The state of Pakistan seems incapable of learning from its experiences in former East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), and seems therefore doomed to repeat history when it comes to addressing the grievances of Balochistan. Home to nearly ten million of the 180 million-strong population of the country (an estimate at best, since the last census was in 1998), the province has the smallest population in the country but  the largest land area. According to the last census, Balochi-speakers comprise 55% of the population in the province followed by the Pashto-speakers (30%) and other ethnicities, including the Punjabi, Sindhi, and Urdu-speaking minorities (9%).[1] Balochistan’s accession to the newly-formed state of Pakistan in 1947 was controversial by all accounts, but the following 65 years have magnified the controversy into an epic tale of historical wrongs. The accession is portrayed today by Baloch nationalists and separatists as merely the beginning of a tradition of discrimination and exclusion from the mainstream state apparatus.

The variety of ethnic Baloch complaints against the central government runs from the exploitation of Balochistan’s abundant natural resources for the benefit of the other provinces, especially the Punjab, to violent military excesses and deliberate alterations to the demographics of the province by bringing in settlers. The military has conducted five operations in the province, ostensibly to curb militant secessionists who seek independence from Pakistan. The most recent operation occurred in 2004, under the military rule of General Pervez Musharraf. Matters came to a head with the extra-judicial murder of Nawab Akbar Bugti, reportedly at the behest of General Musharraf; this incident has thus far avoided investigation and prosecution. After Nawab Bugti’s death in 2006, the secessionist movement in the province has gained both momentum and a higher profile. With the recent hearing on Capitol Hill[2] and the subsequent introduction of a resolution advocating self-determination for the Baloch people, [3] there is now unprecedented focus within Pakistan on the unrest in Balochistan. 

As the vibrant media in Pakistan engages with nationalist and secessionist Baloch leaders, it is obvious that there is a dangerous lack of information about and familiarity with Balochistan’s problems, and with the sentiments of the people in the province. The remoteness of a significant part of the province and its citizens’ virtual disconnection from the mainstream life of the country has led to widespread ignorance about Balochistan among other provinces and communities. The ongoing public debate is going a long way toward changing that.

What ails Balochistan?

The primary issue, and indeed the flashpoint, in the province is that of missing persons. Baloch leaders allege that security agencies have indiscriminately "picked up" thousands of individuals, while representatives of law enforcement agencies in the province deny the charge. Pakistan’s Minister of Interior recently acknowledged only 48 missing persons when previously he had admitted to 1,100. [4] An undetermined number of the missing have been found dead in various parts of the province, their bodies bearing marks of torture. In June 2011, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan presented a detailed report documenting 143 missing persons and the discovered remains of 140 missing persons.[5]

However, it is not just the state’s security agencies that stand accused of perpetuating violence in the province. Baloch militants have been involved in targeted killings of non-Baloch ethnic settlers and attacks on infrastructure in the province, including schools. In many cases, the targeted settlers had actually resided in the province for decades and served as teachers, barbers, and doctors. The deliberate targeting of non-Baloch families and businesses has driven thousands (and according to some unverified estimates hundreds of thousands) of people away from their homes in Balochistan. Human Rights Watch has documented 22 instances of militant violence against educational establishments, and quoted secessionist leaders justifying the killing of settlers and teachers as an appropriate response to the state's human rights abuses.[6]

Further complicating the situation is the rise in sectarian killings. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan identified 18 sectarian murders in the first five months of 2011.[7] There has been a distinct increase in the frequency of sectarian attacks on Hazara Shi‘a by extremist organizations. Last year witnessed several horrific incidents of pilgrims being dragged off buses and shot point-blank with some estimates placing Hazara death toll at 230 between 2007 and 2011. [8]

Compounding the human tragedy of missing persons and targeted killings is the abysmal state of human development in the province. Literacy levels are the lowest in the country, with the 2007 National Economic Survey placing the overall provincial literacy rate at 34% and 27% for women.[9] The Social Policy and Development Center documented a 3% decrease in development expenditures in the 2010-11 fiscal year compared to the year before. [10] An oft-quoted piece of evidence that illustrates the Baloch population's deprivation is the widespread unavailability of gas, even though the province supplies the rest of the country with hydrocarbons.

