that discussion?

The World Bank, IMF and the ADB have approved loans of more than 5 billion US dollars for Pakistan. This money is aimed at poverty alleviation and boosting growth. Balochistan, repressed by the state, has only seen poverty and violence grow. For many years, the World Bank Group considered human rights to be ‘political’ activities outside its mandate, but this has changed now. Currently, the World Bank Group’s official position is that it “may play a facilitative role in helping its members realise their human rights obligations.” This changed position is however not reflected in its dealings with Pakistan.

To continue to give aid, very generously, without bringing Pakistan to task on its atrocities is irresponsible. Hiding behind the veil of non-interference in a country’s political affairs and continuing to pump in money that never reaches the intended is to be complicit in a country’s act to eliminate an entire group. A greater push from countries like the US, which has the decisive vote share in these institutions, and countries like India with their commitment to democracy and peace in the region can help. The World Bank and the IMF have to strengthen their policies and stop aiding countries that openly undertake genocide.

Unfortunately, India too has left a lot to be desired in its stance on Balochistan. India’s position of non-interference in another country’s internal affairs is not new, but its “no stance” and “no comment” policy on Balochistan is inhuman and negative. For a country that has had its media, intellectuals, politicians and NGOs take up the plight of the Sri Lankan Tamils, Tibetans, Afghan Sikhs and the Rohingya Muslims, the silence on Balochistan is deafening. The Indian government, operating well within its diplomatic bounds, can encourage NGOs and other private entities to bring the voices of the marginalised and hunted in Balochistan to the fore. India needs to push for a stronger action to prevent this genocide from spinning out of control. With some urging from the opinion-makers, the Indian media can be pushed for greater global recognition of conflicts, particularly those like Balochistan, that don’t usually interest Western media networks.

For the better part of its existence as a province of Pakistan, Balochistan has been fighting its war behind closed doors. It hasn’t helped that the historical narratives about Pakistan have been geared towards its conflict with its neighbours or its teetering democratic movement. The imminent withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan and the need to co-operate with a moody Pakistan to ensure a semblance of stability in the region has made the West turn a blind eye to the many humanitarian crises within Pakistan. The West would rather have a superficially stable and friendly state than do the right thing by bringing it to task for its state-sponsored genocide.

The time is though running out for the Baloch and for the Shias. To continue to turn away every time a Shia Hazara is dragged out of his house and shot or to not respond when a Baloch disappears and turns up tortured, maimed and dead is no longer an option. The international community risks the numbers becoming a statistic if this tragedy continues. Balochistan needs attention now.

Photo: Baluchistan

The piece has been updated to reflect certain corrections.


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