September 3, 2006Foreign Affairs

Balochistan is far from Bangladesh

Concerns over another break-up of Pakistan are overblown

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

Both Pakistani and foreign commentators have started drawing parallels between the Musharraf regime’s killing of Nawab Bugti and the Yahya Khan regime’s genocide in East Bengal in 1971. The latter led to the breakup of Pakistan and the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent nation. Bugti’s killing, it is being argued, may now cause Balochistan to go the same way. On the face of it, the analogy sounds plausible. But look below the surface and there are several important differences that challenge this argument.

First, geography. East Bengal was surrounded on three sides by India, and Pakistan had to either fly its aircraft over the breadth of Indian airspace or take a long sea-route around peninsular India to supply its eastern wing. Getting supplies and troops in and out of East Bengal was not only expensive, but also a logistical and security nightmare. Balochistan, in contrast, shares a long land border with three of Pakistan’s provinces. Furthermore, the terrain allows for the rapid deployment of armed forces—including armour, heavy artillery and land troops to capture and hold territory. Air power can easily be deployed as the Pakistan air force has total control over the skies. Pakistan’s navy can patrol the Baloch coastline to prevent the traffic of arms and troops. And obviously, Gen Musharraf has already done all of this.

Second, demography. In the 1970s, the population of East Bengal was about 75 million, with a density of about 500 persons per square km. Balochistan has a population of about 7 million today, at a density of slightly over 20 persons per square km. As Maverick points out, the smallness and the sparseness of Balochistan’s population weigh against a sustained insurgency. Insurgents operating in unpopulated mountains can’t tilt the scales against the might of the Pakistani armed forces. Attacks on infrastructure and communication links may disrupt normalcy, but are unlikely to succeed in expelling Pakistani troops and officials from the province. So too the insurgency in towns and cities.

Third, resistance politics. East Bengal had a long history of democratic politics dating back to the early twentieth century. Its political values were modern, liberal and democratic, even more so than those of its western wing. This enabled the rise of a popular political leader like Shiekh Mujibur Rehman and the Awami League party, and enabled him to rally the province towards independence. Balochistan, on the other hand, did not even receive the same constitutional treatment as Punjab and Sindh until the mid-1970s. Its political values are based on tribal patterns of clan solidarity, courage and honour. The roots of the current rebellion can be traced back to Musharraf’s local government reforms, which damaged the interests of the Baloch sardars. Far from allowing the emergence of a united nationalist political bandwagon, Balochistan’s polity is rife for a policy of divide-and-rule—Musharraf can pay off, play off and bump off the Baloch leadership much like its predecessors have done.

Fourth, culture. This point is difficult to quantify and difficult to argue, but the political strength of the Bangla language and culture was a very strong force behind the emergence of Bangladesh. The Bengali identity trumped the Islamic one around which the founders of Pakistan (and their successors in West Pakistan) wanted to build their nation. Furthermore, the cultural differences were significant enough for leaders in the West to look down on the population in the easter wing. This is not to argue that the Baloch people lack a distinct culture or that they are not looked down upon by the Pakistani establishment. Rather, it is that culture as a political factor is not strong enough to sustain secessionary momentum.

Fifth, the foreign hand. Like in 1971, the United States remains a silent spectator to the actions of its ally in Islamabad. The Nixon White House was indebted to Gen Yahya Khan for opening the door to China, never mind the genocide he was carrying out in East Bengal. Similarly, the Bush White House has scarcely uttered a word against Musharraf’s brutal military campaign to pacify’ Balochistan. Yahya Khan counted on and received American military assistance—the crowning glory of which was Washington’s dispatch of an aircraft carrier to the Bay of Bengal to coerce India. Musharraf, of course, has been the recepient of fighter aircraft, helicopter gunships and electronic surveillance equipment as part of his FATWAT wages. The similarity ends there.

Unlike the Bangladeshis, the Baloch insurgents do not have sufficient military support that can swing the balance. India has been accused of fishing in troubled waters’ in Balochistan. While that may even be true, such fishing is radically different from providing a base for resistance forces and in the event, sending its Eastern army in. Indira Gandhi’s decision to intervene militarily—and face off American coercion—has been popularly attributed to two causes: dealing a body blow to Pakistan and supporting the Bangladeshi national cause. While these certainly would have motivated her decision, the Indian state usually resists precipitate action until it faces a direct threat. In 1971, this was that of millions of refugees fleeing the conflict in Bangladesh from destablising India’s then fragile economy.

In contrast, few Baloch boat people have landed on Indian shores so far. Therefore India’s fishing’ in Balochistan, if true, is likely to be limited to putting Pakistan on the mat vis-a-vis its support for terrorism in Jammu & Kashmir and elsewhere. Ditto Afghanistan, which resents Pakistan’s support for the Taliban. Iran is unlikely to support the Baloch resistance for fear that this may strengthen secessionism among its own Baloch minority.

Musharraf’s ham-fisted approach towards Balochistan will certainly breed more violence. However, this is only likely to cause one of Pakistan’s several festering wounds to bleed for some time. Balochistan, though, is far away from becoming another Bangladesh. It will require unprecedented unity, resolve and resources for the Baloch people to break away from Pakistan—even if they actually desire to do so. In the meantime, concerns over a possible break-up of the country mainly strengthen the Pakistani army and its hold over power.



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