A hostile arid terrain with rugged mountains characterizes the geography of the region of Baluchistan. The region is sparsely populated and spread over three countries sharing border with each other. The land of the Baloch is divided among the countries of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Spread in almost equal proportion between Pakistan and Iran, are known as provinces of Baluchistan and Sistan-Baluchistan respectively. Within Afghanistan, a small portion of the Kandahar, Helmand and Nimruz provinces are also part of Baluchistan.
Amongst these, Pakistan holds the majority of the Baloch population. This spread weakens the strength of those struggling to protect their rights, their nationality and the unique Baloch culture from oppression by Pakistan. Baluchistan is inhabited by tribal and nomadic people who are the most deprived, oppressed and cheated communities living in this region. They have been on the wrong side of history and the circumstances. To understand the magnitude of this human catastrophe, one needs to fathom the fact that out of a population of 18 million, it is estimated that six million are forcibly missing people in Pakistan. Likewise, these people have suffered prosecution and oppression in Iran and Afghanistan, but unlike what they suffer in Pakistan.
In the cities of Islamabad, Karachi and Quetta in Pakistan, scenes of people protesting with placards and photos against forced disappearances, are common. These men, women and children are the next of kin of the victims of forced disappearances. Chiefly, these victims are social activists, journalists, students and writers. Even the elderly, women and children have not been shown mercy. Tens of thousands of Baloch people have been abducted since the year 2000. The state and its security agencies have responded to the separatist movement with a ‘kill-and-dump’ policy and are forcibly making students, lawyers, doctors, political activists and their sympathizers disappear, according to prominent activist, Sammi Deen Baloch.
Since the year 2000, the Pakistani Army and the powerful ISI have been following this policy of ‘kill-and-dump’ in Baluchistan. Through this policy, they intend to suppress dissent and popular opinion. However, the voice for justice is simply getting louder by the day. The extra judicial agencies are failing and they are becoming the sole reason for the overall declining security situation in this region. As per the human rights activists, there may hardly be any house left from where someone has not disappeared in Baluchistan in the past twenty years.
The organisation, Voice for Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP), claims that more than 53,000 Baloch people have been abducted so far since the beginning of the crackdown and this list is only increasing. This claim, however, is refuted by the Pakistani government, but interestingly, not altogether denied. The issue of forced disappearance is considered extremely sensitive by the Pakistani establishment. No media dare cover these issues without risking serious consequences. This sensitivity is not without reason. Ever since its creation, Baluchistan has never considered itself to be a part of Pakistan and it seeks independence from Pakistan. In fact, Baluchistan had revolted against the Pakistani state and the insurrection continues since its annexation in 1948. Convinced of having been historically wronged, the Balochis view their fight as one against repression and for self-determination.
The fragile security dynamics of Pakistan e has forced the authoritarian state on a path of ultra-nationalism. This has led to marginalisation of all other ethnic groups, now struggling to preserve their identity. The most adversely affected are the Balochis. The sense of insecurity of the state drives the Pakistani army and the establishment to conduct in a draconian manner. They see many of the Baloch nationalist groups as terrorists, and hence, they have crushed any opposition or demand that calls for reform and justice. The resultant deteriorating human rights scenario has further cemented Balochi opposition against Pakistan. Across the border in Iran, the Balochis face a similar fate, with extreme deprivation and marginalisation by the Iranian theocracy. While undoubtedly possessing unique identities and aspirations, repression and ignorance on both sides of the border have resulted in a common desire for liberation.
The leaders of the organisations seeking independence and the mainstream Balochi politicians historically consider Baluchistan or more specifically, the Khanate of Kalat as separate. As per them, it was never a part of British India and, thus, should not have been treated as a part of Pakistan. For them, treating Baluchistan as a state of the erstwhile empire is a violation of the treaty and agreements between the Kalat state and the British Raj. The aforementioned treaty is that of 1876 between the Viceroy and Governor General, Lord Lytton, and the Khan of Kalat, Mir Khudadad Khab. The treaty states that the British government would respect the independence of Kalat as long as it acted in “subordinate coordination.” In accordance with this, the Balochis observed that the Kalat state had had a different direct relationship with the British government, and that they were separate from the British Raj in India. Nonetheless, during the process of Indian independence, before the Partition was decided upon, even Indian leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru held that Baluchistan was an integral part of undivided India.