The tribal organization of Baloch society and the control of the sardars (tribal chiefs) over territories and inhabitant populations is also a factor to be taken into account. Prominent sardars (including the late Nawab Akbar Bugti, who was a former Chief Minister) have led the provincial governments of Balochistan with the official capacity to implement development projects. The sardars have also been recipients of massive royalties from the federal government in return for access to Balochistan’s natural resources. The sardars rarely, if ever, used these royalties for the benefit of the ordinary citizens of Balochistan. The lack of transparency in the allocation, transfer, and use of royalties makes it difficult to ascertain the exact extent of the resources at the disposal of the sardars, and therefore to hold them accountable.   

In assigning blame where it is deserved, it is important to remember a crucial fact about law enforcement agencies in Pakistan (and everywhere else): they are neither structured nor trained to govern; they serve at the behest of the national government. In criticizing the phenomenon of the missing persons and holding the perpetrators responsible, the plight of the settlers and religious sects cannot be ignored. They are just as much victims as the ethnic Baloch, and any attempt to pacify the violence in Balochistan must provide protection to all victims, regardless of ethnicity and religious affiliation.

Where next?

It is the domestic political forces in Pakistan that must take the lead in resolving the situation in Balochistan. In a situation where the civilian authority has either abdicated responsibility or has deliberately been excluded from decision-making (never a far-fetched thought when it comes to civil-military relations in Pakistan), there can be no progress until control is firmly and publicly handed over to political representatives, however feeble. Democracy is imperfect and perhaps nowhere as imperfect as in a country hobbled by a long history of military dictators, but it is the only viable solution to what ails the Pakistani state in Balochistan and elsewhere in the country.

Action must be taken against "dissapearances." If law enforcement agencies suspect individuals of criminal activity, they must register cases against them and produce them in a court of law. If the current law is inadequate to deal with such cases, a judicial commission appointed by the executive or the legislature must review and recommend changes to the Law of Evidence, if necessary.

Emergency development activities must be instituted in the province and spearheaded by both the federal and provincial governments. For starters, natural gas supply lines should be laid down within Balochistan. Although with the acute shortage of natural gas only worsening, communities in Balochistan may still be without access to the resource buried beneath the very land they reside on. But the need for development goes far beyond the need for natural gas. The economic needs of the Pakistani citizens in Balochistan must also be addressed. Public health, education, and civil infrastructure such as roads, water supply, and sanitation are some of the long-ignored investments that need to be made in the province in order to put its citizens on par with those living in other provinces.   

There can be no negotiation where there is no authority to deliver on the negotiated compromise, and there is a well-founded belief that the civilian administration and politicians in Pakistan have neither the authority nor the inclination to fix what is tragically broken in Balochistan. Therefore, any political solution must come with the full backing and commitment of the state – the executive, but more relevant in this case, the military and intelligence apparatuses. That is, of course, easier said than done. But as they say, nothing ventured, nothing gained. And in this case, there is much to be lost.

While the greater focus on violence-ridden and restive Balochistan is a welcome change from the wilderness in which the issue has wandered over the past few years, recognizing the problem is only the first step. There needs to be a sustained political commitment to addressing the legitimate demands of the politically and economically disenfranchised sections of Baloch society. Maintaining the territorial integrity of Pakistan demands it – but more so than that, justice demands it.




[1] “Population by Mother Tongue”, Pakistan Census Organization, 1998,

[2] “Baluchistan Hearing,” Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, House Committee on Foreign Relations, February 8, 2012.

[3] “Expressing the sense of Congress that the people of Baluchistan, currently divided between Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan, have the right to self-determination and to their own sovereign country.” H.R. 104, 112th Cong. (2012).

[4] "Pakistan: Balochistan Mourns its Missing," Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), November 17, 2011, ; "Only 48 Persons Missing in Balochistan: Malik," Daily Times, March 5, 2012, .

[5] “Blinkered Slide into Chaos,” Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, June 2011,

[6] “’Their Future is at Stake:’ Attacks on Teachers and Schools in Pakistan’s Balochistan Province,” Human Rights Watch, 2010, .

[7] “ Blinkered Slide into Chaos.”

[8] "Sectarian Atrocity: 29 Killed in Mastung, Quetta Ambushes," Tribune, September 20, 2011,

[9] “Economic Survey of Pakistan, 2007–08: Part 2 of 2,” accountancy, .

[10] "Social Development in Pakistan, Annual Review 2009-10: Social Impact of the Security Crisis," Social Policy and Development Centre, 2010, .