Activists fighting for a cause, especially one that has a lot of popular emotion attached to it, are usually loud and shrill when holding forth in public.
They tend to be belligerent and turn excessively aggressive if their views are contradicted.
In a sense, loud speech, belligerence, and aggression are necessary for effective activism. After all, if an activist is an easy pushover, then his or her cause cannot be worth fighting for.
Pakistani soldiers in Balochistan: The Baloch were, and remain, a fiercely independent people
At the same time, needlessly pushy activism can put people off and make them indifferent to causes that could be perfectly legitimate and deserving of support.
Hence listening to Prof Naela Quadri Baloch at a recent discussion on Balochistan organised by the Observer Research Foundation came as a pleasant surprise.
She was soft-spoken yet firm, persuasive yet polite. She presented her case, or rather the case for a free Balochistan, without recourse to either maudlin sentiments or theatrical hyperbole.
Much of the story of Balochistan is uncluttered and uncontested, provided we do not pay undue attention and attach unwarranted credibility to Pakistan’s claims.
In 1947, when British colonial rule came to an end in the Indian subcontinent, 535 princely states were given the option of either acceding to India or Pakistan through merger of territory, or remaining free and independent.
The Khan of Kalat, which comprised nearly all of Balochistan barring three minor principalities, was not too eager to accede to Pakistan.
A member of the Pakistan Navy at the Gwadar port in Balochistan Province
The Baloch were, and remain, a fiercely independent people, with their own cultural and social identity, along with a land endowed with natural resources.
That early impulse for freedom became the root cause of Balochistan’s subsequent misery.
Since its violent Caesarian birth, assisted by a scalpel-wielding Britain, on August 14, 1947, Pakistan has been as deceitful as its Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah was during his brief and bitter life as the ruler of a moth-eaten country, one half of which fell off the map in 1971.
Jinnah the barrister helped the Khan of Kalat to prepare his brief for independence and a Standstill Agreement in the interim.
Jinnah the smash-and-grab politician paved the path for Kalat’s annexation by Pakistan on March 27, 1948.
Thus was Balochistan forcibly converted into a province of Pakistan, against the wishes of the Baloch and their Khan.
Balochistan’s struggle against Pakistani rule and Islamabad’s ‘One Unit’ policy has been relentless since the annexation of Kalat.
Brutal repression by the Pakistani Army has failed to break the spirit of resistance. Beginning with 1948-49, it has been a horrific campaign to put down dissent and silence the voice of freedom.
There are several similarities between the Pakistani Army committing hideous crimes in Bangladesh (what was then East Pakistan) and Balochistan.
Mass killings, the rape of women, laying human habitations to waste, targeted assassinations - Bangladesh saw it all during its Liberation War of 1971. And Balochistan continues to witness these horrors
General Tikka Khan, nicknamed the ‘Butcher of Bangladesh’, had the dubious distinction of also being called the ‘Butcher of Balochistan’ for the bloody campaign he led from 1973 to 1977.
But for all the sorrow, grief and misery heaped on the people of Balochistan, they have risen again. The freedom movement, relaunched in 2004, continues unabated.
Divided by the Goldsmith Line of 1871, Balochistan is split between Pakistani and Iranian occupation, with some bits spilling into Afghanistan on account of the flawed Durand Line.
Britain understood the strategic importance of Balochistan and played its game accordingly to keep the Russians out.
Today, both Pakistan and Iran are leveraging that strategic importance to further their own economic and security interests.
India’s position on Balochistan has been, at best, ambivalent. Notwithstanding the arrest of an Indian national (Pakistan claims he is a “R&AW agent” and was arrested on its side of the Goldsmith Line; there are credible claims he was arrested by the Iranians and handed over to the ISI) it would be silly to imagine a grand Indian conspiracy in action. New Delhi has long been incapable of doing what Mrs Indira Gandhi did in 1970-71.
Yet there is a case for an Indian policy on Balochistan. India did play a major role in propping up the Northern Alliance so as not to concede all ground to the Taliban and its mentor, Pakistan, in Afghanistan.
A hands-off approach, therefore, is lacking in precedence, even if we were to discount India’s proactive role in the liberation of Bangladesh from the tyranny of Pakistan. The issue is what should be that policy.
Investing in Chabahar port that lies on the Iranian side of Balochistan cannot be a policy in entirety. At best it will partially countervail China’s captive port at Gwadar on the Pakistani side of Balochistan. That’s one pawn moved.
What next? One possible option is for India to declare moral and diplomatic support for the freedom movement in Balochistan, while calling for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
That would require gumption. Indeed, it would need the political courage of Mrs Gandhi coupled with popular support for a righteous cause that India believes in.
Great nations and rising powers have to be risk-takers. The inevitable backlash of supporting Balochistan’s liberation war will no doubt be huge. But if Mrs Gandhi, prime minister of an impoverished nation, could turn up her nose at what the world thought, surely Narendra Modi, prime minister of the fastest growing economy, can do likewise.
A successful Balochistan policy premised on India’s historical association with just causes would also lead to the forging of a successful Pakistan policy. Is the government game?
The writer is a political commentator