FOLLOWING the announcement of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), like other journalists, I visited Gwadar, the epicentre of CPEC. During my first visit, accompanied by Dawn’s Gwadar correspondent Behram Baloch, I visited different parts of the town. From fishermen to local traders, all of them were apprehensive about their future amid development so much that they seemed in a state of anxiety by the sudden change that they had started witnessing. Like the town, locals had lost their sense of humour, and I found most of them humourless. “They are worried about their future,” Behram Baloch told me in the Komari Ward of Mullah Band adjacent to the port area, when fishermen had shown little interest in discussing their woes with Dawn. “They do not believe discussing their woes with the media can make a difference, now.”
If Gwadar’s development is not meant to benefit locals first, then it is the first step towards derailment of the entire development process
The locals were also disappointed by the government as well as political parties, including nationalist parties, besides the media. The reason is: no one addresses their growing concerns about their issues and the port town they have been inhabiting for centuries. There was no water, electricity, and other facilities available in the port town, nor is it available now. To my astonishment, on one evening, when Behram wanted to drive me to Koh-i-Batil to have a sight of the entire port town from the hilltop, we were stopped despite the press cards we showed to security personnel at a checkpost, because the locals were not allowed to enter the area after sunset. To my further astonishment, Behram, the unflappable journalist I have ever known, became involved in an altercation with one of the guards. Yet we had to return to the motel.
As it is said, politics is a game of chance; it is unexpected. Similarly, it keeps on changing its dynamics. Unexpectedly, a Maulana rises from oblivion, hailing from a remote town in Gwadar called Surbandar. The Maulana, who is a local leader of the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) in the port town, whose name is Hidayat-ur-Rehman, continues to rise as a leader in Gwadar. Local Baloch follow him, not because of his religious or party affiliation, as they believe he discusses their issues in a way no one else has spoken. As one of the locals puts it, he speaks out after our hearts, adding: “He says vociferously and collectively what one thinks he himself needs to have dared say that, but through him, we have got a voice: Gwadar belongs to us first, and we no longer want to be ignored.”
Keeping the recent Gwadar protest in mind, we spoke to Prof Mumtaz Baloch from Balochistan University’s political science department who has written about politics in the province in his thesis, too. Asked as to why the Maulana rose suddenly unlike JI’s performance in electoral politics for the past many years, Prof Baloch pointed out: “Among other things, in politics, one has to address the current question, no matter what background credentials one has got. That is what Maulana Hidayat-ur-Rehman is doing. At the same time, he is filling out the vacuum, which political forces had left vacant for quite some time.”
Over the decades, long before the CPEC, the Gwadar port town has become the centre of Baloch nationalists’ attention, and they have been apprehensive about its fate from day one and that their identity is at stake. Yet their rhetoric has not matched up the recent crowds gathered by the Maulana, who continues to pull more protesters in his crowd over the issue of basic facilities.
Belonging to the fishermen community, the Maulana tells Dawn his father and grandfather were fishermen, while he himself was associated with the Islami Jamiat-i-Talaba, a students’ wing of the JI, and later on, with the JI. Asked about his sudden rise as a leader of the people of Gwadar, he says he has been involved in political activities of Gwadar since 2003. “I have also contested election for the provincial and national assembly seats, but I could not win,” he shared with Dawn, continuing, “My struggle is for Gwadar and Makran division, and I have been struggling in this regard for quite some time now under the guidance of my party leadership.”
One of his demands accepted in recent days was a ban on wine stores in Gwadar, lending strength to the rumours that the Maulana wants to push JI’s agenda in a place known to be among the most liberal areas of the province.
Similarly, some are apprehensive that Maulana’s political manoeuvrings are meant to pave the way for religious groups, particularly for the JI. However, the Maulana refutes all the claims, asserting: “Politics is meant [for] the service of human beings. So we are doing politics to serve the people and society, nor am I using my people and society for my own and my party’s vested interests. Having kept the issues of my people in my view, I am doing politics solely to represent them and become their voice in the face of injustice to them.
“There are two main demands in our protest: first, our respect; second, joblessness. Our source of livelihood and employment in the name of security, via fishing, trade, and other businesses have become ruined. In a nutshell, we want our very own employment that has been snatched from us in the wake of development and security, not the one from you to be given to us.”
In case of Gwadar, it is high time the government listen to the demands for the betterment of locals. If the area development is not meant to benefit the locals first, then it is the first step towards derailment of the entire development process. That is what has not been realised to this day, as our planning has always been executed through short-term, security-centric approaches in a province that makes almost half of the country. Same is happening in Gwadar ever since it has come into the limelight.
Published in Dawn, December 1st, 2021