Balochistan Conflict

Pakistan has four federal units: Balochistan, Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), Punjab and Sindh. Out of them, Balochistan is the largest, least developed and least populated unit that lies in the southwest part of the country, adjacent to Iran and Afghanistan.

However, Balochistan region is spread beyond Pakistan. Here live the Baloch people, who mainly speak Balochi language, a branch of the Iranian languages. The Baloch population worldwide is between 1 to 1.5 crore and they make 4% of Pakistan’s and 2% of Iran’s population. Because the ethnic population that identifies itself as ‘Baloch’ is spread over a large swathe of three countries (Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan), therefore sometimes it is said that Balochistan is divided between these three nations. Thus, Balochistan is both an ethnographic region and a province of Pakistan with varying geographical boundaries depending on the context. Pakistan’s Balochistan province is bordered by Afghanistan to the northwest, Iran to the southwest and Arabian Sea to the south. This province is populated by various tribes such as Baloch, Pashtuns, Brahuis and others.

There has been a nationalist / self-determination conflict ongoing between nationalists and the Pakistan government in which more than 7000 people have died, 4500 arrested and 140,000 people displaced since the 1970s.

Within Pakistan, the Balochi people are divided into two groups viz. Sulaimani (those live around Sulaiman Mountains) and the Makrani (Those around Makran); separated from each other by a compact block of Brahui tribes. Originating in the Iranian plateau, Balochis were mentioned in Arabic chronicles of the tenth century AD. The old tribal organization is still preserved among those inhabiting the Sulaiman Mountains. A tribe is called Tuman and each Tuman comprises several clans; and also a chief.

Balochi People

Balochis are traditionally nomads, but the agriculture is also present. The methods of farming are primitive accompanied by rearing of camels, cattle, sheep, and goats. They are also engaged in carpet weaving and embroidery. The villages are collections of mud or stone huts. Due to harsh physical conditions, Balochistan geographic region is the least developed in Iran. As mentioned above, Balochis are basically from Iran but the 11th century Seljuq invasion of Kerman pushed them eastward. Suppressing the Balochis, the Seljuqs put watchtowers, cisterns, and caravansaries along the desert route to encourage trade with India.

Pakistani Balochistan

From 1666 till 1950s, the region around present day Balochistan Province of Pakistan remained as Khanate of Kalat, a vassal state headed by a Khan and subsequently under the influence of the Mughals, Nader Shah’s Persian Empire and Afghanistan’s Durrani Empire until it became a self-governing princely state via the subsidiary alliance with the British.

With the freedom of India and Pakistan, it became an independent state and subsequently acceded to Dominion of Pakistan. It was incorporated into Pakistan in 1955 and remained a princely state under Pakistan till then. Right since its acceding to Pakistan, the province has been under constant conflict.

Iranian Balochistan

The Iranian region of Balochistan was conquered by that country in 19th century. Iran tried to assist in settlement and economic development of Balochis in the 1970s by building dams and thermoelectric-power plants. But these efforts slackened after the Iranian Islamic Revolution. Meanwhile, the problems of Iranian Balochistan are more religious than economic, and people out there cite repressions by Iranian Shiites against the Sunni Balochis.

The Conflict

When the ruler of Kalat Mir Ahmad Yar Khan decided to accede to Pakistan, not everyone out there was happy. There were insurgents, who rejected the decision to accede to Pakistan. Balochi nationalists support the claim that Mir Ahmad Yar Khan, was coerced by Mohammad Ali Jinnah to sign the document of accession. However it remains disputed. Some say that Khan chose to remain independent as the third option given by clement Atlee to all in 535 princely states in the British Raj. But even after death of Jinnah, the ruler of Kalat kept ruling with the support of the government. Furthermore, this ruler was not an absolute monarch; he was required to act under the provisions of the Rawaj (Kalat’s constitution).

American scholar Kristen P. Williams, in her book “Despite Nationalist Conflicts: Theory and Practice of Maintaining World Peace” maintains that it was Nehru who “persuaded Mountbatten to force the leaders of the princely states to decide whether to join India or Pakistan”. We note here that many states would have chosen to be independent if that was not done; and that would have resulted in Balkanization of India. Thus, forced accession, for many; was an issue for Hyderabad in India, was an issue for Balochistan in Pakistan too.

