Yes, let’s talk Balochistan!

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Published: Fri, 07/31/2009 - 10:06 Updated: Thu, 07/02/2015 - 06:21

Now that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's infinite wisdom has put Balochistan on the agenda, let's talk self-determination
Mohan Guruswamy Delhi

Since Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in his infinite wisdom, put Balochistan on the Indo-Pak agenda along with Kashmir, let's now not shy away from talking about it. The Pakistani case for Kashmir no longer rests on religion; the Bengali rebellion and secession in 1971 did in that argument. It now rests upon the more exalted principle of self-determination.

That is what their friends abroad and even in India wax eloquent about. The Pakistanis no longer harp about Indian perfidies in Junagadh and Hyderabad. Free elections, full integration and the sheer fact of Hindus being the major community in these two one-time princely states has put paid to that. But Kashmir still dogs us. It is predominantly Muslim and the demand for self-determination has us confused. Isn't that what democracy is all about?

The irony is that Pakistan is the champion of self-determination when its own people do not often enjoy democratic rights. The three pillars upon which the Pakistani State rests are still 'Allah, Army and America'. The people of Pakistan do not figure in this scheme at all. The Pakistani leaders want a diplomatic engagement with us on Jammu and Kashmir again. Their Prime Minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, has once again donned the cloak of democracy that hangs outside General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani's bunker. But we must not shirk from talking about self-determination with them. It's a two-edged sword and cuts both ways.

Let's take the case of Balochistan.

The Pakistani province of Balochistan is a mountainous desert area of about 3.5 lakh sq.kms and has a population of over 7.5 million or about as much as Jammu and Kashmir's population. It borders Iran, Afghanistan and its southern boundary is the Arabian Sea with the strategically important port of Gwadar on the Makran coast commanding approach to the Straits of Hormuz. It also has huge oil and gas reserves. Quetta is the capital of Balochistan.

The population here now consists of Baloch and Pashtu speaking Afghans, and from time to time Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar. Like the Kurds, the Baloch are also a people ignored by the makers of modern political geography. There is also the Iranian province of Sistan and Balochestan spread over an area of 1.82 lakh sq.kms and with a population of over 2.5 million Baloch. Its capital is Zahedan.

Through most of their history the Baloch administered themselves as a loose tribal confederacy. The Baloch are an ancient people. In 325 BC, after his abortive India campaign, as Alexander made his way back to Babylon through the Makran Desert, his Greeks suffered greatly at the hands of marauding Balochis. The legend has it that they originally came from near Aleppo in Syria and there is much linguistic evidence to suggest that they belong to the same Indo-European sub-group as the Persians and Kurds.

They came into Islam under the shadow of the sword of Muhammed bin Qasim's conquering Arab army in 711 AD. Whatever be their origins, by 1000 AD they were well settled in their present homeland. The poet Firdausi records them in the Persian epic, the Book of Kings, thus: "Heroic Baloches and Kuches we saw/Like battling rams all determined on war."

As relatively late arrivals in the region, the Balochis had to battle earlier occupants of the land such as the Brahui tribes who still abound around Kalat. The Brahui language belongs to the Dravidian family of languages and is close to Tamil. The Brahuis are the only Dravidian survivors in northern India, after the Aryan invasion.

A restless people, the Balochis naturally pushed eastwards towards the more fertile regions watered by the Indus River, but were halted by the might of the Mughals. But we still have reminders of the many Balochi incursions in the names of the towns like Dera Ghazi Khan and Dera Ismail Khan in the Punjab and NWFP. Unlike the 'Dravidians' of Mohen-jo-daro and Harappa who disappeared without a trace, the Brahui's made one last hurrah when they asserted their power in Kalat. By the 18th century Kalat was the dominant power in Balochistan and the Khan of Kalat was the ruler of the entire region. But the Brahui's paid for it by getting assimilated into the majority Balochis. Brahui language still survives in small pockets.

My late father who served in British India's Defence Services Staff College at Quetta in the early 1940s would often tell me of hearing the local tribesmen serving in the staff college speaking a language that sounded remarkably like Tamil! A few years ago, I ran into a bunch of school kids from Kalat at the National Museum in Karachi and they were amused that I knew that uru meant village, arisi meant rice and tanni meant water even to me from distant southern India.

The British first came to the region in 1839 on their way to Kabul when they sought safe passage. In 1841, they entered into a treaty with Kalat. In the wake of Lord Auckland's disastrous invasion of Afghanistan, the British annexed Sind in a mood that Mountstuart Elphinsone said was "of a bully who had been kicked in the streets and then goes home to beat the wife in revenge"!