In this context, the independence of Pakistan in 1947 brought increased pressure on the Khan of Kalat to accede to the merger with the state of Pakistan. However, the lower house of the Baluchistan parliament unanimously passed a resolution declaring that relations with Pakistan should be established as between two sovereign states and not by accession. Thus, it was not a mere coincidence that Khan of Kalat declared independence for Baluchistan the very same day when Pakistan declared her independence on August 14, 1947.
Pakistan, undeterred of this unified Balochi dissent against accession to the Pakistani state, dismissed the latter’s independence outrightly. Largely motivated by the fear of Indian influence in a strategically critical region, Pakistan sought to carry out the accession forcefully. Till date, they continue to be nervous about any such imagined possibility. The paranoia of Indian support to the Baloch independence also fuels enhanced human right violations by Pakistan in its efforts to consolidate this region played by inter-tribal rivalries between Kalat and the surrounding areas. Paksitan has also succeeded in motivating many of Kalat’s feudatories to join it. This, along with the mounting pressure of a possible military offensive against Kalat, served as the final straw. The fear of isolation led the Khan to eventually sign the Instrument of Accession in March 1948, less than a year following Baluchistan’s declaration of independence. This forceful accession brought an end to the brief period of national sovereignty for the Balochis, and immediately engulfed Baluchistan in anti-Pakistan protests. This marked the beginning of a struggle that has endured for decades.
In the latter half of the twentieth century, Pakistan’s proclivity for ignoring the basic human rights concerns increased, they continued trampling upon the rights and identities of the minor ethnic groups fueling rebellion and restiveness throughout, spreading over from Baluchistan to Sindh to Bengal. Eventually, this led to unrest, and the dismemberment of Pakistan which gave birth to Bangladesh in 1971. Mass scale human rights abuse by Pakistan army in East Pakistan was a common template applied all across in these three distinct areas. The geography and the state dynamics were contrastingly too different for this template to succeed in the East but somehow it has so far managed to work in Pakistan’s favour in Baluchistan.
So shocked and scared was the Pakistani establishment after the massive defeat in the 1971 war that Islamabad quashed the limited autonomy provided to the Baloch in the 1970s. The 1970 election that brought to power the prominent National Awami League, a coalition of Baloch parties, which began to make significant structural changes in the promotion of the Baloch people, was ousted by the government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in Islamabad after the 1971 defeat. This act of belligerence on the part of Islamabad sparked a renewed rebellion in Baluchistan, which resulted in the loss of 3,000 Pakistani soldiers and about 5,000 Baloch guerrilla fighters, a conflict that lasted nearly four years.
Though the Pakistani army and establishment were able to suppress the freedom movement in the 1970s, they failed to win over the Baloch. The simmering dissent erupted once again and led to an uprising against the quasi-military government of Pervez Musharraf in the early 2000s. For decades, Pakistan has suppressed and used violence of extreme levels upon the Baloch people, infuriating them further. Though they have managed to reduce their capacity to protest in the classical sense, but on part of the Baloch people, they have also evolved their methods and tactics to deal with the Pakistani aggression reasonably. Out of fear of losing its grip over this region, the government in Islamabad has sought to consolidate power and maintain complete control of the region through Pakistan’s security forces. However, this has resulted in a deplorable human rights situation in Baluchistan.
Having failed to learn right lessons from the loss of East Pakistan, they have continued to peruse similar military approach. The heavy-handed policy of using force adopted by the Pakistani state towards any dissent in the region has crossed all the limits. This use of force has often been disproportionate to the threat. Using the military to quell any Baloch uprising into submission has become a norm, and any attempt at protest is crushed with a heavy hand. The main reason for the lack of success of the Baloch freedom fighters to launch an all-out offensive against the Pakistani army has been their shortage in numbers. Undoubtedly empowered by a strong feeling of commitment to the Baloch nationalist cause, the fact is that the Baloch comprise less than five percent of the total population of Pakistan. This has resulted in numbers heavily skewed in Pakistan’s favour. And this hinders any tactical or strategic progress on the ground for the Baloch freedom fighters. The best case and example is the triumph of Taliban over the US-supported forces last year, where the justness of the cause and the numbers favoured the Taliban. Though the province of Baluchistan accounts for nearly 44 percent of the Pakistani state, its population is equal to only 12.3 million as compared to approximately 200 million in the rest of Pakistan.
Such a contrast in the numbers means that none of the uprisings against the state will be able to sustain by itself. Additionally, not only is the overall region of Baluchistan sparsely populated but the fact that the Baloch in Pakistan occupied areas only account for 60 percent of the total Baluchistan population. The rest of the population consists of Pashtuns, Sindhis and Punjabis. A demographic aggression planned over years since 1948 helped consolidate Pakistani control. In countering such contrasting difficulties, the Baloch have adopted tactics of guerrilla warfare drawn out of the Taliban’s blue book. The tactics of suicide attacks employed by them in lowering the US-led coalition’s morale led to their humiliating withdrawal.
