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From Kashgar to Gwadar

Will national interest take precedence over politics driven by the self-interested pursuit of power in case of Pakistan-China Economic Corridor?

From Kashgar to Gwadar
Gwadar: Locals should get maximum jobs.

This article, written from the perspective of integrating Balochistan with rest of the country, is meant to give reasons as to why should the central government dole out maximum economic benefits to Balochistan in Pakistan-China Economic Corridor (PCEC). The ambivalent response of Balochistan-based nationalist political parties to the controversy regarding the alleged change of route relating to PCEC smacks of duplicity.

National Party’s approval of PCEC’s route short of celebration and PkMAP’s tacit acquiescence accompanied by muted protests demonstrated their pretending not to own an unpopular decision, fearing a backlash from the otherwise complacent masses. The centre has allegedly changed the original plan of the route in such a way as to accrue more economic benefits to Punjab at the cost of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.

The much-touted originally proposed route was meant to pass through various parts of Balochistan which the changed route effectively denies the economically backward but resource-rich province the attendant blessings of the PCEC.

Why would the central government want to change the route?

The apparent reasons for the change in route are that the original route passes through volatile regions in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan and that the cash-strapped central government cannot afford investing in new infrastructure in the two provinces when it already has a functional infrastructure in Sindh and Punjab. Besides, the underlying motive, however, is that by executing new route the incumbent prime minister wants to economically benefit his home constituencies in Punjab in order to guarantee the ruling PML-N’s firm political control over the province only to buttress the obvious: winning Punjab is the key to ruling Pakistan.

Why should PCEC guarantee maximum economic benefits to Balochistan?

In decision making, national interests — here integration of Balochistan as a case in point — take priority over individual or group’s interests. First, one may ask why Balochistan, where the treasure of Gwadar Port is situated, be deprived of its fair share of economic dividends. Benefiting from natural resources located in Balochistan while denying the province its due share smacks of imperialistic extraction which cannot be justified in an independent country ruled by its own people!

The great lesson from Pashtun and Sindhi separatist movements is that integrating Balochistan with the rest of the country is essential for defusing separatist tendencies among the Baloch nationalists.

Of the $45.6 billion that China has promised to commit for the PCEC, around $33.8 billion will be invested in various energy projects and $11.8 billion will be allocated for transportation infrastructure including communication links — roads, railways, cable, and oil and gas pipelines. Special economic zones will dot all the way from Gwadar to Kashgar. Resultantly, the projects will create thousands of job opportunities and businesses resulting in socio-economic uplift of Balochistan — a province where unemployment (20 per cent) is much higher than its share (5 per cent) of the country’s total population.

Second, the argument that since original route passes through trouble spots, it is rational to change the route, harks back to colonial era mindset: the prevalence of security considerations over development. It only strengthens sub-nationalists’ charge of the “Punjabisation of Pakistan” — an unhealthy sign for national cohesion. Underdevelopment — as to take a leaf out of dependencia theory’s book — is not a natural condition: it is fostered.

Baloch underdevelopment, alienation and the concomitant militancy on various occasions are attributable to centre’s inequitable economic exploitation of Balochistan’s resources, undemocratic choices relating to the province and the tribal system whereby the Baloch sardars are also responsible for Baloch backwardness.

From Baloch nationalists’ viewpoint, Baloch retardation is due to ruthless extraction on the part of the centre from the natural resources of Balochistan. The current phase of Baloch separatist violence — dubbed as “low intensity conflict” — is deeply rooted in the secessionists’ armed opposition to mega projects in the province, including Gwadar seaport because they believe that Punjab will benefit at the cost of Balochistan.

Seen this way, beating insurgent’s narrative in the realm of ideas is as important as defeating insurgency on the battle ground. Although tribal system among the Baloch existed prior to the British arrival in Balochistan, it was immensely reinforced by the colonial power. Even if one is to believe the partially correct world view from Islamabad that Baloch backwardness owes to their sardars’ exploitation of the masses then the bitter truth is that Islamabad’s policies are rarely meant to redress the situation.

Also read: Beyond Gwadar

Third, the history of Baloch secessionist movement is testament to the fact that guns have not sufficed to extinguish the flames of insurgency. Although the beginning of economic development will not serve as panacea for all woes, it will definitely help reduce Baloch disenchantment towards centre.

Fourth, ensuring economic development of Balochistan will strengthen the hands of Baloch moderates. From the separatists’ perspective, moderate Baloch — those who participate in the political process to claim Baloch rights within the framework of Pakistani federation — are written off as toadies of the centre and by extension that of Punjab. The accruing of economic benefits for hardship stricken Baloch will belittle the need for resorting to violence.

Post independence, the history of Baloch armed resistance is full of instances whereby change in the policies of central government would induce corresponding change among the Baloch separatists.

Fifth, changing the PCEC’s route for making a political capital out of it under the guise of safety of the route is surely unjustifiable in the face of a national concern: Baloch integration.

Whether the central government sticks to the PCEC’s original route or not or at least whether it commits to Balochistan’s economic prosperity in the corridor or not will serve as a litmus test as to what extent the centre is serious in responding to Baloch grievances at a time when a “middle class” chief minister, not a sardar, is leading the coalition government in Balochistan.

The great lesson from Pashtun and Sindhi separatist movements is that integrating Balochistan with the rest of the country is essential for defusing separatist tendencies among the Baloch nationalists. Will national interest take precedence over politics driven by the self-interested pursuit of power? If the officialdom has learnt from the past that the mere use of brute force has not paid off in Balochistan is for all of us to see.

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