Pakistan’s Baloch: Life on the Margins of Punjab

(On our 62nd Independence Day, let us as a federation look also to the plight of those who we have alienated from the federation.  Thank you RED DIARY for bringing this to our attention.-YLH)

By Karlos Zurutuza

Translated from the Spanish original by Daisann McLane

A woman walks slowly across the Dera Bugti desert, laden with wood for her cooking fire. She’s headed towards the town of Pir Koh. For several hundred meters, she follows the gas pipeline that extends north, towards the Punjab. She got lucky; it isn’t easy to find wood in the Dera Bugti desert. Islamabad also got lucky when it discovered natural gas beneath this rocky landscape. Thanks to the gas deposits, the Punjabis have been cooking, heating their houses in winter and producing electricity for half a century. But natural gas has yet to arrive in Pir Koh.

“What has Pakistan given us?” asks Ahktar Mengal, in his home in Quetta, Balochistan’s capital. “The Punjabis [Pakistan’s dominant ethnic group] have confiscated everthing: our property, our resources, and above all, our rights. Mengal is the tribal leader of the clan that bears his name, and also the president of the Baloch National Party (BNP). It’s difficult to find a house in Quetta that’s more under surveillance–and, as a consequence, more carefully guarded–than his.

“Why has the world forgotten us?,” exclaims the sardar (tribal leader) of the Mengal clan.

It’s possible that the world has, indeed, forgotten the Baloch people, but has anyone forgotten Balochistan? Let’s take a look. Obama needs it for his oil pipeline, TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India), Iran and India need it for the IPI (Iran-Pakistan-India), and so does Qatar. China’s constructing a gateway to the Persian Gulf at the port of Gwadar. Meanwhile Australia, Canada and Chile are extracting tons of gold and copper from Baluchistan’s enormous reserves, the second largest in Asia. The greedy scramble for Baluchistan’s treasures will probably heat up even more when the vast stores of petroleum and uranium hidden beneath its deserts are opened up.

“They didn’t even hire us to work on all these projects. The majority of the workers came from Punjab and other parts of Pakistan,” complains Bari, another unemployed 30-something from Quetta.


“Islamabad says that we can’t qualify for these jobs because we’re illiterate, because we don’t have an education. Where are we going to study if nobody builds schools here?” he points out.

The rate of illiteracy among Pakistan’s Baloch is about 80%, a chilling statistic that Islamabad doesn’t hesitate to blame on the tribal leaders. The central government accuses the sardars of complicity in keeping their people uneducated, in order to hold onto their power: “If the people learn to read, they’ll become unhappy with tribal society”.

Nevertheless, it’s clear that the majority of Baloch are not happy with the way things are. And they’re taking action. They’ve launched five armed uprisings against Islamabad since East Balochistan was forcibly incorporated into Pakistan in 1948, after the withdrawal of the British. The last uprising began in 2003 and is still going on now. However, instead of backing down, Islamabad has relentlessly followed a policy of political repression and total supression of the people. If somebody dares to speak out in protest, they are jailed, or simply “disappeared.”

Everyone from the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) to the International Crisis Group has condemned the disappearance of more than 7,000 social and political activists since 2005. One of the most recent and well known cases happened this past April in Quetta. Three political activists were grabbed at gunpoint in their lawyer’s office and then whisked away in a helicopter.

Kashkol Ali was their lawyer. “Justice doesn’t exist in Pakistan,” he declares, sitting in the same chair from which he witnessed the kidnapping. “The control of the country is in the hands of the MI and the ISI, the intelligence services. There’s no judge, no politician, no police officer who dares to stand up to them,” he says.

The testimony from this witness of Pakistan’s “summary justice” is corroborated by the Kafka-esque testimony of Imdad B., member of the central executive committee of the Baloch Student Organization (BSO). After he was abducted in Quetta with six comrades, and tortured for two months, his captors released him to the police in Punjab province.

“We had our eyes blindfolded, always. We knew that we’d been put in an airplane, but we didn’t know where we were going,” explains this young man wearing a red kulla (traditional Baloch cap). “After they released four of us to the police, somewhere in Punjab, the journalists published this story the next day: Security forces captured Baloch terrorists who were plotting to put a bomb in Hyderabad airport.”, he recounts.

Imdad says he has no idea the reasons why they were finally released from custody. But afterwards, the second part of his Odyssey began: seeking legal justice for what had happened to him and his comrades.

The young activist says that the first judge told him, “You have been through a bad experience, but you’re free now. So why keep looking to make problems for both of us?” The second judge told him the same thing. And then the third. Four years later, Imdad is still looking for justice.

Besides the thousands of “disappeared” Baloch, the repression has displaced tens of thousands more from their homes. In the last three years more than 80,000 Baloch families have been forced to migrate to the outskirts of Quetta, or to Sindh and Punjab provinces, after their villages were destroyed.

