Thursday, December 29, 2005

Third time rebellious in Baluchistan

Third time rebellious in Baluchistan


This week India surprised by expressing concern over the crackdown in Pakistan’s largest province. C. Raja Mohan explains what is at stake.

December 29, 2005

India’s expression of concern Tuesday over Pakistan’s military crack-down in Baluchistan brought a swift and entirely expected condemnation from the foreign office in Islamabad which rejected New Delhi’s “meddling” in its “internal affairs”.

New Delhi is unlikely to prolong this war of words. South Block, however, appears to have decided it can no longer turn a blind eye to the growing violence in Baluchistan — a region of vital strategic importance for India and the world.

While the spokespersons of the two foreign offices were exchanging sharp words on Tuesday, a massive strike had nearly paralysed Baluchistan, which occupies nearly half of Pakistan’s territory. Baluchistan has been steadily drifting towards the third popular rebellion since Partition.

Demanding greater control over their rich mineral resources, including hydrocarbons, and protesting against the construction of new Pakistan army garrisons in their province, the proud Baluch have been on the warpath in recent weeks. The rocket attacks during President Pervez Musharraf’s visit to Baluchistan in mid-December have brought a harsh response from the Pakistan army.

From all available indications, Delhi’s decision to finally speak up on Baluchistan was a deliberate one. The essence of India’s message was simple: people living in glass houses should not be throwing stones. If Islamabad continues to hector India on human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir and demands restraint on the part of Indian armed forces, India would no longer keep quiet. It would politely ask Pakistan to look in the mirror.

Defensiveness, India’s decided, is no longer a diplomatic option. So the spokesperson’s special emphasis on the Pakistan “heavy military action, including the use of helicopter gunships and jet fighters”.

The spokeswoman in Islamabad, Tasneem Aslam, said she was “intrigued” by the Indian provocation “at this time when the two countries are engaged in the peace process to address all issues including the Jammu and Kashmir dispute”.

But it is precisely the Pakistani attitude on J&K that might have set off the Indian comments. In recent weeks, Pakistan appears to have been carried away by its own rhetoric on J&K. Its leaders have been demanding “demilitarisation” and “self-governance”.

While quiet negotiations could have produced progress on Indian troop reduction in J&K in tandem with a reduction of Pakistan-supported violence in the state, Islamabad decided to press for demilitarisation of specific areas in J&K.

The increasingly self-righteous rhetoric from Pakistan on Kashmir was a bit too much to digest in New Delhi at a time when the Pakistan army is using force in the Northern Areas, North and South Waziristan in the North West Frontier Province, and in Baluchistan.

India’s new approach was first unveiled last October when it urged Pakistan to exercise restraint in dealing with sectarian violence in Gilgit, part of the original undivided state of J&K. This was the first time in decades that India was commenting on the situation in the Pakistan occupied areas of J&K. India had turned its back on the Northern Areas even while claiming them to be part of the Indian territory.

Pakistan certainly protested; but it does not officially consider J&K to be part of either India or Pakistan. Having declared those parts of Kashmir under its control as “Azad” or “free”, and claimed a right to support the militancy on the Indian side of Kashmir, it could not dismiss India’s comments as interference in its “internal” affairs. That would under-cut the foundation of all of Pakistan’s arguments on Kashmir. But Baluchistan is different. There is no dispute between the two on the nature of Pakistani sovereignty over it.

It is not often that India voices concern over the internal struggles for reform and political change in Pakistan. The last time India made any noise on the “internal affairs” of Pakistan was in 1983, when Indira Gandhi expressed, rather mildly, support to the then raging movement against martial law.

All democratic movements in our neighbourhood have looked to support from a republican India with claims to regional primacy and great power status. India has never found it easy to balance its espousal of the values of federalism, democracy and secularism in the neighbourhood and the imperatives of realpolitik in engaging the regimes in power.

In reviving its focus on Baluchistan, India was also partly compensating for its guilt in letting them down in the past. At precisely the moment that Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto launched an extended military repression in the early 1970s, India looked the other way. Believing that it had won perpetual peace with Pakistan under the 1972 Shimla Agreement, India muted its voice. In raising it voice again Tuesday, India was signaling that it had not lost all empathy with the Baluch.

While Baluchistan has largely fallen off Indian consciousness in recent decades, it remains emblematic of the unfinished business of modern state-building in South Asia after the British left in 1947. From Baluchistan in the southwest to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in the northwest, from Kashmir to the North East Frontier Agency and undivided Assam in the east, the British Empire’s exercise of sovereignty and governance was minimalist in its approach.

India and Pakistan have had difficulty bringing them into the national mainstream. India has addressed the challenge within a democratic, federal framework with some success.

Pakistan, without a credible political structure, had to depend on manipulating old tribal and feudal hierarchies, use of force, or Islamic fundamentalism to counter aspirations for autonomy and development.

In what is now called Baluchistan, trouble started immediately after Partition when one of the principal rulers of the area, the Khan of Kalat, refused to join Pakistan. The forced integration of Kalat into Pakistan 1948 led to the first rebellion in the region for autonomy; since then sections of the Baluch have seen the Pakistan army as an occupation force.

After the failed uprising of the 1970s, the Baluch are at it again. The Pakistan army’s current marginalisation of traditional political parties and its encouragement to religious forces has shrunk the space for both moderates and modernists in Baluchistan. The main tribes also appear more united than in the 1970s.

The renewed Baluch quest for autonomy takes place amidst the region’s growing geopolitical importance. Whether Pakistan wants to bring natural gas to India from Iran or provide China access to the Arabian Sea at Gwadar port, the Baluch hold the key.

As a region bordering Afghanistan, Baluchistan has also become a haven for the remnants of the Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The Baluch spread into Iran adds to the significance of the region’s location.

From combating terrorism to promoting regional prosperity through integration, the fate of the Subcontinent and its environs depends upon satisfying the aspirations of people in outlying regions like Baluchistan, J&K and the North East.

The key lies in providing greater autonomy within the present territorial framework while altering the nature of the borders. As the unfinished business of nation-building engages both India and Pakistan, they need peace between themselves.

And that peace, in turn, depends upon Pakistan shedding its obsession with severing Kashmir from India and focusing on pragmatic steps that would at once facilitate political reconciliation with India and bring peace, prosperity and self-governance to its own troubled regions.


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