The Majid Brigade is the most feared name in this region. They have proven their ability to carry out punitive strikes in the recent past. The Pakistan army has yet to field a counter strategy to this new form of offensive effectively. However, in dealing with various insurgent groups, the Pakistani government could have sought methods of mediation or resolution but instead once again delegated the task to the military. It appears that Pakistan has lost this opportunity to negotiate across the table as the struggle enters a new phase. To this end, activists and politicians like Naela Qadri Baloch, who fled Pakistan in 2016, have accused the Pakistani government of committing genocide in the region. Even though such accusations are plentiful, the international community has largely ignored the Baloch cause. Currently certain activities occurring in Baluchistan lend support to such accusations.
There is a two-pronged strategy of repression adopted by the Pakistani state – demographic aggression and simultaneously, an all-out bludgeoning of the Baloch. The military has thus been accused of destroying and de-populating Baloch as well as being responsible for a multitude of forced disappearances in urban and rural Baluchistan. Any person suspected or found to be a supporter or a sympathizer of the Baloch freedom movement is considered a threat, hence kidnapped, tortured, or killed. This has not only affected the common people but also high-ranking officials of Baloch ethnicity.
The manner in which the Pakistan army orchestrated the 2006 assassination of Akbar Bugti is a glaring case study. How they bribed and coerced the tribal leaders and engineered Bugti’s isolation followed by his killing. If it could happen with him, then who is safe? Only months before Akbar Bugti’s assassination by General Musharraf’s troops, in 2005, he had said, “…there are two or three tribal chiefs and feudal lords behind what is going on in Baluchistan. The past governments have made deals with them and indulged them. My government is determined to establish its writ. It will be a fight to the finish”. Here Musharaff was referring to the Marri, Mengal and Bugti tribes and specifically Akbar Bugti who was the most powerful of all. Musharraf’s comment had come after months of failed attempts of the armed forces to capture Bugti in his town of Dera Bugti.
The Pakistani army had bombed Dera Bugti which resulted in indiscriminate killing, and the displacement of approximately 160,000 people in the region, a figure quoted by independent agencies. This siege forced Bugti and his supporters to shift bases to the Bhamboor hills where he was finally killed by the Pakistan army. The Pakistani English daily, the Dawn reported that the operation to capture Bugti went on for three days before it achieved its goal. Bugti’s death united all factions of the Balochi people in Pakistan. Baluchistan erupted in spontaneous protests throughout; local politicians, lawyers, doctors, journalists, university students to separatist leaders, all united against the Pakistani regime.
All opposition leaders cutting across party lines throughout Pakistan condemned the killing. Bugti was not simply a separatist leader heading an anti-regime movement; he had once been at the heart of mainstream politics, having served as Governor and Chief Minister of Baluchistan. He was secular and had been known for his anti-Taliban views. However, since his death, the number of cases of disappearing Baloch being attributed to either Pakistan’s security forces or Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) has been steadily on the rise. Many political activists, members of the Baloch Students Organisation, and journalists have been abducted in broad daylight by Pakistani secret service agents and security forces.
A classic case in point is that of Hamid Mir, a senior Pakistani journalist and news presenter with Geo TV. He was hosting a programme on Baluchistan in 2014, and was warned against doing so. Undeterred, he continued but ended up close to losing his life. He was shot at in a suspected assassination attempt by ISI gunmen. Luckily, Hamid Mir survived. This case highlights Islamabad’s extreme sensitivity on Baluchistan and for that reason, their all-out effort to censor media coverage of tensions in Baluchistan. A year later, a famous human rights activist, Sabeen Mahmud, was killed by gunmen in Karachi for hosting an event called ‘Take 2 of Unsilenced Baluchistan’. Not only have the ISI carried out assassinations within Pakistan, they have done so in foreign lands as well.
In 2015, Karima Baloch, a renowned human rights activist, went into exile following terrorism charges filed against her by the state. A year later, in 2016, she was granted asylum in Canada where she lived until her disappearance and death in December 2020. The ISI’s hand was suspected in her murder. Sabeen and Karima are just two cases in a list of thousands of Baloch and other activists fighting for their rights killed by the Pakistani state. This has continued to such an extent, that with hundreds of bodies being uncovered every year, Baluchistan is now being viewed as Pakistan’s land of mass graves.