Balochistan: Return of the Great Game
by Sandhya Jain on 04 Apr 2017 26 Comments

In a move that would have stunned imperial hegemons such as Winston Churchill and Olaf Caroe, Conservative Party leader Bob Blackman, on 23 March 2017 tabled Early day motion 1107 condemning Pakistan’s annexation of Gilgit-Baltistan as its Fifth Frontier. On 25 March 2017, the British Parliament passed a motion condemning Islamabad’s action, insisting that the region is a legal and constitutional part of India’s Jammu and Kashmir that Pakistan has illegally occupied since 1947.


The motion reads, “That this House condemns the arbitrary announcement by Pakistan declaring Gilgit-Baltistan as its Fifth Frontier, implying its attempt to annex the already disputed area; notes that Gilgit-Baltistan is a legal and constitutional part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, India, which is illegally occupied by Pakistan since 1947, and where people are denied their fundamental rights including the right of freedom of expression; further notes the attempts to change the demography of the region in violation of State Subject Ordinance and forcibly and illegally to build the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which further aggravates and interferes with the disputed territory”.


Beijing’s hand is discernible in Islamabad’s sudden move to integrate Gilgit-Baltistan (the northern-most region of Maharaja Hari Singh’s erstwhile kingdom) into its territory, to facilitate construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) through territory that belongs to India, and through Balochistan which Pakistan annexed on 27 March 1948. The CPEC is deeply resented by citizens of Gilgit-Baltistan and violently resisted by the Baloch.


The move by Britain’s ruling party hints at a Western resurrection of the Great Game, which in the 20th century sought to checkmate Russian influence in the Persian Gulf-Middle East region, and in the 21st century aims to curtail Chinese dominance in this strategic region.


Russia, it is pertinent to note, has under President Vladimir Putin, firmed up ties with Iran and Turkey and strengthened its presence in the Mediterranean with its support to President Basher al-Assad of Syria. Now, a second Asiatic power (the West always regarded Russia as an Asiatic power) dominating the land and sea routes to Europe, the Middle East, up to Africa, is too much to swallow. Prime Minister Theresa May possibly discussed these concerns with President Donald Trump during her recent visit to the United States.


With Islamabad a willing tool in the now $54 billion CPEC that will overhaul its decrepit infrastructure, London hopes to exploit the illegality of Pakistan’s occupation of Gilgit-Baltistan, and eventually, of Balochistan, both of which took place under its own auspices in 1947-48. During the Pakistani invasion of Jammu & Kashmir in October 1947, the Gilgit Scouts that was responsible for the security of the northern areas, betrayed and arrested the forces of the Maharaja on 1 November 1947. The British officer in charge, Major William Brown, raised the Pakistan flag in Gilgit the next day, and declared its accession to Pakistan. He received a hero’s welcome when he returned home to Great Britain.


With much water under the bridge now, in February 2017, the Khan of Kalat (core of Balochistan), Mir Suleman Dawood Jan Ahmedzai, addressed a seminar at the House of Lords, where he said Pakistan was allowed to occupy Balochistan, and urged the international community, especially the British crown, to help the Baloch regain independence. Referring to the 1876 treaty signed by the Khan of Kalat and Viceroy of India, Lord Lytton, Ahmedzai said his grandfather signed the accession to Pakistan in March 1948 under the “barrel of the gun”.


The West also supported the Baloch Republican Party representative when he raised the issue of genocide and State atrocities in Balochistan at the 34th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (March 6-23) at Geneva. When China and Pakistan attempted to silence him and demanded expunction of his remarks against the destruction caused by the CPEC, the US, UK, Norway, Netherlands and Canada ensured that Abdul Nawaz Bugti completed his statement.


The question remains whether Britain was sincere about the 1876 treaty which recognised the Khan as an independent ruler. On this basis, the Khan never joined the Chamber of Princes in Delhi and insisted that Balochistan would revert to full independence when the British left.


The evidence suggests not. In his richly documented The Shadow of the Great Game. The Untold Story of India’s Partition, Narendra Singh Sarila, ADC to Louis Mountbatten in 1948 and Indian diplomat in the 1960s, reveals that the partition of India was linked to British concerns that the Great Game between them and the Soviet Union for influence in the region between Turkey and India would acquire momentum after the end of the Second World War.


The victory over Germany in 1945 boosted Stalin’s ambitions to extend Russian influence into territories on its periphery, beginning with Eastern Europe. The Persian Gulf oilfields, of vital importance to the West, lay at Russia’s southern border. The British needed military bases from which forces could be deployed within the Indian Ocean area and in the Middle East and Far East; a base in the northwest would enable British air power to threaten Soviet military installations. The possibility of detaching Balochistan from the Indian empire – its coast lies to the north of the Gulf of Oman that leads to the Persian Gulf – was first considered in 1945, under Churchill.


Viceroy Wavell realised that the Congress Party would not cooperate with Britain on military matters and foreign policy, whereas Mohammad Ali Jinnah, cultivated by his predecessor, Lord Linlithgow, would be willing to do so. A separate Muslim state carved out of British Indian provinces in which Muslims were in a majority would include the North West Frontier Province, the Punjab, Sind, Balochistan and Bengal.


The Cripps Mission offer for representative government in 1942 included the ‘provincial option’, whereby if sufficient provinces wanted to get together and form a Dominion, they should be free to stand out and either come in after a period, or become a new Dominion at the end of it. This option opened the constitutional path for the creation of Pakistan. The Cabinet Mission plan of 1946 and Attlee’s announcement of British withdrawal on 20 February 1947 included the right of British provinces to walk out. And Balochistan was consistently designated as a province of Pakistan.


Pakistan, via the CPEC, has embedded itself in an emerging Chinese Bloc and changed the geo-political chessboard dramatically. After almost three years of silence, the West has decided to sit up and speak up. We live in interesting times.  

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