Zaki D. is also a member of the BSO. In the group’s headquarters in Karachi he plays a video showing a small mud brick village being bombed by a helicopter. It could be one of the Cobras that Teheran gave to Islamabad in the 70s to fight the Baloch insurgency, which always threatens to extend into Iranian-controlled territory. Or it could be one of the helicopters that Washington gave to Musharraf to fight the Taliban.

In his book, Descent Into Chaos (Penguin, 2008), the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid says that of the 10 billion dollars in development aid the U.S. government sent to Pakistan after 9-11, 90 percent went to the military.

The generals defend themselves by pointing to the fact that their country is the major provider of troops to the UN–10,000 in 2007.

Yellow Water

In Chagai, very few people can read, and fewer still are untouched by the pain of hunger, unemployment, the “disappearances”. But without a doubt the major worry in this mountainous region on the Afghan frontier is water. Not the scarcity of it, as is the case in so many other regions of Balochistan where it seldom rains. Chagai is lucky to have a lot of underground water. There’s only one problem: it causes cancer. In order to acheive a balance of power with India, Pakistan’s arch-enemy, Islamabad exploded five nuclear detonations here in 1998. The villages close to Raspoh mountain, where the nuclear tests were conducted, were evacuated. But,the last few years have seen a spike in spontaneous abortions, foetal malformations, and many cases of cancer.

Before moving away from Raspoh village, Wazeer went to live with his brother in neighboring Dalbandid. He says that the water came out yellow from the taps, although for some time now Wazeer has forgotton what colors are. Like many in the area, eye cancer has left him blind. Nobody told him not to wash his face with this water.

“Punjab has treated us like animals for more than 60 years. How could the British have left us in the hands of these people?” laments this old man, his translucent gaze fixed into the ether between daydreams and forgetting.

Life in Baluchistan

The Baloch are a people divided today by the borders of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. They speak an indo-European language close to Kurdish and Farsi, and the majority are Sunni Muslims. It’s estimated that there are a total of 15 million Baloch around the world, including 2 million living in Iran, 8 million in Pakistan and a little less than a million in Afghanistan. The majority of the Baloch diaspora lives in the Persian Gulf, Scandinavia and the U.S.

Located at the crossroads of the energy highway and with more than 1,000 kilometers of coastline on the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean, Baluchistan occupies an incredibly strategic position. It’s also rich in mineral and energy resources.

Baluchistan East is the largest province of Pakistan in terms of land area (44% of the total area), but it is the smallest in terms of population, and also the most underdeveloped. Agriculture is the main source of income, but only a third of the region is arable. Despite its enormous gas and coal reserves, 40% of Balochistan’s energy needs are provided by wood and charcoal.

Three quarters of the women and two thirds of the population over 10 years old are illiterate. At the same time, more than half of school-age children don’t attend school for lack of financial resources and appropriate infrastructure.

Daisann is contributing editor at National Geographic Traveler.


Filed under Pakistan

12 responses to “Pakistan’s Baloch: Life on the Margins of Punjab

  1. Mustafa Shaban

    the baloch people are our brothers, we must take care of them and not let anyone expoliot thier land for selfish reasons. We should give them thier rights and help them.

  2. Akash

    Well looks like some Muslims are more equal than others. I am always stunned by the incredible amount of chest beating that goes on in Pakistan about the Kashmiri “brothers”, but mum is the word when it comes to Balochi and Uighurs Muslims. Interesting. I guess, we are alike, India and Pakistan, in our shared hypocrisy and shedding copious amount of crocodile tears for the oppressed people.

  3. Pingback: Pakistan’s Baloch: Life on the Margins of Punjab « Secular Pakistan

  4. Kiran

    Now YLH, what would be your objection if Baluchies propose their own two -nation theory ? When you can support such a theory how can you deny them their right to such thoughts ? why should anyone deny Baluchis their Jinnah ?

    You have argued the case of Pakistan numerous times saying that it is basically against the centrist and oppressive nationality that congress wanted to impose. Its perhaps time to admit that Pakistan state is perhaps even more centrist that Indian state (whose prime duty still appears to be to protect hindu upper castes).

    The state of Pakistan imposed urdu on its population when perhaps less than 5% speak it as mother tongue – because urdu is associated with Muslim rulers and for that Muslim awaam were made to suffer. It humiliated and insulted bengalis for their dark complexion and their less arabised culture. It used Kashmiris as NLI soldiers in Kargil and refused to either acknowledge them or honour them in public. It pumped millions in to radicalizing Pushtus and is now taking millions from USA to kill them in the name of fighting terrorism.

