Balochistan's troubled tryst with the 21st century.

About 60 years ago, Pakistan emerged as an independent state in the midst of much greater challenges to its formation than India, the other successor state to the British Indian empire. Two of its strategically sensitive trans-Indus provinces, North Western Frontier Province (NWFP) and Balochistan, which as yet had not attained the status of a province, were free to choose between Pakistan and India in British-sponsored referendums. An adverse verdict in either territory would almost certainly have led to the collapse of the new nation state. It was truly an existential moment.

Pakistan was also confronted with problems that invariably accompany the demise of great empires. As imperial treaties lapsed, Afghanistan intensified its revanchist claims. Balochistan comprised British territory directly administered by an Agent to the Governor General of India and treaty states belonging to the system of more than 560 princely states that dotted the political landscape of the British Indian Empire.

In one case, that of the state of Kalat, the ruler dreamt of independence and reclamation of territories ceded to the British under various treaties particularly the one concluded in 1876. The Khan of Kalat temporised till April 1948 by which time all other states of Balochistan had already acceded to Pakistan.

Pakistan was successful in negotiating its hazardous journey to a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual federal state in its formative years but its federal balance is still stressed. The fault line is nowhere more visible than in Balochistan. Recent events, particularly the violent death of Nawab Akbar Bugti, the chief of Bugtis, in a confrontation with the armed forces of Pakistan has turned the global spotlight on this province. The event has also sent a shock wave through the length and breadth of the entire country, raising fundamental issues about the national constitution and governance.

Sub-national movements are a natural phenomenon in a federation where sharing of economic resources and political power is perennially contested. The question in Balochistan is if Baloch nationalism transcends this intra-state dialectic or is just a particularly robust protest against perceived discrimination, neglect and injustice by an insensitive central authority.

This is a question of paramount importance as Pakistan is inconceivable without Balochistan which occupies nearly 43 per cent of the country's landmass even if its estimated population of 7.5 million is a small fraction of the national figure. The sprawling province borders on Iran and Afghanistan and has a coastline of 750 km that connects South Asia to the Gulf.

Much of its terrain is inhospitable but contains great mineral wealth. In the 19th century, the British strategists disclaimed any "territorial appetite" for its arid mountains but considered it indispensable to their grand design to stop Czarist marches into Central Asia far away from the gates of India on the other side of the Amu Darya.

Balochistan has greater diversity of people than its name suggests. The Pushtuns that cluster around the Takht Suleiman mountain range probably outnumber the Baloch and carry an equally magnificent tribal profile.

The third major group comprises the Brauhis whose ethnicity and language generate much scholarly dissent. Human settlements in Balochistan predate Indus Valley's Mohanjodaro by almost two millennia and are of the same antiquity as Mesopotamia.

History, legend and myth

The saga of how these proud people came to inhabit this rugged land is a blend of history, legend and myth. The Baloch, a relatively late addition to the spectacular mosaic of people, often cling to an oral history that traces their origin to Aleppo.

Most researchers question the Semitic claims of the Baloch and place them with the peoples of the Iranian plateau, mostly on the basis of linguistic affinity. Either way, the Baloch celebrate their boundless courage, spirit of independence and an obligatory code of honour with a touch of exceptionalism.

The Baloch history is, however, not of isolation. The Makran coast linked it to the Arab world well before Mohammad Bin Qasim led a victorious army to Sind. The land routes to Afghanistan and Iran shaped commerce, culture, and political power. Darius I and more recently, Ahmad Shah Abdali were recognised as sovereigns. Occasionally, the Baloch struck out into Punjab and Sind. Indeed, the legendary Baloch hero, Mir Chakkar, lived his last days in Punjab.

In the inexorable flux of time, the Baloch clung to their values and social organisation while assimilating outside influences. The Baloch interaction with central authority in Pakistan has had its tragic moments. It is once again under a sharp focus now that the state has arrived with an unprecedented commitment of financial and other resources to take Balochistan into the 21st century.

An important feature of the post-independence situation was the disparity in political mobilisation in the two border provinces of Pakistan. The frontier province (NWFP) had undergone the baptism of fire as well as peaceful resistance to the imperial power.

