The U.S. on July 2 designated the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) as a terror organisation. “The BLA is an armed separatist group that targets security forces and civilians, mainly in ethnic Baloch areas of Pakistan,” said the U.S. State Department in a statement

by Kallol Bhattacherjee

The BLA, the armed wing of the Baloch movement, has carried out several violent attacks in Pakistan. It has about 6,000 cadre spread across the Baluchistan Province and in the bordering areas of Afghanistan.

In the seven decades of the Baloch movement, the BLA has survived the longest. It is borne out of the tradition of armed militants who were earlier indirectly supported by the Marri, Bugti, Mengal and other clans or Sardars. The Baloch movement was influenced by the Soviet Union and radical Marxist ideology in the past and some of their leaders were trained by Moscow. The BLA continues to draw from the same revolutionary spirit but has added that to the younger generation of fighters.

Who Are Their Leaders?

While it is well-known that several overground Baloch leaders are sympathetic to the organisation, the overground tribal leaders do not flaunt ties with the organisation as it has been banned by Pakistan since 2006. The BLA has maintained a fluid leadership pattern.

In 2018, Aslam Baloch, the young radical leader of BLA, was killed in a suicide bombing in Kandahar’s Aino Mina along with some of his followers. Unconfirmed reports suggest that Aslam Baloch had travelled to India in the past and met with people sympathetic to the Baloch cause. The organisation lost a major supporter with the October 18 assassination of Kandahar police chief General Razik by a Taliban sympathiser. Since the assassination of Aslam Baloch, the BLA has maintained silence about its leadership. It is known that regional commanders are playing a crucial role in steering the organisation at present.

Apart from BLA, the Baloch Liberation Front (BLF), founded by Jumma Khan in 1964, is the other recognised armed militant organisation fighting for the cause of Baloch freedom. The BLF used to be popular once, but it is believed that most of the BLF fighters have merged with the BLA.

The Baloch Students Organisation (BSO) is the student wing of the BLA and was once led by the popular Dr. Allah Nazar. Almost all the leading figures of the militant Baloch leadership either live out of Pakistan or are in exile abroad. There are continuous reports of military crackdown against them. The operation against Aslam Baloch was one of the several high-profile operations carried out by Pakistan’s military against the militant organisation.

Apart from the terror attack in Pearl Continental Hotel of Gwadar in May, the BLA has often been accused of launching attacks on Pakistan’s military targets and on Chinese-built infrastructure. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is passing through Baluchistan. In 2017, a group of labourers were targeted by Baloch militants. The attack that led to at least 15 deaths was widely condemned as it targeted labourers. It was initially blamed on the BLA, though, subsequently it was blamed on a splinter group.

What’s Its Ideology?

BLA rebels claim that Pakistan has been exploiting the resources of the Province without giving the due share to the locals and the indigenous Baloch tribes. In recent years, the BLA has emerged as a movement with a network of supporters in both urban and rural areas of Baluchistan, and has created a space for itself away from the traditional hold of the Sardars of tribes. BLA rebels have claimed that they are aiming for both freedom from Pakistan and internal reform of the Baloch society. They are opposed to the traditional Sardar or Kawailey system at home.

As a result of its non-traditional approach, BLA has become more popular among young and educated Balochis. In comparison with the BLA, which is amorphous and led by local commanders in charge of city and regions of Baluchistan, the Free Baluchistan Movement and the Baloch Republican Party are led by scions of the Marri and Bugti clans. Both the Marris and the Bugtis have suffered in the hands of the Pakistan military but do not espouse a direct military confrontation with the Pakistani state. Observers say that the BLA has jolted not just the grip of Pakistan over Baluchistan but also undermined the hold of the traditional tribal chiefs over the Baloch society.

What Are India’s Ties With Baloch Rebels?

It is established that BLA commanders, in the past, had sought medical treatment in India’s hospitals, often under disguise or with fake identity.

In one such case, a militant commander in charge of Khuzdar city was based in Delhi for at least six months in 2017 when he underwent extensive treatment for kidney-related ailments. Pakistan has blamed India for supporting the Baloch rebels. It is known that the Baloch Sardars like the late Akbar Bugti and Ghaus Bukhsh Bizenjo maintained warm personal ties with various Indian political figures. However, visits by militants are often under assumed identities unlike those by prominent well known leaders.

Another leader, who visited India last year, was Mama Qadeer. He has become a popular face of civil society movement after he launched a long march seeking the truth about his missing son, a Baloch activist.

What Does The U.S. Ban Mean?

Pakistan is expected to make it difficult for commanders and module chiefs of the BLA to travel in the region. The fighters are also likely to find fund-raising more difficult. In a communication to The Hindu, Baloch rebels, however, have indicated that they are planning to intensify the struggle against Pakistan as they remain “the most popular” militant organisation in Baluchistan despite Pakistan military’s crackdown.