By Muhammad Akbar Notezai
After two widely acclaimed books on Pakistan, Tilak Devasher’s third book, Pakistan: The Balochistan Conundrum, is a well researched read on the country’s largest province; a region where murky things tend to happen for all the wrong reasons, most unpredictably and with dire consequences. Perhaps this is why some consider Balochistan the embodiment of a ‘black swan’.
Devasher extensively explores and dissects the Baloch question from a Baloch nationalist lens. He writes what Baloch nationalists have been parroting, as a whole, about Balochistan’s civilisation, land and history before and after Partition, and other issues confronting it. But the former civil servant of India educates readers as to what the province has witnessed and undergone over many decades beautifully and masterfully, far better than the books written on the subject by our own academics and writers.
It is interesting to note that several books on Balochistan have been published in recent years. These books, including Devasher’s, provide a window into the overlooked province from day one and all seem to indicate one commonality: that Balochistan’s political question has not been addressed politically from the very outset. This leads Devasher to point out in the introduction that “Within Balochistan, an average Baloch is twice as poor as an average Punjabi, Pashtun or Hazara resident of the province.”
Pakistan houses a multiplicity of ethnicities, each having their respective civilisations and histories going back centuries. These nations have been living in their own lands and should, therefore, have been given provincial autonomy and rights in order to strengthen the federation of Pakistan.
Instead, as our 72-year old history tells us, these smaller nationalities, including the Baloch, have been disempowered from governing themselves, alienating them further. “23rd March 1940 Lahore Resolution had originally talked of ‘constituent units’ that would be ‘autonomous and sovereign’,” notes Devasher. “[The] Baloch, together with the Sindhis and Pashtuns, were not allowed autonomy or delegated the powers to govern themselves — a promise Jinnah had made in the run up to the creation of Pakistan.”
In 1970, more than two decades after the creation of Pakistan, Balochistan was given the status of a province by virtue of Baloch nationalist leaders who had been struggling hard for the provincial rights of the Baloch within the federation of Pakistan. To pursue it, Baloch nationalists contested elections from the platform of the then National Awami Party (NAP) and formed their own democratically elected provincial government in 1972. However, within nine months, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto dismissed the NAP government in Balochistan.
Things began to take an uglier turn between 1973 and 1977. Then, Gen Ziaul Haq overthrew Bhutto’s government in a military coup, which brought to an end to Balochistan’s third insurgency. In his discussion of the period between 1977 and 1988, Devasher writes about Zia that he would have “ideally
to break up the existing provinces and replace them with 53 smaller provinces, erasing ethnic identities from the map of Pakistan altogether.”
Balochistan has long been a centre of attraction because of its geo-strategic location. International powers have always viewed Balochistan through the prism of the Afghan war. This is why Balochistan has been used as a conduit for foreign aggression. Similarly, the first Anglo-Afghan war (1839-42) provided an overt opportunity to Britain, at the time, to take control over Balochistan by invading it in 1839. Reading Devasher’s book, one can sum up that, since then, British policies continue to remain firmly entrenched in the region.
The same period of British rule gave birth to Baloch nationalism. According to Devasher, if a date were to be given to the emergence of the Baloch nationalist movement, it would be 1929 when the Anjuman-i-Ittehad-i-Balochistan, a clandestine organisation for the unity of the Baloch, was set up in Mastung. The organisation was spearheaded by Mir Yousaf Aziz Magsi and Mir Abdul Aziz Kurd. “The Anjuman marked the beginning of a secular, non-tribal, nationalist movement as opposed to the tribal movements of the past,” notes Devasher.
Post-Partition, the bureaucracy mainly controlled the levers of power during the first decade since 1947. Following the imposition of martial law in 1958 by then president Iskandar Mirza, power was transferred to the military rulers. “The general feeling was that President Iskandar Mirza had encouraged the Khan of Kalat to assert his autonomy in order to find a pretext to impose martial law,” writes Devasher.
Every time I read and write about the economic backwardness of Balochistan, I am reminded of the late veteran journalist Siddiq Baloch, who once said, “Balochistan is almost half of Pakistan, and if you do not develop it economically, then you are not developing the half of Pakistan.” Over the decades, Balochistan has remained economically backward, as if time had long stopped here. Neither do the Baloch have much representation in the politics, development, bureaucracy and the armed forces of Pakistan. Devasher discusses this in detail, among other socio-economic issues confronting the region. As for the present times, he argues that when someone asks the federal government about how they plan to improve economic conditions in Balochistan, the standard reply is “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).”
Balochistan is lagging behind in all realms in the country, whether it be in education, health, or other social and economic indicators. This is not by chance. Devasher provides data to support his argument that there is a dearth of “stakeholders” in the province who would desire to see the province progress. Unfortunately, any stakeholders that do exist choose to pocket for themselves whatever benefits are extended for the province.
Since 2008, when democracy was restored in the country, various political parties — from the PPP to the PML-N and now the PTI — have gained and lost power, but Balochistan’s political issues have not been handled politically. The situation on the ground remains the same as before, despite the fact that — as Devasher rightly states — “the Baloch population is now politicised to an unprecedented degree.”
At the conclusion of his book, Devasher raises some valid and pertinent points. From linking “the future development of Pakistan to the Balochistan conundrum”, he goes on to argue that “for Pakistan, Balochistan is a test case of its resolve not only to hold Pakistan together, but also to weld the various nationalities into a larger whole.”