An exchange of air strikes between Iran and Pakistan put Balochistan on the global news agenda this month. Pakistan’s largest province is also its poorest, and the only way to establish peace there is by ending a long history of discrimination and repression.

A boy walks past photographs of missing persons from southwestern Balochistan province, displayed during a demonstration in Islamabad, Pakistan, on January 22, 2024. (Farooq Naeem / AFP via Getty Images)

Balochistan suddenly came under the spotlight of the international media in the wake of air strikes conducted on Pakistani soil by Iran against the Jaish al-Adl group on January 16. This led to retaliatory action by Pakistan against targets in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan province. In both cases, the strikes were directed against Baloch militants who are respectively at war with the Iranian and Pakistani states.

The historical territory of Balochistan is currently divided between three states — Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan — with the largest part under Pakistani rule. While international attention has shifted toward the possibility of an escalating crisis and its wider regional implications, there remains a central political issue in Balochistan itself.

That issue may be eclipsed in the heat of the moment. But it urgently demands sustained political action from Pakistan’s leaders to address the grievances of the Baloch people.

Pakistan’s Poorest Province

Balochistan is the largest of Pakistan’s four provinces, surpassing Punjab, Sindh, and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa to comprise more than two-fifths of the country’s total area. However, Balochistan has the smallest population — a little under fifteen million, according to the 2023 census, in a state of nearly 242 million people. It has just 6 percent of the directly elected representatives in Pakistan’s National Assembly.

Early Baloch reservations about the politics and policies of Pakistan’s central administration evolved over time into an ethnonationalist challenge.

The Pakistani state was the creation of a religious nationalist movement by leaders from India’s Muslim elite in 1947. Those leaders argued that the Muslims of the subcontinent needed a country of their own to be secure and free to practice their religion. As it turned out, ethnic communities within Pakistan — the Baloch and Pashtun particularly — could not identify with the new state’s unitary religious nationalism. Early Baloch reservations about the politics and policies of the central administration evolved over time into an ethnonationalist challenge.

Despite being rich in natural resources, the province remains the poorest in Pakistan, with a poverty rate of 42.2 percent, compared to the national rate of 24.3 percent, according to a 2019 World Bank report. The central government of Pakistan has often exploited those resources at the expense of Balochs themselves.

Whenever the provincial government has tried to exert its powers over resources, the central authorities perceived this as a threat and moved to shut it down. When this happened in the 1970s, it strengthened the argument of those who had been demanding outright separation from Pakistan and led to an uprising that the Pakistani government suppressed by military force.

However, there have been several insurgencies in the period since then, fueled by the policies of the Pakistani state toward Balochistan, from the lack of adequate representation for Balochs in the local administration to the establishment of military bases in the province. The militarized approach toward the Baloch has continued and led to more alienation.

Since the early 2000s, there has been a wave of discontent known as the fifth Baloch insurgency. Violations of social, political, and economic rights have pushed many Balochs to resist the central government, which has responded with more force.

In 2005, Pakistan’s military ruler Pervez Musharraf issued the following warning to the people of the province: “Don’t push us. This is not the ’70s. They will not even know what has hit them.” The subsequent deterioration of the situation in Balochistan has led to thousands of forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. The ongoing protests by the Baloch are seeking to uphold their rights.

Long March for Justice

In December 2023, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) reprimanded the police in Pakistan’s capital city for the use of force against Baloch protesters and told them not to treat the protesters as if they were enemies of the state. The judge contrasted the treatment of Baloch protesters with others who protest in the capital and in the country at large by the security forces.

Since the early 2000s, there has been a wave of discontent known as the fifth Baloch insurgency.

The Islamabad police had used lathis and water cannons to disperse the Baloch protesters on December 20, arresting many. These protesters were taking part in a long march started by Baloch activists and their supporters from the city of Turbat in Balochistan to the capital after the alleged extrajudicial killing of four Baloch people by the Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) in November.

The CTD has argued that the four were terrorists who were killed in an encounter with security forces. However, their families insist that they were already in the custody of the CTD and that its officers staged a fake encounter to justify the killing. They started sit-in protests, demanding action against the guilty. When the authorities took no concrete action on their demands, they began the march from Turbat to Islamabad.

For the Baloch, the organization of such protests has been routine over the last two decades in the face of disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and torture. According to a 2011 report by Human Rights Watch, during the rule of Musharraf between 1999 and 2008, 1,102 Baloch were forcibly disappeared. Since then, the number of missing persons in Balochistan has risen to five thousand, a huge number from a population of less than fifteen million.

In June 2020, the leader of the moderate Baloch Nationalist Party–M, Akhtar Mengal, resigned from the federal government led by Pakistan’s then premier Imran Khan. According to Mengal, in the period since he had joined Khan’s ruling alliance in return for certain promises, eighteen missing people had been returned but approximately five hundred more had gone missing in the space of just over two years.

Confronted with official indifference at both provincial and federal levels of government, the Baloch have formed groups such as the Voice for Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP) and the Baloch Yakjehti Committee to publicize disappearances and raise Baloch issues. The VBMP has been holding a sit-in hunger protest for the last fourteen years in Quetta, demanding the return of disappeared people.

