CPEC and Balochistan

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In the international order of things, countries with less power will always orbit around those with more; and countries with more, will always be the ones directing the ‘order of things’. In a Machiavellian world, also the one we belong to, power plays an important role in any kind of political synergy between kingdoms, states, and even communities. But the nature of this power in an increasingly modern, connected, and regulated world has changed its sinister tone to that of benevolence. And for once, benevolence is not weighed in as purified altruism, instead it is understood in realist terms: international benevolence is a mutually beneficial but also a mutually dependent venture, undertaken to forge alliances, trigger political and cultural exchange, initiate economic and social uplift and stability, cement defense ties, and create diplomacy to bolster future development. The daring and unprecedented China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is being seen in light of this ‘affirmative’ power.

China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a $54 billion economic investment in Pakistan that aims to connect the Gwadar Port in Balochistan to Xinjiang in far-western China. The project is a collection of various infrastructure and energy projects, includes a vast network of highways and railways, and establishes special economic zones. While energy projects include renewable energy and other fossil fuels, the backbone of infrastructural development is the highway that aims to connect Gwadar to Xinjiang. Part of the road network passes through Pakistan’s northern areas of Gilgit Baltistan, but for the most part, it passes through Pakistan’s mammoth province of Balochistan. And when it comes to the contentious issue of Balochistan, it seems the world is more entrenched within it than even the local inhabitants themselves!

Take for example the Indian PM Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speech in August last year; he made the Indian position on CPEC, Balochistan, and Pakistan’s future security very clear. He went aggressively further in a diatribe stating that the people of Balochistan, Gilgit, and Kashmir have ‘thanked’ him in raising a voice for them. While it is not clear whose voices he may have heard, one thing’s for sure, it might have been a classic case of Chinese Whispers rather than a full-blown heart to heart. Although relations between India and Pakistan were on an all time low following atrocities committed by the Indian state in Occupied Kashmir at the time of the speech, his thinly veiled threat was directed towards a larger issue: CPEC, Chinese economic hegemony, regional flux in strategic dynamics, and Pakistan’s sometimes floundering and sometimes improving international standing- perpetually pitted against that of India’s.

To say Balochistan is an epitome of provincial integration into the state of union would be a gross exaggeration; More than half the population in Balochistan lives in poverty, health care is paltry, there is an acute water shortage, insurgency is rampant, sectarianism thrives, infrastructure is lacking, development is inadequate, and most of the natural resources do not benefit the native population directly. But despite these pressing indicators Balochistan’s tribal dynamics coupled with a harsh and unforgiving terrain has not only sidelined its contribution to the country but has in addition created an environment of fear, socio political retardation, and economic instability. While most Balochis live in poverty, they are part of a tribal social system that requires them to not only pay fealty and profess loyalty to the Sardars, but this archaic system hold them hostage from any meaningful progress. The sardars want to retain power, influence, and the sociocultural benefits their positions of authority grants them. In truth, there is no check to their power and more often they use it to exploit and discriminate the vast majority of people living in the province.

And if these are the ‘voices’ Mr. Modi sought and heard- not the ones coming from his own backyard- then it becomes a classic case of the ‘pot calling the kettle black’.

The institution of the sardar was formally abolished by the System of Sardari (Abolition) Act, 1976. Ironically, it says in the preamble: “The system of sardari, prevalent in certain parts of Pakistan, is the worst remnant of the oppressive feudal and tribal system which, being derogatory to human dignity and freedom, is repugnant to the spirit of democracy and equality as enunciated by Islam and enshrined in the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and opposed to the economic advancement of the people.” But today, Balochistan has fallen almost a century behind the country’s other, better-developed regions. And for the most part it is because of the inability of tribal leaders to craft a relationship with the larger Pakistani state and society.

In a recent statement at a seminar, Baloch dissident leader Mir Suleiman Ahmedzai, who holds the title of “Khan of Kalat” asserted that Balochistan strongly welcomes India’s assistance in stopping both nations with their nefarious plans in executing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). According to him, CPEC has no developmental value and is instead is an ‘occupying’ tactic through which the land will be ‘plundered’.

While it is not clear how India’s ‘involvement’ will help the Baloch issue, one thing’s clear- India will not be building hospitals, schools, colleges, road networks, railway lines, bridges, pipelines, public parks, housing schemes, and industrial pockets. It will instead pump in vast amounts of money to carefully orchestrate conflict. But then again that eventuality has already come to pass. Yet, there exists another angle to Balochistan.

With an estimated 7.1 billion initial investment through CPEC, Balochistan ranks second in its share, and according to PM Nawaz Sharif, will be a major beneficiary of CPEC. The progress on Gwadar Port has been the most significant development task in recent years. Once developed, the port would be a game changer for the province, country and region as well. It would promote trade in the entire region, as this would be the shortest route to Central Asia and China. But more than that, a presence of an economic hub in the province connected by a vast system of roads and railways will change the socioeconomic landscape of the province, and provide a base for future development. Moreover, despite parts of the province being under the Army’s control, the military has fostered ‘good relations’ with the local populace. It has built roads, hospitals, schools and colleges; it has provided a socio political framework where the locals can access corridors of power; it has provided security on the volatile and often permeable border the province shares with Afghanistan; in total, it is trying to depoliticize the land for any civic integration to take place.

And ‘integration’ has become the most imperative issue of our time when it comes to Balochistan. It is clear that the province does not just have a strategic advantage and is blessed with abundant natural resources but is also rich in culture, history, and traditions. Balochistan has its own emphatic identity and the Sardars are but a tiny part of that legacy.

We live in a time where power dynamics between any two opposing forces will yield a radical transformation, be it between countries, institutions, ideologies, cultures, political bearing, or even tribes; but we also live in a time where consensus can be crafted without violence and bloodshed. With a prominent civil society, grass root activism, an effective opposition, and a hawkish media the issue of Balochistan can be critically dis-tangled from its previous narratives. While the Pakistani state is in no way free of blame, the ‘Baloch Voice’ needs to be heard in the right places by the right ear. And that is certainly not the Indian Prime Minister, who cannot contain a rebellion in his own backyard; and it is certainly not the Sardars, who have collected royalties all these years without letting them trickle down to the people. The identity of the ‘plunderer’ and the identity of ‘benevolent’ is yet to be discovered.


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