On an early December Saturday, the bus terminal at Karachi’s Yousuf Goth is busy as usual.
People get on colourful buses heading to Gwadar, Turbat and Panjgur. Nothing has changed here over the years. One still sees the same tea shops, conductors and cleaners. The sights and sounds are familiar to me. The Al-Javed Bus office is located at the same spot where it was back in 2017, when I last took one of their buses to Gwadar.
But Gwadar has changed over the past few years and so has the conversation surrounding the area. Newspapers covering the region no longer only carry picturesque visuals of the seaport. They are finally writing about the massive protests by locals and about the prime minister taking notice of these demonstrations. The conversation on the bus has also changed in the wake of the recently concluded protests.
At 10am, the bus is ready to head off on the 10-hour journey to Gwadar. I am seated in the second row of the bus. I first tried to sit next to a local from Gwadar, but he requested I move back so he can sit next to another local from the region. His friend, who finally takes the other seat, is wearing dark glasses that he doesn’t take off at all.
Both the friends naturally start talking about the protests and Maulana Hidayatur Rehman, the local Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) leader who became the face of the protests. While the following of the Maulana has seen a remarkable growth, some are still clearly suspicious of this meteoric rise.
“Had Mullah [Maulana Hidayatur Rehman] really been a leader, he would not have called off the protests in Gwadar after [Chief Minister Quddus] Bizenjo’s guarantees that he would meet the protesters’ demands,” says the friend in the dark glasses. But the thirty-something man, who is clearly a sceptic, goes on to acknowledge that Maulana Hidayat has made the locals in Gwadar see that they can stand up for their rights and challenge the administration.
While the local in the glasses is talking, the bus cleaner walks by. He peels a banana and hands it to the bus driver to eat. The local discreetly looks at the cleaner from his glasses and lowers his voice. He moves closer to his friend. “Mullah has got the army’s support,” he declares. “That is why he called off the protests.”
Their conversation abruptly ends, when the bus driver starts to blast music through his phone connected to bluetooth speakers. We are soon in the presence of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s voice: “Dil-i-umeed torra hai kisi ne/ Sahara de ke chhorra hai kisi ne [Someone has broken a hopeful heart/ Someone has given support and then taken it back].”
Nusrat Sahib is interrupted by a phone call on the driver’s phone. But even when the music stops, the friend of the passenger in the dark glasses does not appear interested in continuing their conversation. Maybe he does not agree with his friend’s take. Or maybe he simply does not wish to discuss it on a bus that is likely to be full of the Maulana’s supporters.
Undoubtedly, Maulana Hidayatur Rehman has emerged as an unparalleled leader in Gwadar. And things already feel different after the protests that he headed. For one, passengers are not frisked at different checkpoints throughout the journey, as was the norm in the past.
One of the protesters’ demands was the elimination of ‘unnecessary’ checkposts on major roads. More and more of these checkposts had appeared as CPEC-related ‘development’ started making locals feel like outsiders at their own homes. Besides accepting other demands, the government also agreed to remove all unnecessary checkposts.
I am not the only one pleasantly surprised at the lack of checkposts. Clearly, the Gwadar we are headed to is a different Gwadar. How could it not be? Thousands were chanting “Gwadar ko haq do [Give Gwadar its rights],” just a few weeks ago.
TRAWLERS IN THE SEA
The Gwadar Fish Harbour, situated adjacent to the main port area, is full of action on Sunday morning when we reach. Boats, big and small, are parked in the harbour. They have many flags, mostly for aesthetic purposes. Some are red, some are green and others black. And then there are many boats with Pakistani flags. There is a lot of foot traffic. Buyers keep pouring in — men and women, and children with their parents — and fishermen compete for their attention and business.
This fish market scene seems like everything is business as usual. But not too long ago, these fishermen were among the thousands who had gathered for the protests, and refused to budge for over a month. Chief among the demands of the protesters, who had come together under the Gwadar Ko Huqooq Do Tehreek [Give Rights to Gwadar Movement] and the leadership of Maulana Hidayat, was the demand to end illegal trawlers.
