Balochistan: Pakistan’s boon or bane?
Balochistan is Pakistan’s largest province in terms of area but demographically, it is its smallest. With a long and scenic coast close to the Arabian Gulf, the strategically located area is rich in metal ores.
Divided between Pakistan and Iran through a porous and problematic border, Balochistan has seen a number of insurgencies flare up over the years, and has been restive on the Iranian side as well, for different reasons.
To understand Balochistan properly, it is essential to understand its peculiar tribal hierarchy and socio-political conditions. In this hierarchy are the five nawabs, traditionally the governors or noblemen of Balochistan’s powerful tribes. The Pashtuns, who constitute half of Balochistan's population, have only one nawab and the power dynamics between the Baloch and Pashtun bring another layer of complexity to the politics of the area. In a lower tier of socio-political rankings come the sardars or the chiefs of tribes and sub tribes. And at the base of the power pyramid come the vaderas or local notables. To attempt to transplant parliamentary democracy in this environment is a challenging task, particularly when the literacy rate is low.
Additionally, Balochistan’s geographical location at the confluence of west, Central and South Asia has added much importance to this otherwise rugged area, with porous borders with Iran and Afghanistan, and easement rights enjoyed by the divided tribes.
Once a forgotten hinterland out in the wilderness, Balochistan is now emerging as an important province in Pakistan with national and international links. The Makran coastal highway has opened vast business links with the southern metropolis of Karachi, and the $60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) will further enhance Balochistan’s importance for China’s energy supplies.
In the political competition for influence, it remains to be seen if Balochistan will set the stage for rival regional powers.
The deep-sea port of Gwadar in Balochistan is the linchpin of the CPEC, and a project slated to generate numerous employment opportunities, the bulk of which should go to the Baloch people. They should develop a sense of owning the project and it is a great opportunity for Pakistan to further integrate this province into the national matrix.
While China manages the deep seaport of Gwadar, India has invested heavily in the nearby port of Chahbahar, on the Iranian side. In the political competition for influence, it remains to be seen if Balochistan will set the stage for rival regional powers.
Iran has tried to mainstream its ethnic minorities, including the Baloch through more compulsive than voluntary or inclusive means. The Iranian constitution prescribes a particular sect of Islam as its official religion whereas the Iranian Baloch follow a different sect. Article 15 of Iran’s constitution prescribes Persian as the only official language though the use of local and ethnic languages in the press and mass media is technically allowed. According to Azim Shahbakhsh of the University of London however, this concession “has remained a written act and not an executed article.” Diplomats with significant Iranian exposure have said that even at the most junior levels, officials in Iranian Balochistan are appointed by Tehran.
On the political side, Pakistani Balochistan has a greater say in national matters than ever before, with seats in the upper house of the Parliament shared equally by all provinces, including Balochistan. The incumbent Chairman of Senate, the second highest constitutional post in the country, also belongs to Balochistan. The issue of provincial autonomy was largely settled in 2010 through the 18th constitutional amendment, and the national finance award, announced with the amendment, gave Balochistan an adequate share from the national kitty.
There is no denying the fact that Balochistan has a secessionist movement of sorts but one that has not succeeded. In fact, one prominent Baloch nationalist leader, known personally to me, is of the opinion that demanding Baloch rights within the federation of Pakistan would be a far better option than an independent Balochistan. In any case, the Baloch insurgency, if one may even call it so, is confined to certain pockets, and the Pashtun areas remain largely unaffected.
Balochistan was once called Pakistan’s Achilles heel, but it could now become an asset for the country. In the future, by all reasonable calculations, Balochistan will be a prosperous Pakistani province, better integrated not only with the country, but with the entire region.
– Javed Hafeez is a former Pakistani diplomat with much experience of the Middle East. He writes weekly columns in Pakistani and Gulf newspapers and appears regularly on satellite TV channels as a defense and political analyst.