The British annexed Sind in 1843 from the Talpur Mirs, a Balochi dynasty. On June 27, 1839, Ranjit Singh died and within ten years his great prophecy on being shown a map with British possessions in India in "ek din sab laal ho jayega!" (one day everything will be red) came to be true. After the formal surrender of the Sikhs on March 29, 1849 and the annexation of Punjab, the British now had a long border with the Balochis. But learning from their disastrous experience with the Afghans they generally preferred to keep out of harm's way and seemingly took cognisance of Balochi assurances of the inviolability of their borders.

In 1876, the British, however, forced another treaty on the Balochis and forced the Khan of Kalat to lease salubrious Quetta to them. The Khan's writ still ran over Balochistan, but now under the watchful but benign eye of a British minister. That the Khan of Kalat was not considered another insignificant prince was in the fact that he was accorded a 19-gun salute like those of Jaipurs and Jodhpurs. With security assured and largely unfettered domestic power the Khans led lavish and often eccentric lifestyles. One Khan collected shoes and to ensure the safety of his collection, had all the left shoes locked in a deep dungeon of his fort in Kalat!

Whatever the whimsicalities of the Khans of Kalat, like the rulers of Hyderabad and Kashmir, they enjoyed the greatest degree of autonomy possible under the system established by the British as long as whimsy was within reason and not inimical to British interests. This arrangement prevailed till 1947.

The urge to be independent rulers burned equally bright in all three of them. The Khan of Kalat, Mir Ahmad Yar Khan, went further than Hari Singh of Kashmir and Osman Ali Khan of Hyderabad. He declared independence, while the other two dithered and allowed events to overtake them. Unlike in Hyderabad, it was apparent that the population largely supported the Khan.

The Balochis, like the Pathans of North West Frontier Province (NWFP), were not too enthused with the idea of Pakistan. In the NWFP, the separatist Muslim League led by Mohammed Ali Jinnah was actually rejected in elections. Yet eight months after the Khan's assertion of independence the Pakistanis forcibly annexed Balochistan. But Balochi aspirations for an independent state were not quelled completely. In 1973, a war of independence broke out in Balochistan. Indira Gandhi was quick to provide assistance.
For five long years there was total war. At its peak, the Balochis raised a force of 55,000 combatants. Nearly six Pakistan Army divisions were deployed to fight them. The Pakistan Air Force was also exetensively used and its Mirage and Sabre fighter jets carried out strikes all over rural Balochistan. Widespread use of napalm has also been documented by scholars like Robert Wirsing of the University of Texas and well known journalist  Selig Harrison.

Iran too joined in the military action and Huey Cobra helicopter gunships of its Army Aviation were widely used. By the time the last pitched battle was fought in 1978, 5,000 Balochi fighters and 3,000 Pakistani soldiers had died. Civilian casualties were many times that. The Balochi war for independence was crushed, but the aspirations still flicker.

Speaking at the 57th session of the Commission of Human Rights at Geneva between March 9-April 27, 2001, Mehran Baloch, a prominent Baloch leader, said: "Our tragedy began in 1947, immediately after the creation of Pakistan. The colonialist army of Pakistani Punjab forcibly occupied Kalat at gunpoint."

Even now a struggle continues in Balochistan. After the killing of Akbar Khan Bugti, other leading Balochi leaders like Sardar Attaullah Mengal and Sardar Mahmood Khan Achakzai, and Nawab Khair Baksh Marri, heads of the three great Baloch clans, have been leading protests over the economic exploitation of the region's great natural resources to the exclusion of the local people. Marri and hundreds of his supporters are under arrest.

Till 1977, the Indira Gandhi government actively worked for the democratic aspirations of the Balochis and Pathans. Balochi fighters were trained in the deserts of Rajasthan. We also provided them with financial and diplomatic assistance. With Bangladesh free, Indira Gandhi reckoned that Sind, Balochistan and Pakhtunistan should follow.

After her electoral defeat in 1977, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, as the Janata government's foreign minister, made his first misguided and woolly-headed attempt to normalise relations with Pakistan. We now remember Lahore as his first, but that is not correct. Indian support to the various movements struggling for self-determination in Punjabi-dominated Pakistan was withdrawn.

Sindhi refugee LK Advani did not protest even when the 'Jiye Sind' movement of GM Syed was betrayed. He was quite pleased with being able to go to his hometown of Karachi and visit his old school. Vajpayee's assurances to Zia-ul-Haq, the man who initiated the policy of "death by a thousand cuts" to destroy India, ensured that the Balochis were forced to leave their camps in Rajasthan and all financial, military and diplomatic assistance was cut.

Even though the Janata regime did not last very long, the damage was done. The '(IK) Gujral doctrine' drove the final nail into that policy. Now that the Pakistanis insist on talking to us about Kashmir and the prime minister's infinite wisdom has put Balochistan on the agenda, let's talk self-determination.

Now that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s infinite wisdom has put Balochistan on the agenda, let’s talk self-determination Mohan Guruswamy Delhi

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This story is from print issue of HardNews