One Unit Policy and its fallouts

Balochistan was incorporated as a province of Pakistan in 1955.Meanwhile, in 1954 Pakistan government had launched a geopolitics program called “ONE UNIT” as it faced difficulty of administering the two unequal polities of West Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), which were divided, by thousands of miles of India in between. During this programme, the four provinces of West Pakistan were to be merged into one province and East Pakistan was also to be merged into a single unit.

This so called One Unit Scheme led to a violent response from Ethno-nationalists like the Balochs, for they were against the amalgamation of the federating units. The Scheme decreased Baloch representation at the federal level and prevented the establishment of a provincial assembly. The Nawab Nauroz Khan of Kalat (fondly called by Balochis as Babu Nowroz) was thus able to mobilize various tribal chieftains against the One Unit Scheme because it was seen as centralizing too much power in the federal government and limiting provincial autonomy. Under him, the Baloch people organized a rebellion against the Pakistani central government in 1959. Babu Nowroz became a symbol of the Baloch independence movement.

However the rebellion was largely a failure due to harsh government suppression. Nowroz Khan and his followers were charged with treason and arrested. His sons and family members were subsequently hanged under charges of aiding murder of Pakistani troops and treason. Nawab Nowroz Khan later died in captivity in Hyderabad Jail in Sindh in Pakistan.

Over the next decade, Balochistan was treated like a colonial possession rather than a part of the Pakistani state. Punjabis and other non-Baloch groups controlled the administration and indulged in resource exploitation along with the central government. Additionally, low rates of literacy and overall impoverishment plagued the province.

To prevent further dissent, the government tried to build new military bases in the conflict areas of Balochistan. But militants led by Sher Muhammad Bijrani Marri undertook guerrilla warfare in 1960s to create their own insurgent bases and spread all over Balochistan.

We note here that Sui in Balochistan is Pakistan’s biggest natural gas field and therefore the goal of the militants was to force Pakistan to share revenue generated from the Sui gas fields with the ethnic leaders. For this purpose they bombed railway tracks and ambushed convoys. Army retaliated by destroying vast areas of tribal land and ultimately the insurgency ended in 1969 when the separatists agreed to ceasefire, the “One Unit” policy was abolished and Balochistan was recognized as the fourth province of West Pakistan.

The liberation of Bangladesh and its impact

The Indo-Pak was of 1971 resulted in the defeat of Pakistan and East Pakistan became Bangladesh. This inspired Balochistan’s leading political party, the National Awami Party of ethno-nationalists and feudal leaders to embolden its political stance. In 1972, the newly restored civilian central government led by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s PPP (Pakistan People’s Party) permitted Balochistan to hold its first provincial elections, which brought to power the highly ethno-national National Awami Party (NAP).

The party demanded more autonomy but in 1973, the then-Pakistani President Z.A. Bhutto dismissed the elected government of Balochistan on the premise that arms had been discovered in Iraqi embassy belonged to Balochi rebels. This set off the most violent insurgency that Balochistan had seen to date. Mixed in the ensuing protests against this move of the President were new calls for Balochistan’s secession.

President Bhutto ordered army to enter Balochistan and hostilities between the Pakistani army and the Balochi rebels reached a high point in 1974. Iran helped Pakistani army in this operation with aid and weapons and although Pakistan alleged India’s involvement in arming the Baloch nationalists (just like India did in Bangladesh), India claimed wariness of further balkanization of the subcontinent and therefore did not intervene.

In 1977 a martial law was imposed in the state when President Bhutto’s regime was overthrown by the General Zia-Ul-Haq, this was followed by a ceasefire and a return to developmental politics in the region. This conflict alone took thousands of lives on each side including civilians. This was a turning point in the story of Balochistan’s conflict and is still a deeply divisive issue between Pakistan and Balochistan.

Renewed Insurgency and Current Status

In 2004, a renewed ethnic insurgency broke out, and violence has escalated since the killing of the Baloch leader Nawab Akbar Bugti by the army in 2006 and the unlawful detention and disappearance of many additional Baloch leaders by the Pakistani government.

