Balochistan’s unforgiving landscape and fiercely independent peoples have made it perilous to invade and – until the discovery of natural gas – unrewarding to rule. Even today, the writ of the government is light at best, and its inhabitants regard themselves as among the toughest and bravest people on earth. These factors collide to make Balochistan one of contemporary Pakistan’s prime political flashpoints.
Evidence from Mehrgarh – the oldest known archaeological site on the subcontinent – and elsewhere indicates that Balochistan was inhabited as early as the Stone Age and was part of an ancient line of communication between the Indus Valley and Persia, and then Mesopotamia.
Cyrus the Great conquered the inhospitable coastal belt known as the Makran in the 6th century BC. The Persians subsequently went on to rule all of Balochistan until Alexander the Great tore through in 330 BC, although even that great figure ran into trouble here, beaten by the desert rather than the locals.
In subsequent times the region encountered numerous power shifts that included the Kushans, Arabs, Mongols, Persians and Mughals. A unity of sorts coalesced around the Khans of Kalat in the 15th century, which prevailed until the British arrived in the mid-1800s.
Following a disastrous war in Afghanistan in the 1840s, the British moved on Balochistan to protect their back door to India, but didn’t formally declare the region British territory until 1887. Following this, Balochistan was established as an agency under the direct responsibility of the governor general of India, and was ruled with the lightest of touches. Balochi feudal chiefs retained considerable control over the administration of tribal justice, collection of revenue and levying of tribal armies, while the British controlled courts of appeal and arbitrated in intertribal disputes.
At the time of Partition in 1947, military coercion forced the tribal chiefs to give up their powers. However, with little investment in infrastructure both before and since Independence, central control over the province has remained weak, with intertribal fighting and instability a persistent theme of recent times.
The 1952 discovery of natural gas at Sui in east Balochistan only compounded matters. Balochis saw little dividend from their natural wealth and political alienation led to full-blown conflict in the 1970s that saw direct military rule imposed on the province. After two decades of relative calm, increased gas exploitation and political backsliding from Islamabad fanned the flames of discontent until insurgency broke out again in 2005. Widespread violence was only temporarily halted by the army’s killing of the Baloch nationalist leader Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti a year later, and the calamity of the huge floods that swept Balochistan in the summer of 2007.