ISLAMABAD, A planned census in Pakistan this month has revived old controversies in the restive southwestern province of Balochistan.
Factions representing the region’s Baluch and Pashtuns are at loggerheads over whether the population count expected to begin on March 15 should take place.
In a strange reversal of roles, political parties representing the region’s Pashtuns are eager for the two-month population survey to go ahead while several Baluch factions are calling on Islamabad to postpone the census.
Both sides view the population survey as vital for their political survival and claims over or maintaining a larger share in resources and political power. The issue is central to the future of Balochistan because of its status as Pakistan biggest but least populated resource-rich region. The current census is significant because ongoing Chinese investments are expected to cause significant demographic changes.
While regular population counts are considered vital for planning and development, the exercise, conducted irregularly in Pakistan 70-year-history, casts a shadow over the country’s politics. Distribution of national resources and parliamentary seats in the country are based on population numbers, so any fluctuation in the numbers of their members will inevitably affect the fate of Balochistan’s Pashtun and Baluch populations.
Sardar Akhtar Mengal, the leader of the Balochistan National Party (BNP), says his party will oppose the census being held in the province until hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees are repatriated.
“We have never opposed development, but we do not want such development to convert the people of Balochistan into a minority,” he told supporters on March 5. “Participating in the census is tantamount to committing suicide in the presence of Afghan refugees.”
While Mengal didn’t elaborate on his claim, Agha Hassan Baloch, a spokesman for the BNP, says millions of Afghan refugees will be counted as locals in the census, which will make the Baluch a minority in the region.
He said that since the onset of Pakistani military operations against Baluch separatists a decade ago, more than 1.5 million Baluch civilians have been displaced in the southern districts of the province, where most residents are Baluch.
Such views are echoed by other Baluch politicians. Lawmaker Hasil Bezinjo is Pakistan’s federal minister for ports and shipping. His National Party has demanded that Islamabad first resolve the complex issue of recent immigration into Balochistan and help the displaced Baluch communities repatriate to their home regions.
“You first need to send the foreigners back, whether they are Persian speakers, Pashto speakers or Balochi speakers,” he told Pakistan’s Capital TV, referring to the Hazara, Pashtun, and Baluch ethnic groups without naming them.
Bezinjo wants Islamabad to first survey the Afghan refugee population in the province and probe reports and claims that some among them have obtained local identity documents entitling them to claim citizenship rights.
“Balochistan is sparsely populated, and demographic change is a major sensitivity here,” he noted. “We feel that if all the foreigners are included in the census then the Baluch will turn into a minority and you cannot even call this region Balochistan.”
Balochistan or the home of the Baluch is a multiethnic province. According to Pakistan’s last census in 1998, 55 percent of the region’s 6.5 million residents spoke Balochi or Brahui, the two languages spoken by the Baluch. The census noted that some 30 percent of Balochistan’s residents were Pashtun while the rest spoke Urdu, Punjabi, Siraiki, Sindhi, and Persian.
Some Pashtun politicians in Balochistan, however, dispute these figures. The Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, the most vocal among them, boycotted the 1998 census and rejects claims that a significant number of Afghan refugees have forged Pakistani documents to alter Balochistan’s demographic balance.
Senator Usman Kakar, a senior leader of the Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, represents Balochistan in the upper chamber of Pakistani Parliament. He rejects the presence of millions of Afghan refugees in Balochistan.
Kakar has accused past provincial administrations dominated by the Baluch nationalists of manipulating population figures to exaggerate the numbers of their constituents and claim a greater share in power and resources.
“The controversy didn’t begin in 1998 but soon after the emergence of Pakistan in 1947. Since then, the census figures have been manipulated,” he told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website. “First Attaullah Mengal (father of Akhtar Mengal) and other Baluch nationalists manipulated the census in 1972. They did the same in 1998, which prompted us to boycott the exercise.”
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Pakistan continues to host more some 1.3 million documented Afghan refugees while less than 1 million unregistered refugees also live in the country. A sizeable number of these live in Balochistan. According to local media reports, tens of thousands of Afghans have obtained Pakistani identity papers.
Last year, authorities arrested many employees of the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) for allegedly issuing Pakistani identity papers to foreigners in Balochistan. Former Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansur was reportedly carrying a Pakistani passport and identity card when he was killed by a U.S. drone strike in a remote district of Balochistan. He was reportedly returning from a trip to Iran when he was targeted last May.
“The real controversy is not over who is in the majority [in Balochistan] but how many Afghan refugees are registered and how many are not,” said Hassan Baloch, the BNP spokesman, “and how many hold Pakistani citizenship.”
Lawmaker Kakar, however, says their opponents are greatly exaggerating the number of Afghan refugees who have obtained Pakistani papers.
“We do not seek any controversy with the Baluch brothers over the census, but they are welcome to verify the numbers,” he said.
Balochistan’s provincial authorities are not deterred by the controversy. Provincial spokesman Anwarul Haq Kakar says authorities are gearing up for the census on time.
He says the provincial government is seeking the military’s help to provide security and will employ mobile NADRA teams to ensure that only Pakistani citizens are counted during the demographic survey.
“We will make every possible attempt to make it free and fair,” he said.
Kiyya Baloch is a freelance journalist who reports on the insurgency, militancy, and sectarian violence in Balochistan.