Trawlers from neighbouring areas such as Sindh and even other countries come to fish in these waters, severely impacting the catch of local fishermen.
Earlier in December, Prime Minister Imran Khan had finally “taken notice” of the “very legitimate demands of the hardworking fishermen of Gwadar,” in a tweet. He had also promised strong action would be taken against illegal fishing by trawlers.
But the issue is not limited to illegal trawlers alone. The government has given Chinese trawlers licences to fish in the waters off the coast. Locals, most of whom operate small boats, are unable to compete with larger, more advanced Chinese boats.
Javed Baloch, one such fisherman, still seems to be in a revolutionary mode, weeks after the protest was called off. He proudly wears a Che Guevara-inspired beret cap with a red star.
Like hundreds of other fishermen of Gwadar, Javed goes to the sea every evening. He rides in his motorboat, which he could afford only after working with a group of fishermen in Iran for three years. Javed and a fellow fisherman stay in the sea for a few hours, waiting for the sun to set so they can fish in the dark.
After his last successful excursion, Javed speaks to me on Sunday morning. “We have caught fish worth over 15,000 rupees today,” he excitedly shares. “And it has been like this for over two weeks,” he adds, pointing out how their catch has increased threefold following strict action against illegal trawlers after the protests.
But this, he believes, is a temporary relief. “We have heard that the trawlers have gone to fish in the Kund Malir area [near Lasbela, towards Karachi],” he says. “These can come back at any time, depriving us of our livelihoods once again.”
His fears are based on an understanding of the region and its history. Fishermen from Sindh and foreign trawlers from countries such as Korea, Japan and China have been fishing in Gwadar’s largely pristine waters for many decades now.
OLD PROBLEMS, NEW SOLUTIONS
KB Firaq, a Gwadar-based poet, columnist and human rights activist is known as an encyclopaedia on Gwadar’s fishermen community. Fittingly, I meet him at his library where he is surrounded by books and other encyclopaedias. He tells me that, according to his research, illegal trawling has been happening in the area since the 1990s.
“At the time, I was a school-going boy,” he says. He says that Gwadar has a lot of fish stock, which is why trawlers from Sindh and outside the country come to the area.
But this long-existing issue cannot be solved overnight.
Officials from the fisheries departments from Quetta and Gwadar share that stopping the practice of illegal trawling in Balochistan is not in their hands. One of the reasons for this is the lack of resources, admits a senior fisheries official in Quetta. According to him, their fisheries department has got only four patrolling boats to stop the practice of illegal trawling in all of Balochistan.
The gravity of the situation becomes apparent to me when, during my brief reporting stint, fishermen start telling me that illegal trawlers have already started to make their way back to the waters of Balochistan. But the power of protest also becomes apparent when I visit Pasni, a tehsil of the Gwadar district, where fishermen are protesting again.
“I felt it and spoke, which is why people have been responding to my call [to join the movement], irrespective of their background,” Maulana Hidayat says. “I have become their spokesman to speak out fearlessly.” The Maulana proudly says that, with a single call, he can get thousands, including women and children, to gather.
One of the protesters’ demands, which was accepted, was that their freedom to go to sea must be ensured. Still, the fishermen in Pasni have been directed to obtain tokens to fish in the sea. “We are not going to the US,” says Inayat Baloch, one of the fishermen who are protesting at the Pasni Fish Harbour. “Then why are we being asked for tokens to fish in our own sea?” The illegal trawlers should be receiving this treatment, not the locals, the fishermen lament.
Maulana Hidayatur Rehman manages to be a part of even this small protest. Inayat calls the Maulana from his phone, and puts the call on loudspeaker for the two dozen fishermen to hear. The Maulana charges up the protesters, roaring in Balochi. “Are you all tired [of protesting]?” he asks. “No!” they respond. He repeats the same question.