VBMP chairman Mama Qadeer Baloch joined the organization when his son Jalil Reki went missing in February 2009. He was warned that he should stay away from such protests if he wanted to see his son alive. Jalil Reki’s bullet-riddled body was subsequently found in Turbat district. Since then, Qadeer has been a leading voice calling for recovery of the disappeared and an end to the exploitation of Baloch resources.

Another strong Baloch voice on this question is Dr Mahrang Baloch. Baloch was a student studying medicine in Karachi when her father Ghaffar Baloch went missing in December 2009, and she took part in protests for the disappeared. Her father’s body was found, bearing signs of torture, in July 2011.

Mahrang distanced herself from the protests after the discovery of her father’s brother, but she joined them once again when her brother was picked up in December 2017. Although her brother was later released, she realized that no one was safe in Balochistan and became a leading figure in the protests.

An Internal Colony

The strained relationship between Balochs and the Pakistani political elite has developed since the Khan of Kelat declared Balochistan an independent state on August 15, 1947, a day after Pakistan was formed. The declaration may have been an attempt to strike a better bargain and secure Balochistan’s political, cultural, and economic interests, and the Khan later agreed to join Pakistan in 1948.

However, the subsequent approach of the Pakistani state toward managing the province was discriminatory and ignored the growing sense of disenchantment among the Baloch people. There had already been uprisings in 1948, 1958, and 1962 before the most important waves of unrest during the 1970s and since the early 2000s.

The natural resources in Balochistan include gold, copper, and natural gas, not to mention its long coastline of 770 kilometers. It is home to one of the largest gold and copper mines in the world, the Reko Diq mine. Gas was discovered in Balochistan during the 1950s and began to supply some Punjabi cities in the following decade, while the district that was the source of gas, Dera Bugti, only received it in the 1990s.

A very modest share of the gas royalties has returned to Balochistan, and its other natural resources have not been used for the benefit of Balochs, either. The average annual economic growth rate for the province between 1999–2000 and 2018–19 was 2.1 percent, much lower than the rates of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (5 percent), Sindh (4.5 percent), and Punjab (4.2 percent) during the same period.

The various causes of discontent in Balochistan combined with a new situation arising from the US-led occupation of Afghanistan in autumn 2001.

The various causes of discontent in Balochistan combined with a new situation arising from the US-led occupation of Pakistan’s neighbor Afghanistan in autumn 2001. The Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) emerged and began to attack various forms of government infrastructure, from trucks to gas pipelines.

When the project to develop Gwadar Port was proposed in the early 1990s, it evoked a mixed reaction from the Baloch, who feared that it would be used for exploitation of their resources. This skepticism proved to be justified. A moderate Baloch political figure like Akhtar Mengal has described the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, in which Gwadar plays an essential part, as being intended not for the development of Balochistan but rather to turn the Baloch nation into a minority on their own soil.

A sense of being an internal colony within Pakistan has taken hold among the Baloch due to the indifference of the Pakistani state toward their plight and the exploitation of their resources. They see that growing numbers of non-Baloch people are likely to migrate in Balochistan, particularly the Gwadar district, depriving locals of the rights to their resources. This has led to attacks on non-Baloch workers and laborers, mostly Punjabis, by the Baloch militants.

A Human Rights–Free Zone

The Baloch scholar-activist Malik Akbar has described the province as a “human rights–free zone.” Since the 2000s, the military counterinsurgency has exposed the Baloch people to the ugly face of state violence. One factor that intensified the insurgency in the province was the brutal rape of a female Baloch doctor by an army captain in 2005 who got off scot-free.

The Baloch, in practice, are not considered to be an equal part of Pakistan’s political community.

The failure to punish the guilty forced the leader of the Bugti tribe, to which the doctor belonged, to set aside his differences with Baloch nationalists and join them. Pakistani forces subsequently killed the tribe’s leader, Akbar Bugti, in August 2006, stoking up more anger and further strengthening Baloch nationalist sentiment.

Instead of changing its approach, the Pakistani state ramped up repression. The so-called kill-and-dump policy resulted in a number of bodies with evidence of torture being found with their names pinned on them. The issue of disappearances and extrajudicial killings became so serious that the federal government had to establish a Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances in 2011 to investigate the matter.

This body is still functioning today and continues to register complaints about such cases, which are an ongoing menace. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) stated in its 2023 report, “Balochistan’s Struggle for Hope,” that “the use of enforced disappearances as a security tactic continued unabated” and “hangs heavy over university students in particular.”

There has been no change in the policy of repression. Every new government at the provincial or federal level makes promises but never delivers on them. Pakistan’s mainstream political parties raise the question of Baloch rights while in opposition to criticize the politicians who are currently in power yet take no serious steps to uphold those rights once they find themselves in office.

It should be possible to find a political solution to the conflict in Balochistan. The main barrier is the indifference of Pakistan’s ruling elite. As Pakistani novelist Muhammad Hanif noted in a 2014 interview: “Balochistan is considered a remote part of Pakistan not just geographically but in our imagination as well.”

This remark puts the existing approach to the sufferings of the Baloch in the right frame. The Baloch, in practice, are not considered to be an equal part of Pakistan’s political community. In place of military repression, Balochs must be given equal access to the law and the fruits of their own resources. There could be no better start than to release the countless missing Balochs languishing in Pakistani jails and to set up a genuine reconciliation commission.

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