In his Independence Day speech at the Red Fort, Prime Minister Narendra Modi highlighted Pakistan’s atrocities in Balochistan and expressed his solidarity with its people in their struggle for self-determination. This new policy shift – seen as a response to Pakistan’s proxy war in Jammu and Kashmir – alarmed the Pakistani establishment.
The initial signs of India’s policy shift appeared when AIR launched a website and a mobile application of a Balochi radio service on September 16. Although the radio service was launched way back in 1974 by AIR’s external services division, the website and application are aimed at reaching out to the Baloch diaspora settled in different parts of the world. The development of an email facility, which will help the audience send their feedback, is in progress.
Another development on these lines is the application for asylum by Switzerland-based leader of Baloch Republic Party Brahamdagh Bugti – grandson of the late Nawab Akbar Bugti and the leader of Baloch Republican Party. His application is being considering by the home minisrty.
Another exiled Baloch leader, Hyrbyair Marri, has also expressed his desire to seek asylum in India. Interestingly, a representative of Marri was in New Delhi last year to speak on the Pakistani army’s atrocities in Balochistan at an event where defence analysts Major General G.D. Bakshi and Colonel R.S.N. Singh were the chief guests.
This duel over Balochistan – which was hitherto confined to the two nations – reached the global audience when external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, in her address at the UN General Assembly on September 26, censured Pakistan. Swaraj termed its policies in Balochistan as the “worst form of state oppression”.
With tensions rising in Pakistan over India’s policy shift, there are signs that Pakistan is seriously rethinking over Balochistan, especially with regard to its relations with Iran, which also controls a part of the Baloch territory. There are indications that a rapprochement among the two nations is on the horizon.
The Baloch card in Iran-Pakistan ties
As it becoming more evident that New Delhi has begun engaging with the Baloch issue, some new trends are worth noticing on part of the Pakistani policy makers in the light of the geography of Balochistan that spans across Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. The territory of western Balochistan, which is controlled by Iran, was annexed in 1928.
At present, the Baloch in Iran, who are predominantly of the Sunni origin, form only about 2% of Iran’s total population. Relations between the state and its Baloch subjects have been bitter, and the Sistan and Baluchestan province has witnessed episodes of protracted insurgency. These fissures were first exploited during the Iran-Iraq war during the 1980s, when the Iraqi agencies began aiding the movements that were demanding Baloch autonomy from Iran.
Later, led by brothers Abdolmalek Rigi and Abdolhamid Rigi – who belonged to the Baloch Rigi tribe – Jundallah (a Sunni extremist group) was formed in 2003. Jundallah gained notoriety following incessant attacks on Iran’s civilians and military establishments. It is worth noting that Abdolmalek (who was hiding in Pakistan) was arrested by the Pakistani authorities in 2008 and handed over to Iran, and was later executed. Pakistan’s help to Iran was celebrated as a rare feat of cooperation between the two nations, which otherwise is characterised by Iran accusing Pakistan of supporting Jundallah.
Having said that, the Iran-Pakistan relations over the Baloch issue have several complexities. For instance, unlike the Baloch movement in Pakistan, which is devoid of any religious or sectarian overtones, the Baloch insurgency in Iran, especially the activities of Jundallah and other affiliated groups, are avowedly sectarian. Abdolmalek was himself a product of Karachi’s Jamia Uloom-e-Islamia (Binori town), a seminary that had produced many Taliban leaders.
This aspect is significant in light of the Pakistani establishment’s signs of ending patronage to extremist organisations (a policy which began under President Zia ul Haq’s rule), where in recent years its authorities have gone after those sectarian outfits that have become detrimental to Pakistan’s internal stability.
In addition to handing over of Abdolmalek to Iran in 2008, the killing of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi leader Malik Ishaq last year and operation Zarb-e-Azb against the Tehreek-e-Taliban are some developments that signal that Islamabad and Rawalpindi’s war against the forces are now seen as threats. Therefore, this also insinuates that Pakistan is paying heed to Iran’s concerns over the separatist movements and sectarian extremism emanating from across the border into Sistan-e-Baluchistan.
There are several reasons to believe that Pakistan’s quest for a stable Balochistan might find a new ally in Iran, which also wants to stabilise the part of Baloch territory that it controls. At present, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) offers an incentive for both the nations to cooperate towards the common cause of a stable Balochistan.
Roping in Iran in the CPEC
As expected, besides upsetting Islamabad, Modi’s announcement to support the Baloch cause has not gone down well with the Chinese, with some scholars and think tanks expressing their disappointment saying that the New Delhi’s policy would be detrimental to Sino-Indian ties.
With China pumping in the bulk of investments in the CPEC, as well as enjoying excellent diplomatic and economic ties with Iran, a possible push for Iran to be a part of CPEC is not unexpected.
This expected prophecy came true a few days ago in a meeting between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session. A statement by the office of Sharif reads, “President Rouhani lauded the vision of the prime minister [Nawaz Sharif] for translating CPEC into reality and expressed his desire to be part of the CPEC”. It went on to propose complementarity between the ports of Gwadar and Chabahar, both of which lie in Baloch territories.
It is still unclear whether it was Iran’s own calculations, Pakistan’s proposal or China’s insistence, which prompted Rouhani to consider joining the CPEC. However, what is evident is that India’s Baloch policy, though Pakistan-centric, has the potential to have ramifications in Iran’s Baloch parts as well. Whether or not Iran joins the CPEC remains to be seen, but Pakistan has all the reasons to convince Iranians to join hands for a stable Balochistan.
Prateek Joshi is postgraduate in international relations from South Asian University, New Delhi.