“Are you all tired?”
“No, not at all,” they all shout in unison.
Within an hour, officials from the district administration and the Navy come to speak with the fishermen. Soon, the officials tell the fishermen that they are exempt from showing tokens to fish in the sea.
This is the power of demonstrations. And this is the power of the Maulana, a man whose presence can be felt across Gwadar.
THE RISE OF MAULANA HIDAYAT
Surbandan, locally known as Sur in Gwadar, is a tiny town at a distance of 25 kilometres from the main Gwadar town. Sur is inhabited mostly by fishermen. On a Monday, the blue sea around the town is calm. The sky is blue and the wind is blowing. We are driving on the G.T. Road, and the sea is flowing next to us. Soon, we take a turn and stop at the Jama Makki Masjid.
I’m taken to a parrot green-coloured room. This is the room for Maulana Hidayatur Rehman’s guests. The Maulana and his brothers, who are also fishermen, live in a house next door. The JI leader is not at home, I am told. He is in Gwadar.
But his presence is all around me. Maulana is the talk of the town. Everyone I meet in the Gwadar district speaks of him and how he has stood up for their rights. Women and children play me songs on their mobiles dedicated to the Maulana.
“A leader is the one who does not fear. And we have found a leader in Maulana,” says Mehboob Baloch, a local fisherman in Surbandan. No conversation about Maulana can be had here without others chiming in. As Mehboob speaks to me, others join in with a chant I have heard many times by now: “We are all Maulana!”
Maulana is an unlikely leader according to many locals and politicians. He does not come from money. And even though he was present everywhere, his voice hardly mattered in the past. These descriptions seem to be in stark contrast with the situation today, where the Maulana is present across Gwadar, even when he is not physically in the vicinity.
Born in Surbandan village, Maulana received his primary education in his hometown. He then went to Karachi, where half of his maternal family lives, to complete his education. He received a Masters degree in Islamiat from Karachi.
Maulana Hidayat returned to become a small leader in his town. He understood the woes of his people and was not afraid of raising his voice for them. The Maulana first started making waves a few months ago, when he led a five-day-long demonstration in Surbandan asking for better treatment of local fishermen.
This protest was on the mind of Maasi Zainab, a Baloch woman with no formal education who had been making waves by being at the forefront of protests in Gwadar. Zainab sent Maulana a voice note over WhatsApp during protests at Gwadar’s Eastbay Expressway, where fishermen were not being allowed to go to sea. Soon Maulana, who was nowhere near the protest site, was on the road heading to the protest.
Led by fishermen of the Mullah Band area, he sat in front of three senior security officials and spoke bravely and courageously. In a video that went viral in September, he can be seen telling the officials that Gwadar first belongs to them. He is charged up, speaking bluntly, without a hint of doubt or fear in his voice. This was only the beginning.
AN UNWAVERING VOICE
Having failed to meet the Maulana in Surbandan, I return to Gwadar and check into Gwadar’s Sadaf Hotel, where I am set to finally meet the Maulana. I receive a message that Maulana, who is still busy in Gwadar town, will visit me after maghrib prayers.
The Maulana arrives accompanied by eight young men. He is wearing a white pakol cap, white clothes and a white chador. He is shorter than he appears in videos and pictures, but he walks tall. He says salaam to me and shakes my hand lightly. Mine is only the first of many handshakes for the Maulana. As we enter the hotel’s restaurants, the entire staff stands up to shake his hand.
Finally we sit down and start our conversation.
“What have Gwadaris seen in an old Maulana after 18 years?” I ask him, referring to the many years he has actively remained in politics without having the same kind of following he enjoys today.
His answer is simple, and one that has been given to me many times by now to explain Maulana Hidayat’s rise and following. In an environment where everybody is afraid to speak, people want someone to be their voice.
“I felt it and spoke, which is why people have been responding to my call [to join the movement], irrespective of their background,” he says. “I have become their spokesman to speak out fearlessly.”
