Journalist Jahanzeb Hussain talks about who’s profiting from the Pakistani province’s natural gas and the suppression of the Baloch people
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
On Thursday Pakistani forces laid siege to Pakistan’s largest province, Balochistan, injuring and killing several people. If you haven’t heard about Balochistan, it’s at the heart of the conflict between the Pakistani government and Balochistan nationalists who are demanding independence from Pakistan. This southwestern province is Pakistan’s largest and most natural resource-rich province, and has been affiliated with violence since Pakistan’s independence in 1947. This area is of great significance of late since there’s an ongoing development project being negotiated connecting Balochistan’s Gwadar port to China. It’s being called the China-Pakistan economic corridor.
Joining us to unpack this is Jahanzeb Hussein. Jahanzeb is an editor at Ricochet Media, the South Asia editor at Global Voices and a blogger at Huffington Post India. Thank you so much for joining us.
JAHANZEB HUSSEIN: Thank you, thank you for having me.
DESVARIEUX: So Jahanzeb, Balochistan has so many natural resources, I think the estimates are about $1 trillion. And there’s access to shipping routes from its port city, as I mentioned in the intro, through Gwadar. And Balochistan remains Pakistan’s most undeveloped province, though, at the same time. It has the lowest literacy rate and the highest infant mortality rate. So a lot of people who don’t know much about this story are probably wondering, how did we even get here. Can you just give us a brief modern history as to the roots of the Balochistan and conflict and grievances of the Baloch people.
HUSSEIN: Well, at the time when the British were leaving India and Pakistan was being founded, Balochistan at that time was an independent state which had an independent relation with Britain, even though it was indirectly ruled by it. And then when Pakistan was near to, 1947 partition was near and it was clear that something like Pakistan would be founded, the Baloch leaders thought that the same way they had their relation with the British as an independent state, as an autonomous state, that relation would continue later on with Pakistan as well. And that is what was promised to them, that they would remain, the relation between Pakistan and Balochistan would remain of two independent states, more or less.
But the Pakistani leaders then reneged on their promises, and a few, and not very–. After the creation of Pakistan in 1947 the Pakistani army invaded Balochistan to forcibly annex it. So Balochistan never wanted to be a part of Pakistan. It was forced to become a part of Pakistan. And it was quite later on that it was given the full status of a province. Before that it was ruled directly by the governor general of Pakistan under some sort of colonial rule. But then later on it was made a province of Pakistan.
DESVARIEUX: All right. Now let’s talk about the Baloch nationalists. What is their agenda, and do they have rights as a province to even push back on Pakistan?
HUSSEIN: Well, they do have rights of a province, as the other provinces of Pakistan do. But in practice Pakistani state, the central state and the army, always treated Balochistan as a colony. Never treated Balochistan as the way that the constitution promises them to be treated. And the nationalist demands, I mean, there are various strands of nationalism as well in Balochistan. Some are separatists who would want separation from Pakistan. Some are nationalists in the federal context. They want to be part of the federation of Pakistan. But they want the provincial rights. They want to be part of the constitution, but they want the constitutional rights to be given to them as they are given to the other provinces.
So there are different demands of nationalists, as well. There’s not, unfortunately not a lot of unity amongst the [inaud.] as well, but that’s a different factor. What should concern the Pakistani public is that their largest province, in terms of size, not in terms of population though but in terms of size, a population that gives them some of the most important resources such as natural gas, is coming from a province which is deprived of the profits and the bounties of those resources. I mean, every household–not every household, but most of the households in Pakistan in the provinces of Sindh and Punjab, have gas in their kitchen. And the gas comes from Balochistan. But people in Balochistan don’t have gas in the kitchen, they cook using, burning coal and wood.
So those are, with that you can see the type of [inaud.] that the Baloch people have is that the rights of the provinces are not given to them, even though Balochistan in return gives a lot to Pakistan. Keeping in mind the context of which Balochistan was forcibly made to be a part of Pakistan, and every time Balochistan, the people of Balochistan demanded rights they were treated with contempt and with force, in the 1970s when the first elections in Pakistan happened. The government of Balochistan that came to power was actually quite a progressive government. But they were thrown out of power, and a military operation was launched for five years in collaboration with Iran.
DESVARIEUX: I’m glad you mentioned Iran, because that pivots to my next question. I want to understand the role of the international community in all of this. What is the role of countries like Iran and China? Where do they stand on this issue?
HUSSEIN: Balochistan is divided between Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. So Iran does not want Balochistan to become independent, or have autonomy, because if the Baloch in Pakistan are empowered they would in turn empower the Baloch in Iran as well, such as, you know, the Kurds in Turkey, if they are empowered then they might inspire the Kurds in Iraq and Syria. Or Iran, for that matter. That’s the interest of Iran.
And China has a different interest. Its interests are economic, because as you mentioned the Gwadar port is a warm sea port. It gives access to China to Middle East oil routes. Shipping routes. And it gives access to Middle Eastern markets and European markets. So China wants to build a port in Gwadar, and it wants Gwadar to be connected to China. And it wants Chinese imports to go to the rest of the world through Gwadar and not through Hong Kong, which his a more expensive route.
DESVARIEUX: Yes, yes. I want to get a sense, though, of the level of sympathy for the cause of the Baloch people within Pakistan. Are people at least sympathetic to their grievances?
HUSSEIN: No, not a lot. Because not a lot of people know about it, because it’s a very sensitive issue. There’s a lot of media blackout against reporting on Balochistan. And it is frankly not a safe area to go to for journalists. And everyone who talks about Balochistan in public, in media, is given stern warnings by the army. So it’s a very sensitive topic, and people don’t know the facts. And unfortunately there is not a lot of sympathy for the Baloch cause among the public, nor among the other provinces of Pakistan. And let’s not forget, in the 1970s when the Baloch government was overthrown, it was the Pakistan Peoples’ Party which was in power. It was a democratic government which was in power, which overthrew another democratic government in the province. And the People’s Party is a party from Sindh, which is also quite an exploited province by the federal state of Pakistan.
So the irony is that when weaker provinces have come into power, they have not supported each other but they have worked against each other. Which has been quite deadly for the Pakistani democracy, and for its people as well. So both sides have suffered historically by lack of sympathies and solitary by people from the other provinces.
DESVARIEUX: All right Jahanzeb Hussein, thank you so much for your time and your bravery for speaking out on this very important issue. Thank you so much.
HUSSEIN: No, thank you.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.