This time around, it is the three largest tribal groups, i.e. Marri, Bugti, and Mengal, that are capable of raising large armies and supplies but remain highly suspicious of each other. However, Pakistani army holds the Bugti tribe primarily responsible for the latest conflict and seems to target its leaders the most. In one cable (made public by wikileaks) from the American embassy in Islamabad it was written: “There seems to be little support in the province, beyond the Bugti tribe, for the current insurgency.”

Moreover, the military has been successful in talking to tribal leaders one by one and making sure they don’t join each other against the government. It has also been argued that nationalist leaders do not truly believe in secession, but use political rhetoric to extract revenues from the national government.

The current situation is that reacting to years of ethnic suppression by the military, Baloch nationalists have begun killing non-Balochis on such a mass scale than in 2011, Balochistan recorded the highest number of instances of violence than any other province of Pakistan. Balochistan has also become the de-facto capital of Al Qaeda in Pakistan.

Baloch Grievances

  • The military coup in 1999 that brought Pervez Musharraf to power increased general alienation among the Balochs because they saw and still perceive the army as lacking Baloch representation. The army is dominated by the interests of the Punjabi—the majority ethnic group in Pakistan that accounts for about 45 percent of the country’s population.
  • Another primary Baloch grievance is the construction of the mega-port of Gwadar, which began in 2002 and is ongoing. Announced in 2001, this port is of much strategic and economic importance to Pakistan. It is a Chinese funded project, which aims to transform the small fish in village of Gwadar into a transportation hub at par with Dubai. It is a deep-water port which counters India’s naval projection, improves relationship with China and serves as a passage for Pakistan’s natural resources to the energy-hungry markets of India, China and East-Asia. Despite all this, the federal government has excluded Balochis from the construction of the massive port and relies instead on Chinese engineers and labourers. The economic marginalization of the Balochs in Gwadar has only led to increased resentment and resistance.
  • Fractured leadership of Baloch nationalist movement causes the splintering of violent offshoots, which are usually not under greater control. Resultantly, the Baloch nationalist movement is not unitary in either its goals or its tactics and the multiplicity of Baloch Leaders with competitive inclinations has resulted in more violence.
  • Balochistan remains inaccessible to the media and independent observers for the most part, in such a situation it is impossible to accurately analyze the situation on ground in the face of contradictory facts and figures coming out from hostile camps.
  • Expanded natural gas exploration is another source of conflict. Balochistan is a transit site for the under construction natural gas Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline (also known as Peace Pipeline) that would bring gas from Iran to Pakistan and eventually on to India. Baloch militants have frequently targeted gas pipelines to demonstrate against the federal government. This is one of the main reasons negotiations on the pipeline have slowed down recently.
  • The current US-led war in Afghanistan is another contemporary conflict creator. The war caused an influx of Pashtun refugees from Afghanistan into Balochistan, numerically weakening the Baloch population in their own province. Since the hostilities between Balochs and Pashtuns date back to the colonial era, this is particularly problematic. Moreover, with more refugees came more military and paramilitary forces into the province, this unnerves the nationalists.

Role of Other Countries & Organizations


Pakistani government believes that Balochi nationalists operate terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, which then infiltrate in Balochistan to wreck havoc. The Pakistan government accused erstwhile Afghan President Hamid Karzai of sheltering the militants fuelling terrorism in Balochistan. Karzai assured Pakistan that he would close the infiltration of these militants even though he has always denied that Balochs living in Afghanistan’s Baloch areas were supporting an armed struggle in Balochistan.


Pakistan has repeatedly accused India of supporting the Baloch cause and destabilizing the country. It claims it has evidence for such accusations but has never produced any such proof. Some western observers also believe India funds the Balochistan Liberation Army (which, as per some sources, the Soviet Union helped establish during the Soviet War in Afghanistan) secretly while others like former Af-Pak envoy Richard Holbrooke have strongly rejected these allegations. India has categorically denied the allegations.


Relations between the Baloch separatists and the State of Iraq had historical roots and were strong before the United States invasion of Iraq. After the 1971 war, Iraq and the Soviet Union launched a secret operation to provide military aid to the Balochi nationalists in Pakistan and Iran.

The aim of this exercise was to destabilize the two countries by helping Baloch parties in their struggles to seek independence from the Pakistani and Iranian States.

