Gwadar Port: Reactions from India, Pakistan and Balochistan
By Malik Siraj Akbar
Pakistan’s information minister, Nisar A. Memon, hit out India over the recent remarks of its Naval chief regarding Gwadar Port in the southern Balochistan province of Pakistan. While speaking at T S Narayanaswamy Memorial in Chennai, Naval Chief, Admiral Sureesh Mehta, said Gwadar port, which is being constructed with the financial and technical assistance of China, had ‘serious strategic implications for India.” This statement irked the Pakistani minister so much so that he went to the extent of stating that he suspected India of sponsoring terrorism in Pakistan. Plus, it is the agents of India and like-minded forces who, according to the minister, detest the ‘time tested Sino-Pak relations’ which collaborated in the past to get the Chinese engineers and technicians killed in Balochistan.
The minister traveled a long way from Islamabad to the Baloch capital, Quetta, to voice his anguish. To substantiate his allegations, Mr. Memon cited the presence of more than a dozen Indian information centers based in Afghanistan as the source of trouble for Pakistan. “We have serious concerns about these ‘disinformation centers’. We don’t want them. If India wants friendly ties with Pakistan then it must immediately remove these disinformation centers,” the minister said in a press conference in Quetta.
As a matter of fact, it was not the first time that Pakistan held India, along with Afghanistan, responsible for the ongoing nationalistic insurgency in Balochistan. Islamabad has repeatedly said that India is involved in financing the Baloch nationalists and enticing them to create unrest in Balochistan. On their part, the Baloch nationalists, who are presently seeking greater share in the national resources and maximum internal political an administrative autonomy, dispel such allegations. Rather, they believe that Pakistan uses the veteran cliché of ‘foreign involvement’ in the affairs of Balochistan mainly with the objective to divert attention from the actual Baloch problem. Moreover, the Baloch people have always felt offended whenever their struggle was linked with ‘external forces that try to destabilize Pakistan’.
The Baloch leadership has had a very clear response to this attitude. According to a senior Baloch political analyst, “Each time Islamabad accuses the Baloch of getting external assistance, it amounts to questioning the Baloch loyalties to the state.” He further states that the Pakistani establishment has always given the impression that those coming from the largest province, the Punjab, are the true ‘patriots’ of the land. And anyone who dares demand his just constitutional rights has to face the wrath of being declared as an ‘anti-national’, ‘traitor’ and ‘foreign agent’, “The Baloch are reminded that they are not ‘patriots of Pakistan.’ Thus, the challenge ahead of them is to either prove their loyalty to the land or prepare to be declared as anti-nationals.”
Six decades of complaints about ‘foreign involvement’ in creating unrest in Balochistan has done no good to Pakistan neither have its five intermittent military operations in the province. Islamabad as resorted to all repressive measures to muzzle the Baloch demand for greater autonomy and right of ownership of its natural resources. This has not worked. The Balochistan issue continues to intensify rapidly. The need of the hour is not to hold the Baloch or the international forces responsible for the mess but to address the root causes of Baloch sense of deprivation and frustration.
Regardless of how Pakistan, India or/ and China view the under construction port in Gwadar, the truth from Balochistan is that the indigenous Baloch leadership has outright rejected the port. The Baloch do not think like Indian Naval chief that “being only 180 nautical miles from the exit of the Straits of Hormuz, Gwadar, being bulit in Baluchistan coast, would enable Pakistan take control over the world energy jugular and interdiction of Indian tankers.
On the contrary, the Baloch have opposed the Gwadar port on the following three, among other, reasons.
Firstly, the Baloch people suffer from a growing fear of being Red-Indianized on their own land. Since today Gwadar is a small township of only two hundred thousand people, of whom 100% are Balochi speakers, they believe that the heavy influx of outsiders on their land will convert them into an ethnic minority on a land they have inhibited for centuries.
Secondly, being economically the most backward ethnic community of Pakistan, the Baloch demand that first and top most priority should be given to them on job opportunities created at Gwadar Port. Development would be totally futile, they argue, if economic benefits of the port project do not trickle down to the local population. Since the commencement of development work kicked off in early 2000s, Pakistan has ruthlessly ignored the local youth while granting jobs at the port. Another demand of the Baloch leadership is that the government should impart technical training among the Baloch youths so that they are prepared to run ‘their port’ in the future. This has, however, not happened till today which has given currency to the widespread feeling among the Baloch that Gwadar port is being constructed to colonize them and Punjabize their land.
Thirdly, the Pakistani military, which is hardly represented by 1% of Baloch-speaking recruits, has acquired huge areas of land in Gwadar. Having carried five military operations against the Baloch people in the past, Pakistan’s military is not so popular to be welcomed in a Baloch area with a bouquet of roses. Thus, the Baloch leaders fear that they would be ousted from their mainland and Gwadar would transform into a garrison district where the ‘bloody civilians’, as the Pakistani army officers address the civil citizens, would be denied entry.
A veteran Baloch nationalist leader, Sardar Attaullah Mengal, explained the Baloch stance on Gwadar Port in an interview with Lahore-based English weekly, The Friday Times: “We have never opposed the idea of developing Gwadar or any other part of Balochistan. We apprised the Mushahid Hussain-led Parliamentary Sub-Committee about our reservations. Since Gwadar is a small coastal town, the influx of a large number of outsiders when the Port becomes operational will result in serious demographic changes. The total population of Balochistan is half of Karachi’s population. The government is planning to set up another Karachi at Gwadar. We will be outnumbered.”
According to Mengal, who also served as the first chief minister of Balochistan in 1970s, “We have asked the government to debate the entire proposal with us. We want to know who is going to benefit from this mega project. If the project is meant to bring economic prosperity to others at our cost, we won’t let that happen. The government should not give outsiders the right to vote in Gwadar. We welcome anyone who is interested in investing in Gwadar. But they should pay taxes to the government of Balochistan. Moreover, the revenue collection against imports and exports from Gwadar Port should go to Balochistan. The federal government mustn’t interfere in the matters of the Port. It should be up to Balochistan to decide how much it wants to contribute to the divisible pool.”
That said, Islamabad has to firstly convince its own people in Balochistan that the Gwadar Port is essential for them. On the other hand, a Baloch leader views this whole development process very cynically:
“We do not accept the ruling military junta. We want to live in the country in a democratic manner as a federating unit instead of becoming a colony of Islamabad. We see Islamabad as another East India Company which had spread a network of roads, railway lines and tunnels to meet its objectives. Islamabad is working in a similar fashion to annex the natural assets of the Baloch people.First of all, Islamabad exploited our natural gas resources and then used the province’s strategic location for testing nuclear devices and established cantonments but no development work was carried out.”
When a prominent Baloch leader, Senator Sanaullah Baloch of Balochistan National Party (BNP) was asked in an interview with Newsline, if the Baloch got any assistance from India, he replied:
“This is totally untrue. No one has better relations with India than General Pervez Musharraf himself. The best chance for India to intervene was in 1973 when a full blown insurgency was underway. The fact is that the Baloch movement is totally indigenous, motivated by political frustration, fuelled by Islamabad’s decades of indifference. Such allegations are being levelled to create an excuse for a military operation.”
He added that such movements take birth everywhere due to sheer inequalities. “Pakistan should learn a lesson from Yugoslavia and Indonesia. The country is heading towards Balkanisation. Indonesia took a wise step after a series of blunders in East Timor and with Finnish mediation, the Indonesian government has agreed to give provincial autonomy to the Aceh freedom fighters. The agreement signed in Finland between the Aceh movement and the Indonesian government is greatly similar to what we demand from Islamabad.”