When Balochistan ‘voted’ for Pakistan, most of the Baloch tribes were not within the British-administered Balochistan and so were not even part of the decision to form the country
In 1973, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto sent the armed forces into Balochistan to quell the uprising there. This situation would culminate in what is perhaps Pakistan’s least discussed civil war. Roedad Khan’s edited collection of de-classified US State Department papers reveals that Bhutto actually approached US officials asking for their help in resolving the crisis in Balochistan. These officials reported that he seemed “sincere” and at the very beginning at least, their help was limited to conveying correspondence between groups who were refusing to communicate in the context of the conflict. If one were to focus only on the relationship between Bhutto and the US in this case, they would miss the fact that it was only after the legitimate provincial government of Balochistan had been dissolved (by our erstwhile PPP leader), that the resistance began in opposition to what was seen as the writ of the central government and the state.
There are two things happening here — one is the role of the US and one is the specifically national problem within Pakistan. These two can be discussed in their own right but it is important to note that whenever a national conflict arises, it is very convenient for us to forget to point our fingers at ourselves because we are so busy blaming imperialist intervention. Question: is this intervention deeply problematic and do we need to make ourselves less dependent on foreign powers? Yes. However, there is a long history of conflict between the central government and provincial powers, which is not only about the US. Personally, I appreciate all manner of civil, peaceful protest, but saying that no one has a right to talk about Pakistan’s national problems seems to be counterproductive. If the issue of Baloch self-determination has been brought up by the US, does that mean we can never again critically assess the needs of, and problems faced by, the Baloch people?
Perhaps it is easy to forget that the alliance between the national ideology of Pakistan and the ‘right of sovereignty’ that people at a protesting chowk were asking for recently, does not have an easy fit. When Balochistan ‘voted’ for Pakistan, most of the Baloch tribes were not within the British-administered Balochistan and so were not even part of the decision to form the country.
Nonetheless, the promise the country held, and the one that Quaid-e-Azam pushed for initially, was a decentred federation where each province would function autonomously. However, this is not how things played out. Historians writing on Pakistan (and interestingly not included in our school syllabi), have produced many studies showing how this did not actually play out in practice — and the creation of Bangladesh is testament to that. Let us also not forget that when Bangladesh was formed, people in West Pakistan (yes that’s us), and particularly in Punjab, said that Pakistan should not recognise that country because its creation undermined the sovereignty of the state and had been formed in collusion with India. Lesson: we should not only blame our leaders for retrogressive views.
The people making these claims were conflating the legitimate grievances of the Bangladeshis (at that time East Pakistanis) with the illegitimate actions of the Indian state — which were two quite distinct things even if they came together in that one instance. The issue of East Pakistani autonomy had been articulated in terms of language (there were language riots in 1952 in which the rioters were brutally suppressed and West Pakistani newspapers at the time only mentioned it briefly and in passing); the issue of representation in the military, which was being seen as problematic by East Pakistanis everywhere; and crucially, resource allocation, which was being concentrated in the Western wing. Those are the big, macro things we all vaguely know about. On the other hand, the little things that come out of the National Assembly debates of the time include the decision of where to set up television stations (surprise: they were concentrated in West Pakistan); the priority given to refugee reallocation in terms of funds and the set up of employment exchanges in the West; the set up of factories and industry in Karachi through government funds...the list goes on. The point here is that there are so many historical factors that we do not even see that go into the expression of separatist sentiment.
With what seems like a more permanent (fingers crossed) return to democracy, these are questions we now need to think about and pressurise whoever we support to begin thinking about as well: how can the legitimate concerns of provincial powers be addressed? Is it possible for such negotiations to take place not between the military and guerrilla fighters in open conflict (such as happened in Bangladesh in 1971 and Balochistan in 1973) but between political leaders who are dependent on us for our vote?
Whatever we may think within our internal national discussions, history has not vindicated us. Today, there are several books by Bangladeshi nationalists that discuss the country’s history under “West Pakistani colonialism”. And they are not entirely wrong. In the past (and even today), forcing the argument for ‘sovereignty’ down people’s throats has been counterproductive. In the 1950s in Pakistan, Iskander Mirza publicly stated that provincial autonomy was to be equated with the disintegration of Pakistan. As mentioned in the beginning of this article, that is certainly not what Quaid-e-Azam, who surely knew much more and much better than Mirza, had said to the provinces when they joined the country.
This short narrative is not intended to give instruction about the way forward but simply to convey the need to give this issue the seriousness it deserves and not reduce it to an imperialist construct.
The writer is a PhD candidate in the history department at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. She can be reached at email@example.com