In 1973, during a flying raid on the Iraqi embassy in Islamabad by the Pakistan police and paramilitary, a large cache of small arms and ammunition was found and was allegedly believed to be destined for Baloch Rebels. President Bhutto again blamed India and Afghanistan, Iraq and Soviet Union and alleged a conspiracy to disrupt Pakistan’s integrity.

A military operation was launched in Balochistan after this incident. This counter-insurgency operation finally ended in 1977 after the end of insurgency and rebellion in Balochistan. However, Iraq continued to support underground activities to empower Balochi nationalists and destabilize Pakistan.

Human Rights Violations

Missing People and The Long March

Between 2003 and 2012 Pakistani security forces in the province allegedly kidnapped an approximate 8000 people. In 2008 alone an estimated 1102 Baloch people disappeared. Reports of torture with countless number of severely disfigured bodies being found on roadsides because of a “kill and dump” campaign conducted by Pakistani security forces, especially by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Frontier Corps (FC) and Pakistan Rangers.

In July 2011, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan issued a report on illegal disappearances in Balochistan and identified ISI and Frontier Corps as the perpetrators but no one has been held responsible for the crimes.

In 2013 Baloch human rights activist Mama Qadeer, with 20 other Baloch women and children has made a history by breaking 84-year old record of Mahatma Gandhi’s salt march by walking 2000 kilometers on foot from Quetta to Islamabad against Gandhi’s 390 kilometres from Ahmadabad to Dandi. This long march was undertaken by the 72-year-old political activist to highlight the suffering of the families of the 19000 missing people in Balochistan.

The Supreme Court ordered the government to the grant a subsistence allowance to the affected families and advised families not to lose hope. The court recognizes that the issue of missing persons has become a chronic problem and, therefore, the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances, constituted on the orders of the apex court, should be made permanent.

Development Issues

The issue of Development is tied closely to the conflict, as it is an important factor, which binds nationalist discontent against the State. Government of Pakistan has time and again stated its noble intention to bring industrialization to the province, and it claims that progress has been made. The government says it introduced an Economic Package called “Aghaz-e-Haqooq-e-Balochistan” for the development of Balochistan and that industrial zones are planned along the new Gwadar-Karachi highway but the nationalists disagree with everything.

The Balochis argue that the benefits of government policy have not accrued to them and point at the plunder and pillage of natural resources from the province without any economic benefit to the Baloch people.


Balochistan needs skilled workers for new industries to develop and boost the local economy but the nationalists argue that this creates resentment amongst the local inhabitants. People in Balochistan remain deeply resentful of Pakistan’s policies in the region some Baloch nationalist organizations have openly called for India’s assistance in Balochistan’s separation from Pakistan.

Gadani Energy Corridor

Based on the American Houston Energy Corridor, the Baloch energy corridor was announced by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif during his trip to the region recently. The project will be called Gadani Power Park and it is expected to generate 5200 MW. Some nationalist groups objected to the project, saying they had not been consulted. They instead favoured expanding access to electricity in the province rather than increasing capacity.

Farm Subsidy

Pakistani government announced it would transfer Rs4 billion subsidy to Provincial Government to be passed onto farmers in Balochistan to promote for tube-wells and the Provincial Government announced it would spend further Rest 3 billion to support the Federal Programmed. But corruption is high among civil servants and senior ministers so this might not translate into much development for the region.


One of the main factors in the conflict is the education of people. The nationalists feel as if education as an issue has been neglected but the government of Pakistan encourages scholarships in other cities for Balochi students so that they may return to their province and work for its development. Under the Chemo Long Scheme the quota for Baloch students in the Punjab University was doubled in 2010 however, nationalists argue this is not enough and accuse the government of neglecting its duty.

Domestic & Regional Implications

The conflict in Balochistan may further destabilize the fragile region. 150 years of social, political, and economic oppression of the Bloch people due to colonial subjugation, forcible annexation, the denial of ethnic claims, interference in local affairs, coupled with the inability of Islamabad to deliver genuine development has resulted in anger and frustration of the Balochs. Rivalries with neighbouring Pashtuns, tribalism and factional conflict have kept them from advocating a coherent set of demands as a people.

To further complicate the situation, we have the issue of Gwadar, the increasing importance of natural gas revenues, and a renewed influx of Afghan refugees. Additionally, Pakistan’s harsh response to the current insurgency has fed a conflict spiral, making any kind of reconciliation increasingly unlikely. Therefore a peaceful resolution of the conflict is improbable in the medium term because no participant is willing or able to change its behavior.

