By Manish Rai 1 February 2023
Balochistan Pakistan’s largest province in terms of area has been rocked by the massive protests and sit-in demonstrations for quite a time now. The “Haq Do Tehreek” (Give rights Movement) leader Maulana Hidayat Ur Rehman was arrested and sent to police remand by an anti-terrorism court in Quetta. He had been arrested earlier in January for inciting violence leading to the death of a policeman in the port city of Gwadar. This movement initially was started by the local Baloch women from Gwadar led by Massi Zainab in Mid of 2021. Demanding clean drinking water, hospitals, and electricity. Other demands included easing restrictions on informal cross-border trade with Iran, the reduction of security checkpoints in the area, and an end to illegal trawling were also taken up later. The issue of illegal trawling is the struggle for the people of the port city for whom fishing is one of the only sources of income. Later on 70-year-old housewife Massi Zainab AKA Aunty Zaini asked a charismatic local political leader, of Jamaat-E-Islami (JI) Maulana Hidayat Ur Rehman, to help mount a protest for the rights of the citizens of Gwadar. Within weeks, Massi Zainab was marching with thousands of local women on the streets of the city, a first for this conservative society. Responding to the call, Maulana launched a sit-in protest in November, 2021. Also, as this movement has spread now to the entire province of Balochistan another important demand of recovering the missing persons has been added as the one of the core demands. It should be known that according to Voice of Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP) an association representing family members of missing Baloch people. Over 20,000 Baloch have disappeared in the last decade.
The initial protest ended after the arrival of the Chief Minister, who signed an agreement to meet the protestor’s demands. Unfortunately, illegal trawling is still in practice in Gwadar also nothing much has been done to meet the other demands as well. It is being emphasised by the government authorities that Balochistan in large and Gwadar in particular has seen massive development in the last decade. But that’s also true that many of the locals feel left out and believe that none of the development has benefited them. On the contrary, there is resentment against the developmental projects which people think have been started to exploit the resources of the province. Residents of the fishing town feel like they are being turned into outsiders in their own area. The construction and investments in the coastal city, instead of making lives better for the citizens, have worsened their plight.
Balochistan is like a goldmine for Pakistan with its vast mineral and natural resources. The province contains plentiful supplies of oil, coal, gas, gold, silver, uranium, and copper. It provides Islamabad direct access to the strategically significant Indian Ocean, with a thousand kilometres of coastline near the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz from where most important shipping lanes pass through. Despite having such vast natural wealth, much of the population of the province lives below the poverty line. With limited or no access to education, jobs, electricity, roads and clean water. Barely 41% of the population is literate (the national average is 57%), unemployment rate is around 30% and just 7% have access to running water. And while Balochistan provides one-third of Pakistan’s natural gas supply only a handful of towns are hooked up to the supply grid. For example, gas reserves were discovered in Sui which lies in the district of Dera Bughti in 1952, but the locals are still using wood as fuel. Other social indicators such as infant mortality rate and life expectancy are also low compared to national average. As a common Baloch fails to understand why he is forced to live in abject poverty. While other provinces of Pakistan are benefitting from the natural resources of his homeland.
This civil movement seems to have spread deeper into Baloch society. Anti-State sentiments have gripped the entire province. Baloch school children refuse to sing the national anthem or fly its flag, women, traditionally confined to home have joined the struggle. Universities have become hotbeds of nationalist sentiment. Hence arrest of few leading figures of this movement won’t make much of a difference in fact it might ignite another fierce phase. Pakistan’s political and military leadership have to understand that there can be no solution to the Baloch issue with the repressive policies. Balochistan requires a political solution. There is an immediate need to establish confidence and mutual trust among Balochs in order to resolve the issues of insecurity, injustice and anger among them. Instead of false promises, the people of Balochistan need real action on the ground. So that they can feel themselves beneficiaries of progress and development in their own province. Bearing in mind the decades of neglect, it will take time to address the people’s grievances and pacify them. But the government needs to handle the matters with utmost care, empathy and amicably rather than resorting to the use of violence. Failure to do so in a fair and just manner. Would only alienate the Baloch people from the Pakistani state and as a result more and more people will find armed struggle as the only option left for them.
(Manish Rai is a columnist for the Middle East and Afghanistan-Pakistan region and Editor of the geo-political news agency ViewsAround)