Salman Rafi’s book is an essential piece of work for those who are interested in understanding the history of Baloch nationalism in Pakistan. Although Rafi analyses the future contours of the movement in the last chapter, major portions of the book document the evolution of the politico-ethnic struggle in Balochistan in post-Partition Pakistan. This work forces the readers to think critically about multifarious complexities attached to the Baloch issue, the most important of which is understanding the genesis of the conflict.
Rafi meticulously deals with the subject by exploring the unexplored through multiple government and non-government sources. Detailed end notes and the ‘appendices’ section prove the author’s efficiency in carefully demonstrating the ‘grey’ side of Baloch nationalism. The timing of the book is crucial too as the Baloch secessionist movement has gained some momentum in the last couple of years since Balochistan became an important part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The influx of workers from other provinces in Pakistan—Punjab, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa—and China have raised suspicions and further increased insecurities among the local Baloch population.
There is too much at stake in Balochistan now. Huge mineral reserves, energy resources, borders with two Islamic countries—Iran and Afghanistan—and a long coastline make Balochistan a highly strategic location and a lucrative business destination for the foreign investors. As demonstrated in the book, most of these features provided the state of Pakistan reasons to forcefully annex Balochistan in 1948. In the present situation, the growing Chinese presence in the province can be seen as a possible reminder of the 1948 annexation.
The book comprises five chapters detailing three critical interventions—ideological, political and military—by the Pakistani state in Balochistan; deconstructing the whole issue theoretically in the first section, and finally analysing changing dimensions of the Baloch national movement since 1977 in the Epilogue. The author explores the historical question of Balochistan’s forceful integration into Pakistan and successfully attempts to bring out both the political and violent character of the movement during the first three decades, from 1947 to 1977, of Pakistan’s existence as a ‘nation-state’.
The central focus of the work is on the factual detailing of how the Baloch population, with a brief comparison with other minority groups, were denied the right to identify themselves as a sub-national/ethnic group in the ‘new’ Pakistan. Additionally, the book explores how the state of Pakistan orchestrated exclusion, for reasons ranging from political, ideological and economic, led to a widespread violent insurgent movement in Balochistan.
The author argues that Baloch nationalism is not an exceptional case as the dilemma of postcolonial Pakistan was (and probably still is) its ‘ethnic diversity’ and its inability and unwillingness to replicate this diversity in the structures of power. The post-Partition Pakistan confronted self-assertion of the various ethnic groups after its creation in 1947. As a matter of fact, one of them (Bengali) did succeed in achieving a separate country in 1971 (from East Pakistan to Bangladesh), questioning the ideological edifice of the state-sponsored idea of a unified Islamic community.
Furthermore, the book suggests that apart from Bengalis, Baloch, Sindhi and Pashtun were other major ethnic groups who got disenchanted with the illusions of regional autonomy, based on a common religion, when they had to confront a powerful centralized interventionist state. Their common enemy has, since Independence, possibly been the dominating Punjabi community in Pakistan.
Even after seventy years, Pakistan is facing multiple ethnic tensions. In addition to the Baloch resentment, the recent Pashtun uprising against the state-sponsored atrocities, after multiple military operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) resulting in the mass displacement of the local community members, may also take a violent turn in the future.
The persistent ethnic strife in Pakistan reflects the hollowness of the unified ‘Muslim Ummah’ and the apparent gap between the ideal and reality of the idea of Pakistan imagined by the Muslim League under the leadership of Muhammad Ali Jinnah. The author discusses this irony in the initial chapters of the book. Moreover, Rafi presents other reasons, apart from the ethno-cultural diversity as the fundamental reason for the emergence of the Baloch national movement. The book highlights the Pakistani state’s failure to accommodate the ethnic diversity in Balochistan politically, a failure, the author argues, is duly compounded by ‘ideological, political and military interventions’. These factors laid the foundation for the secessionist movement in Balochistan and are discussed at length in chapters two, three and four.
The author highlights instances of Pakistan’s increased politico-military interventionism in Balochistan in the last seventy years. The example of Asadullah Mengal’s kidnapping and killing in 1976 marked a definitive shift in the movement. Rafi relates the Mengal incident with today’s kidnappings of thousands of Baloch activists. There is a clear trajectory from the past to the present situation in terms of the violent intensity of the movement and how the Pakistani state is harshly responding to the ‘terror’ threat emanating from Balochistan.
The book is an archival study, and the primary source of this volume, as the author explains in the introduction, is archival material collected from various governmental and non-governmental sources.The author mentions a few sources such as the National Archives in Islamabad, the Balochistan Archives in Quetta and the National Documentation Centre in the Cabinet Division in Islamabad. Furthermore, the archival material used in the book includes secret reports of the Pakistan government regarding accession of different States of Balochistan; secret reports on the issue of making Balochistan a full province; the government of Pakistan’s White Paper(s), and Constituent and National Assembly’s various debates and reports.
Through these documents and assembly debates, the authors manages to provide evidence on how the issue of Balochistan was handled by the Pakistani state and how the Baloch leadership raised the ethnic cause in order to secure a better future for the people of Balochistan. However, the author points out a critical difference between the Baloch nationalists of the 1960s and 70s and today’s separatist leaders in Balochistan. While the nationalist leaders of the past were attempting to find a political solution to the issue, today’s hardline nationalists are conspicuously absent from the political arenas and have instead resorted to the mountains to wage the war of secessionism from Pakistan. The book argues that such a strategy may not lead to the secession of Balochistan as the politico-military interventions will intensify in the future.
Furthermore, citing some differences with other ethno-national movements in Pakistan such as Bengali, Sindhi, Pashtun, the author contends that in the case of Balochistan, culture, history, territory and psychological reasons were more dominant push-factors than the language. Due to an undue emphasis on Pakistaniyat (the unified essence of Pakistan), in the post-Partition period, the state of Pakistan refused to recognize diverse ethnic composition and made attempts to unify all linguistic groups in Balochistan as ‘Baloch’ or ‘Balochi’. As the author suggests, this seemed to have played a significant role in paving the way for the emergence of a composite Baloch national identity.
As Balochistan remains an often misunderstood and the least understood issue of Pakistan, there is a need to reopen and unravel the Baloch question thorugh the historical lens. However, multiple references and the lengthy appendices section may confuse the first time readers. Otherwise, the language and theoretical understanding of the issue is handled meticulously.
Sarral Sharma is Senior Researcher at the Centre for Internal and Regional Security (IReS), New Delhi.