Unlike it, Balochistan expressed itself largely through the system of Sardars that the British had underwritten to gain allies in safeguarding the imperial strategic interests while evading a deeper engagement with the fiercely independent people.

In 1947, the idea of Pakistan had arrived through urban Muslim activists, students and Sardars with an all–India orientation. The actual accession to Pakistan was voted by the Shahi jirga, a conclave of Sardars. Bugti supported this accession.

It took Pakistan a long time to give Balochistan the status of a full province. The Sardars of the larger tribes — the Murri, Bugti and Mengal — participated in the new politics with the intention of strengthening provincial autonomy and their own traditional status. Protracted periods of military rule, however, stunted political evolution. Intermittent spells of parliamentary governments revived democratic institutions but failed to broaden the province's political base. The main three Sardars continued to be blamed by the central government for resisting modernisation.

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto wrote his landmark 1973 constitution with acceptance from or acquiescence in its text by nearly all the Sardars. But his Peoples' Party and the National Awami Party, which had emerged as a major vehicle of Pushtun and Baloch politics, had widely different interpretations of provincial autonomy.

Bhutto opted for transformational politics and attempted a "revolutionary" abolition of the Sardari system. The Baloch tribes that he wanted to emancipate stood by their Sardars and Balochistan plunged into an insurgency that must be counted as one of the major causes of the anti-Bhutto military coup in July 1977.

Bhutto's transient success in dividing the Sardars became an argument for a more populist base for resistance. General Zia ul Haq tried to weaken secular radical forces by backing Islamist parties. Repeated recourse to the use of force took radicalisation to at least a part of the Baloch youth.

A son of the soil

The rise of Benazir Bhutto as prime minister and Sardar Farooq Ahmad Khan Leghari, a son of the soil, as the president of Pakistan could have reversed this trend but for a variety of reasons, this hope was not fulfilled.

The situation that General Pervez Musharraf inherited in 1999 was complex and daunting. An abiding distrust of civilian opinion saddled the armed forces with an almost exclusive responsibility to craft a new proactive policy towards Balochistan. Momentous events had re-shaped the geo-political environment over three decades and invested this province with enhanced salience.

Pakistan needed to recover from years of low GDP growth; this process was simply not sustainable without "opening up" Balochistan. Rapid improvement of its infrastructure and execution of capacity-building projects that had languished on the drawing boards of planners for decades became the twin pillars of Pakistan military's new Balochistan initiative. Its effort to create a supportive political superstructure still lacked innovative approaches to the psychological and emotive aspects of sub-regional nationalism. Its main hope has been that fast economic development would round off the sharp edges of dissent.

British explorers and conquerors have left hauntingly romantic descriptions of Balochistan: the sea that will, of a sudden, spread around in a sheet of milky white when the stars are all ablaze overhead, the barren and forbidding mountain ranges in their majesty, a sea of red sand, the particles of which were so light that, when taken in hand, they were scarcely more than palpable.

The Pakistani state has to go beyond these evocative images and turn the natural resources of this land into factors of modern production. It has drawn upon the unfinished work of past political governments and put together a set of plans. By aligning himself closely with the United States in the war against terrorism, Musharraf has considerably eased Pakistan's economic crisis marked by low investment in development projects, a crippling debt burden and growing macroeconomic instability and thus freed resources for his mega projects for Balochistan.

At the apex stand the new port of Gwadar and the network of roads that connect it to the rest of the country, especially the 650km coastal road to Karachi. Built with Chinese assistance amounting to $200 million, Gwadar is conceived as the economic hub of greatly enhanced economic interaction with Central Asia, Afghanistan, East Africa, the Gulf states, Iran and in the fullness of time, India. As a free port, it will emulate Jebel Ali in Dubai. China has a vital interest in Gwadar; its east coast ports are 3,500km away from a western city like city like Kashgar which, overland, is a mere 1,500km from Gwadar.

For economic and strategic reasons alike, China is willing to help Pakistan widen the spectacular Karakorum highway. This interest mirrors Chinese investment in Central Asia where it is already competing with the United States and Russia as a principal actor. Pakistan's problems in Balochistan have an international dimension in which the distrust of China in some quarters is a probable factor.