The military wants to maintain its strategy of targeting Balochs leaders, while the nationalists want to use violence as a means of extorting concessions from the Pakistani government. The Government wants to negotiate with those it sees as moderate in order to buy peace but the underlying problem of genuine development aid is not addressed while intermittent attacks against the state and non-Baloch tribal groups continue.

Though the Baloch insurgency will remain active in the medium term, genuine development and an end to the repression of Baloch nationalists can lessen its consequences. Pakistan’s neighbours should avoid inciting the conflict. As a failure to do so can have disastrous repercussions for security in Pakistan and countries such as Iran and India. Though at the present levels, the conflict is unlikely to threaten the stability of Pakistan, still, containing the Baloch insurgency is the most important task that remains to be done for the stability of Pakistan. At. Pakistan’s military is relatively large but an expansion of the current Baloch insurgency could undermine the territorial integrity of the state. Such an expansion of the insurgency is possible if it combines with other movements to stress the capacity of the Pakistani government to keep things under control.

If the insurgency were to spread to other provinces such as Sindh, Pakistan could lose vast swaths of territory and further escalation of the conflict could possibly lead to the balkanization of Pakistan. Similarly devastating consequences could be faced if the nationalists were to join forces with Islamist insurgents and the Punjabis decide that maintaining the unity of the country is not worth the cost.

Baloch insurgency and Dangers to Stability of region beyond Pakistan

  • First such danger is that the conflict could spill over into Iran, which views the widening insurgency in Pakistani Balochistan in terms of its own Baloch population. 2005, saw the birth of a Baloch rebellion against the Iranian regime, though it is has not gained significant ground since. Although Iran co-operated with Pakistan in suppressing Baloch national movements in the past, Balochistan has become a point of tension between the two countries because they suspect each other of interfering with its internal affairs. An increase in violence in Balochistan might increase violence and instability in Iran. It is guaranteed that Pakistani Baloch conflict will continue to forestall the development of the IPI pipeline, perhaps even destroy all plans of constructing it. Even though this pipeline is important to promoting security in the region.
  • The most alarming concern of the Balochistan conflict are its potential to destabilize the already uneasy Indo-Pakistani peace. Specifically, Pakistan already harbors strong suspicions that India may be using Baloch insurgents to conduct proxy warfare. Pakistani press regularly asserts without evidence that Baloch rebels possess sophisticated armaments, and implies the possibility of Indian intervention in the conflict.

Pakistan’s Allegations on India and India’s stance

Pakistan has repeatedly accused India of supporting the Baloch cause and destabilizing the country. It claims it has evidence for such accusations but has never produced any such proof. Some western observers also believe India funds the Balochistan Liberation Army (which, as per some sources, the Soviet Union helped establish during the Soviet War in Afghanistan) secretly while others like former Af-Pak envoy Richard Holbrooke have strongly rejected these allegations. India has categorically denied the allegations. In 2004, Pak military officials alleged that over 200 Baloch rebels had been trained within Pakistan by the Indian government. Some third-party sources confirmed these claims. Whether or not Indian involvement is real, it has hardened the stance of the Pakistani government towards the rebels.

However, the consequences of Indian support for Balochistan’s insurgents could be fatal for peace in South Asia. Pakistan has previously used proxies to disturb peace in Indian-administered Kashmir and throughout the rest of the country. However, such a strategy by India in Balochistan may incur more aggressive response from Pakistan, thereby risking war and even a nuclear exchange.

Indian support for Baloch separatists could result in all if not at least one of the following scenarios:

  • The breakup of Pakistan along ethnic line and a mass migration of refugees following the balkanization of Pakistan.
  • A massive influx of migrants to India leading to a humanitarian crisis, stretching the capacity of the Indian government.
  • Communal violence between Muslim immigrants and Hindus in India.
  • Totally unpredictable behaviour of a broken Pakistani military, risking a nuclear conflict.

Therefore, though India may be tempted to support Baloch nationalists, the consequences of doing so could be catastrophic. Limiting the Baloch insurgency in Pakistan is thus an important element for stability in South Asia.

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