BY ERIK KHZMALYAN
Pakistan’s struggle to keep the province of Baluchistan within its orbit has come with a heavy price. The ongoing insurgency, unequal distribution of revenue, ethnic disparities, and foreign interventions have exacerbated Islamabad’s problems with Baluch nationalism. Moreover, there are good reasons to believe that Baluch nationalists will press for more autonomy and utilize India’s aid to pursue this goal further.
From the first days of its existence, Pakistan has grappled with the challenge of uniting all the ethnic groups under a one common national identity. Baluchis, like other minorities, believe that they have been subjected to an institutionalized political and economic discrimination. Hence, their deep contempt for Pakistani federalism. Although stark ethnic differences and tribalism are the root causes of Pakistan’s overall disunity, this paper will focus on the economic factors and foreign interventions that fuel Baluch nationalism.
Though blessed with vast natural resources such as copper, natural gas, gold, and oil, Baluchistan experiences much higher poverty rates in comparison to other provinces. It is worth mentioning that only 25% of villages in Baluchistan receive electricity compared to the 75% in the rest of the country. Furthermore, merely 20% of Baluchis have access to clean water compared to 86% of their compatriots across Pakistan. On top of that, the population suffers poor representation in national, as well as regional, politics. The lack of adequate political representation and the little control over region’s resource exploitation are interpreted by Baluch nationalists as an occupation of native lands by Punjabis.
Additionally, projects like the construction of Gwadar Port have increased the number of Punjabis in Baluchistan, further fueling the region’s nationalistic sentiments. Baluch calls for reserving jobs in local projects for Baluchi workers have largely been dismissed by Islamabad.
Islamabad’s general mismanagement of its energy sector coupled with the Baluch insurgency has produced an energy crisis that threatens to accelerate Pakistan’s overall destabilization. Due to these ongoing energy issues, the country experiences frequent power outages which in turn have sparked protests across the country. Extremists in Baluchistan, for example, have attacked the offices of several political parties and blown up electric towers depriving the country of electricity.
The economic hardship of Baluchistan is a product of both inefficient government policies and the ongoing violence that plagues the region. It is the very absence of law and order that discourages international efforts to develop the province’s huge gas reserves. To make matters worse, the alienation of the local population has created a deep mistrust towards governmental institutions and generated militant resistance to projects aimed at exploiting natural resources of the region.
When speaking of foreign investment, the first country that comes to mind is, of course, China. Baluchistan’s geographic location is vital to China’s economic aspirations. The province borders Iran and Afghanistan; has access to the Arabian Sea; and, finally is home to the strategically important Bolan Pass. For these reasons, China has vigorously increased its presence in Baluchistan through multi-billion dollar projects, all of which have witnessed violent attacks. Gwadar Port and Metallurgical Corporation of China are among many examples that have been targeted by the Baluch insurgency.
China is not the first country to invest in Baluchistan. The U.S., too, has attempted to tap the province’s natural gas. Back in the 1980’s, Exxon opened an office in Islamabad to begin gas exploration in Baluchistan’s Dera Bugti district. The project turned out to be a failure as both the regional government and Islamabad were unable to provide security assurances in this tribal area. Exxon had no choice but to leave.
In addition to the existing dichotomy between Baluchistan and Islamabad, there is the India factor. The region has become a platform for India-China-Pakistan geopolitical game. Although India has no concrete strategy for Baluchistan, it has vigorously exploited Pakistan’s vulnerabilities with Baluchis. For instance, Narendra Modi has decried Pakistan for its atrocities in Baluchistan and has expressed his full support for Baluch nationalists. Moreover, there is a high possibility that such comments—which Baluch community has positively echoed—will transform nationalist sentiments into a full-blown movement.
It is true that India’s current approach for Baluchistan has not yet fully materialized. However, given the hopeless condition of India-Pakistan relations, Baluchistan is poised to play a greater role in India’s strategy moving forward. In order to counter the Beijing-Islamabad bloc and contain Pakistan’s terrorism, India will be forced to double down on its commitment to Baluchistan. Although this will increase the possibility of a direct confrontation between the two countries, New Delhi understands that inaction, too, bears great risks. The last thing Modi wants to do is create a perception that India does not have the guts to assert itself in the region. New Delhi cannot avoid the threat of a China-Pakistan axis and will resort to tough realpolitik to maintain the balance-of-power.
Baluchistan’s calls for more autonomy should not be underestimated. The rampant poverty of the region will further intensify the separatist sentiments of Baluchis. Interpreting Islamabad’s actions as an occupation of native lands, the province’s hostility toward the central government will continue driving Pakistan into a quagmire. Baluchis have developed an aversion to foreign interventions and attempts to extract the region’s mineral resources. This has been exacerbated by the widespread notion that the government has an extremely discriminatory policy against local ethnicities. The only foreign actor that is welcomed is India. New Delhi’s realpolitik in balancing China and Pakistan will include mobilizing Baluchistan. The nationalists of the region are likely to shift even closer to India and become a proxy in India-China-Pakistan geopolitical rivalry. New Delhi will continue exposing the human rights violations in the province to gain more support from Baluchis as well as advance its own strategic interests. Unless Islamabad changes its approach towards the region—which is incredibly unlikely—it will continue to face high costs in the province.
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Image source: saddahaq.com
About the Author
Erik Khzmalyan specializes in U.S. Foreign Policy, Eurasia, and Geopolitics. He is currently an M.A. candidate in Statecraft and International Affairs at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.