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World: Turbulent Fragment

6 minute read
TIME

A “colonized” Baluchistan yearns for autonomy

Once major trouble spot on the crescent of crisis is Pakistan. Less a country than an idea for a Muslim republic that has never quite worked, Pakistan is a federation of four provinces, each of which has a formidable sense of regional identity. The largest (133,000 sq. mi.) and most turbulent of these jostling fragments is actually part of a tribal nation without defined borders, whose people also inhabit the eastern fringe of Iran and the southern tier of Afghanistan. This nation was literally quartered by the British map makers who brushed in arbitrary political boundaries during their heyday of 19th century imperialism. Like so much of this part of the world in the late 20th century, this “country” can no longer be ignored. Its name is Baluchistan (pronounced Ba-loo-chi-stan).

The tribal reality of Baluchistan has caused trouble not only for the Pakistani government but also for Iran. The dour, nomadic Baluch tribesmen who make up 60% of the Pakistani province’s 2.5 million population have about 1 million kin in eastern Iran and perhaps 300,000 more in Afghanistan. In 1972 Pakistan’s Baluch launched a revolt against the regime of former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who retaliated harshly over the next four years. At the peak of the fighting, the Shah supplied helicopters and pilots to help 70,000 Pakistani soldiers put down the rebellion of 55,000 bearded, turbaned Muslim guerrillas, who were mostly armed with local versions of Britain’s Edwardian-vintage Lee-Enfield rifle. Since then, the Baluch have been relatively quiet. But members of a Marxist Baluchistan People’s Liberation Front have found sanctuary in Afghanistan, and resentment of Pakistan’s unfulfilled promises of greater freedom lingers. So too does concern among some Western analysts that future upheaval in Baluchistan could lead to an extension of Soviet influence south to the Indian Ocean. TIME Correspondent David DeVoss, after spending ten days in Baluchistan, last week filed this report on a triangle of turmoil:

Flinty, arid Baluchistan is a sparsely populated land that only its sons could love. Corrugated by rugged mountain ranges, the area receives an average of 10 in. of rain a year, usually all at once, vs. 36.5 in. in more fertile northern Pakistan, near Kashmir. In summer, temperatures can rise to 130° F. In winter, they can fall to subfreezing levels. Desert scorpions and other noxious fauna abound. Prolonged exposure to Baluchistan can be fatal: when the army of Alexander the Great marched across it on the way home from India, two-thirds of the men died. But local folklore has it that Baluchistan’s towering hills are carpets covering vast troves of mineral wealth. “We have a saying here,” beams one local leader, the portly Khan of Kalat, “that a Baluch child may be born without socks on his feet, but when he grows every step he takes is on gold.” The fact is that Baluchistan has a bit of oil, coal and natural gas, but not much else.

Life among the Baluch is in many ways the same as it was in the days of the British raj, although camels are now less prevalent than the gaily painted trucks and triwheeled scooters that chug asthmatically around the streets of the province’s capital, Quetta (pop. 250,000). Purdah (seclusion of women) and arranged marriage are accepted practices in this strict Islamic society. The chief source of relaxation is bung, a finely ground concoction of high-powered local marijuana that is chewed like tobacco or drunk as a herbal infusion. Tribal values revolve around honor, which the Baluch will go to any length to satisfy, including even paying for it. In one Baluch tribe, $400 is the traditional fine for murder, while the penalties for causing bodily injuries start at $50. Fiercely clannish, the main Baluch tribes are headed by chieftains called sardars. Says Baluchistan Times Editor Fasih Iqbal: “A tribe follows its sardar. If he goes Communist, so goes the whole tribe.”

Three years after the rebellion was suppressed, the major towns of Baluchistan are still garrisoned with 30,000 Pakistani troops, mostly drawn from the populous eastern provinces of Punjab and Sind. At least 70% of the local policemen in the province are also outsiders. One Western diplomat in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad describes Baluch resentment against central government intrusion as “tremendous. For the Baluch there is no qualitative difference between the Punjabis and the army of Alexander the Great. They’re both occupying powers.” In the garrison town of Khuzdar, where a third of the 15,000 population consists of military personnel, civilians resent the fact that plumbing is only available in government housing. Merchants who accept a Pakistani soldier’s money often ignore his attempts at conversation. Befriending a government trooper brings with it the risk of being branded a kasa chat (ass kisser).

The Baluch feel that their land is being colonized. Every year hundreds of settlers from the Punjab and Sind are assigned to the province’s bureaucracy. Of the twelve provincial secretaries in Quetta, only one is Baluch. There are no Baluch on the staff that administers martial law. Among 1,120 students at the provincial university, only 269 are members of Baluch tribes.

In a Baluch separatist stronghold on the Afghan side of the border, grown men and teen-agers can be found drilling with 14-lb. Lee-Enfields and pre paring for an uprising in the indefinite future. Says Chakar Khan, 28, secretary of the Baluchistan People’s Liberation Front: “We’re weaning them away from tribalism. Today they’re beginning to understand that we’re not fighting the whole of Punjab province, but only a ruling clique.” While Chakar Khan dreams of a Communist “chain across the subcontinent,” there are, in fact, no more than 600 fighters in his force. Apart from sanctuary, support from the new Moscow-leaning Afghan government of President Noor Mohammed Taraki seems nominal at best: 300 per person per day and 44 Ibs. of flour per person per month.

Strong as the nationalist feeling may be in Baluchistan, it could probably be defused by concessions of greater autonomy from Pakistan’s central government and the judicious use of funds to develop the region. But General Zia’s military government has neither restored the assembly that Bhutto suppressed nor made many moves to integrate the Baluch into the predominantly Punjabi administration of the province. Fumes the Khan of Kalat, whose title was taken by his family in 1666, predating the British imperial administration in Baluchistan by a hefty margin: “When will the government realize that all we want is a quarter of the national cake?” Adds one of the few high-ranking Baluch bureaucrats in Quetta: “The government’s policy is reactionary. Our salvation lies in the hope that the Soviets will be equally incompetent.”

So far, that has proved to be true. When the Taraki regime took power last April, it botched dealings with its own Pathan tribesmen, whose relatives make up 40% of the population of Baluchistan and occupy much of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier province. Many Afghan Pathans have since fled across the border to Pakistan. That experience, however, is no guarantee of perpetual Afghan and Soviet ineptitude. The Khan of Kalat offers a warning: “People are quiet, but God knows what will happen in six months.”

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