    Think a bit openly, a separate Baluchistan is actually in accordance with your principles though understandably you maybe a bit upset about it. And here is another bit of info for you – India at present does not like the idea of successful independent states in the neighbourhood on the basis of ethnicity as it will undermine its own unstated Hinduness. Actually an islamic Pakistan makes it look good and make imposing Hinduism in India as not such a bad thing.

  5. yasserlatifhamdani

    By all means… let them try. I didn’t stop them from trying. But if you are hoping against hope that they will succeed … think again.

    But I do support them to the extent that their culture, language, life and political identity should be fully safeguarded as per their wishes and desires ..

    But d0n’t mix up stuff. You have no clue about the rest of the issues here. And most of your conceptions are pre-conceived notions.

  6. Kiran

    Sorry, I did not understand what you meant by “support them to the extent” , you mean Balochis ,unlike Jinnah or you, have some limits to which they can aspire to ? culture , political identity but not a national identity ?

    My post is not about my hope but your principles.

  7. yasserlatifhamdani

    What do you think a “political identity” is? If you had even a clue about the history of the subcontinent you would know that this constituted the sum-total of the Muslim demands… which I am personally in favor of granting to the Baloch as well.

    The national identity i.e. Muslim identity emerged out of denial of these demands. Ofcourse the Baloch are also a nation … I don’t deny it… but will they be able to form a nation state. Well they can try if they want to… and they have been. But don’t count on Balochistan breaking away and going on its own way anytime soon…

    “my post is about your principles”

    Well my principles have been clear all along. Apparently you think every thing was hunky dory till one day two nation theory emerged. You don’t even have a clue about what went on before that.

    So my principles are consistent… majorities should make every effort to ameliorate the concerns of minorities and if that does not happen, and if minorities can logically do so… they should secede…

    In case of Balochistan there isn’t even a ghost of a chance that the province of Balochistan with its Pushtun Mix and Baloch mix will ever go the Baloch way.

  8. Mustafa Shaban

    95% Baloch love pakistan and dont want to separate, despite the grave injustice by the government but they know that the people are faithful and stil have hoe that one day they wil be represented properly in government.

  9. YLH

    I wish I could share that optimism. The real truth is that a large percentage of Baloch people want to separate and hasn’t anything from Pakistan that has made them think otherwise.

    Fortunately for us, they are outnumbered in their own proposed separate state and there is no way the demand will ever find any real takers except those that want to create trouble.

    The best solution is to do whatever we can to help the Baloch people live worthwhile and decent lives as part of Pakistani federation.

  10. someone

    This article is terribly biased.The first paragraph proves this.Also,she forgets to mention that these ‘punjabi tyrants’ PAY for this gas.Mengal asks what Pakistan has done for the Baloch.I ask him what his nawabs and sardars,who have been residing there ten times longer than Pakistan’s creation,have done for them??

    60% of all pakistanis know Urdu.It became the national language so that it could unite the people as people in all the provinces knew it,especially balochistan where it became the lingua france due to the ethnic diversity in the province.

    gas cannot be adequately supplied to the people if they do not reside in cities and proper dwellings.dwellings with less than 500 people are not supplied with gas as the ‘town’ does not qualify as a town.Balochistan’s population density is only 10 people/km!It is quite normal for houses to be 5 or ten kilometers apart!

    strange are the ways of the nawabs and sardars…first they forbid the centre from building schools and roads in ”their territories” then blame the center for keeping them backwards!!

    The article is also biased in regards to the fact as it says that east balochistan was forcibly incorporated into the country which is a strange,alternate version of history,where rulers willingly ceded their territory and people voted in a referendum.Kalat’s accession is controversial,but it only encompassed 20% modern day balochistan,and,as of yet,the present ‘khan’ has been unable to prove anything.

    P.S.on a side note i would like to mention nawab akbar bugti’s(the glorious theif) main source of income was from commission he extracted from the Sui gas field amounting estimated £1 million a year and provided security to the fields for estimated £15000 per month.OF WHICH HE GAVE NOT EVEN SCRAPS TO THE BALOCHS HE USED TO ‘DEFEND’!

  11. here

    why is the article singling out the punjabis as if they are the only pakistanis?as if people in the other two provinces don’t use gas or electricity?I wonder if karachi,the most industrial and largest city here,has shifted to punjab.THIS ARTICLE IS CLEARLY RACIST!

  12. hmmm..

    “Three quarters of the women and two thirds of the population over 10 years old are illiterate. At the same time, more than half of school-age children don’t attend school for lack of financial resources and appropriate infrastructure.”

    chee..I wonder whether I’m imagining the ghost school crisis…where schools are operating in the province but there aren’t any students.last week,a picture appeared in the newspaper which showed that a Baloch bigwig had turned a school into a cattle pen!Also,where are the good teachers going to come from if the Baloch are going to keep on killing innocent punjabi teachers and doctors,whose only purpose is to save lives and minds respectively.