Rugged land

A more intensive exploration will almost certainly reveal much greater deposits of mineral wealth in Balochistan. Apart from natural gas, its known reserves include copper, chromites, iron ore, lead and zinc, and a range of non-metallic minerals. Pakistan has ambitious plans to exploit these resources. The first Arab scouts who told Caliph Usman of the great scarcity of water in this rugged land were echoing the travails of earlier empires. Pakistan is now building a canal from the Indus which will cultivate 800,000 acres and also the Mirani Dam that would irrigate another 32,000 acres.

Many other smaller projects for water conservation are on the horizon. In the best of circumstances, opening up of autonomous tribal lands to the projects of a distant central authority is problematic.

In Balochistan, the traditional way of life is not just a memory hallowed by time, but a living reality. An encounter with modernity as defined by faraway planners causes pain and friction. Secondly, the Sardars who are revered as temporal and spiritual lords see in the development process a slow but sure erosion of the system that perpetuates their privileged position. Third, the state has not been able to carry conviction that progress is for the good of the local people. To many a Baloch, development means dispossession. He does not find much in the history of Pakistan to allay his fear that the great upsurge in the interest being taken in his land is driven by colonists and exploitative entrepreneurs. The Baloch are apprehensive of being swamped by migrants from other provinces.

For strategic planners in Islamabad, new military cantonments in the province are essential to a national defence system. The Baloch misperceives them as the sword arm of interest groups casting a covetous eye on his sanctuary. The epistemological barrier between Pakistan's ruling elite and the proud warrior tribes of Balochistan has been aggravated by the impatience of the state to use armed forces to overcome armed opposition. This confrontation has produced its own icons, its own mythology.

President Musharraf's policies have vacillated between political negotiations with alienated Sardars and reversion to the use of force. The hardcore elements exploit the credibility gap to convert tribal resistance into a national cause. It must have made Lenin turn in his grave when Sardar Khair Bux Murri used his views on the national question to conceptualise a pan-Baloch national struggle without letting Lenin's proletarian thoughts interfere with the power of the Sardars.

Pakistan's extended tribal belt is not inhabited by a primitive people trapped in a time warp in their mountain fastnesses. Straddling the crossroads of history, these people have witnessed the rise and fall of empires and have an uncanny understanding of politics.

The Pakistani state has no civilising mission; it simply seeks to integrate them into the political and economic life of the nation. Regrettably, it is still without a holistic approach to the problem. It has to find the right constitutional formula to accommodate their ancient sense of autonomy. It has to negotiate the right terms of ownership and renting of natural resources. It has to demonstrate that it is not the predatory animal that its opponents portray it to be.

Above all, the Pakistani federation has to go beyond the calculus of profit and loss and honour those deeper impulses that spring from the collective imagination and memory of a people who put greater faith in their bards that recount their journey through millennia than in the faceless bureaucrats of a modern managerial state. Half a century down the line, the Baloch can count on the support of millions of Pakistanis in finding the right answers to their troubled questions. It is a race against time but it can be won.

Balochistan basics

- Area: 347,190 square km
- Population: 7,597,000 (estimated)
- Capital: Quetta
- Area of Gwadar: 12,637 square km
- Present population of Gwadar: 215,000
- Main minerals: coal, marble, chromite, barite, limestone, shale

- Literacy: 26 per cent
- Female literacy: 15 per cent
- Number of primary schools: 9,865
- Enrollment in primary education: 449,469
- Number of High Schools: 540
- Enrollment in High School education: 228,978
- Number of colleges: 70
- Number of universities: 6
- Enrollment in degree stage: 4,815

- Main Baloch tribes: Murri, Rind, Bugti
- Main Brauhi tribes: Mengal, Mohm Hasni
- Main Pushtun tribes: Kakar, Durrani
- There are some armed groups of unverifiable strength that challenge state authority. Their links with tribal leaders are subject to speculation.

- The writer is a former foreign secretary and ambassador of Pakistan.