The Maulana proudly says that, with a single call, he can get thousands, including women and children, to gather. “They have seen a ray of hope in despair and helplessness,” he tells me.
The Maulana’s sceptics see him as a right wing political opportunist who has been using issues such as illegal trawling, and problems with electricity, water and checkposts, to pave the way for his own ‘right wing agenda’ under the banner of JI. This, they argue, is why he is being given space in the port town where China has heavily invested.
One of the Maulana’s first demands was putting a ban on ‘wine’ [alcohol] stores in Gwadar, which, according to his critics, has got nothing to do with public issues.
I ask the Maulana about these criticisms, and he smiles. “Everyone wants to say that the ‘mullahs’ are against wine,” he says. “I put the demand forward because it is a public issue, not a private one.”
He says that mothers and sisters have now been sleeping peacefully knowing that their sons are not drinking. “Due to alcohol consumption, mothers and sisters have become psychological patients as their sons used to come home drunk,” he shares. “It had become the source of incidents in Gwadar.”
Many say the leader has a good sense of humour. He continues talking about the issue with a cup of green tea in his hand. He is always in control of the conversation. He answers questions he wants to, and evades the ones he would rather not comment on. For example, when asked about apprehensions of people who say that the Maulana is ‘backed’ by some institution, and that no one can stage such a large protest in Balochistan unless they are ‘allowed’ to, he refuses to give a straight answer.
Maulana Hidayat’s priorities are the locals, and making sure they are not treated like outsiders in their own land. He is sceptical of the development taking place in the name of CPEC in the region. “Where is CPEC in Balochistan?” he asks. “I have only seen checkposts all around in the name of CPEC, not CPEC itself.”
The Maulana has clearly had these conversations before. After the interview, he is in no hurry to leave. He has found out that I had visited his hometown, Surbandan. He asks me why I did not have tea at his home.
One can clearly see the appeal of having a leader who is so inviting, passionate about his people and accessible on one phone call. It is no wonder thousands came out at his call.
While the government has accepted all the demands, how they are implemented remains to be seen. Nonetheless, many in Gwadar appear confident in the fact that in Maulana Hidayat they have found a voice that will speak up whenever he needs to. If he calls on his supporters to step out again, they surely will.
DEMANDS PUT FORWARD AT THE PROTEST
End illegal trawling
Progress: The headquarters of the Director General of Fisheries was moved from Quetta to Gwadar after the protests. Patrolling increased to check illegal trawlers.
Freedom for fishermen to go to sea
Progress: A token system to go to sea was eliminated. Fishermen are now allowed to go without any permission.
Elimination of unnecessary checkposts on major roads
Progress: All unnecessary checkposts have been removed.
Closure of wine shops in Gwadar
Progress: All wine shops have been closed on government instructions.
Elimination of interference in cross-border trade with Iran
Progress: The government has guaranteed the end to all kinds of interference and establishment of trade markets at the border.
Establishment of a university in Gwadar
Progress: A vice chancellor has been appointed for Gwadar University, classes to start soon.
Appointments on empty seats of education department’s non-teaching staff
Progress: Selection process for appointments completed, officials sent for appointment.
Curtailing the sale of fake medicines
Progress: Inspection of Gwadar’s medical stores completed.
Waivers and subsidies on utility bills
Progress: Policy on issue to be clarified soon. The chief minister has written a letter to Quetta Electric Supply Company.
Release of seized cars and boats by coastguard
Progress: Legal team formed on the issue.
Provision of clean drinking water
Progress: Supply of water initiated, water project to be completed soon.
Priority to locals on jobs for development projects
Progress: Special desk formed on the issue in the district commissioner’s office.
Implementation on agreement with Dar Bela affectees
Progress: Compensation paid to locals impacted, separate area being selected for land compensation.
Compensation paid to Expressway affectees
Progress: Compensation paid to locals impacted, special measures being taken for remaining people.
Removal of cases on protest leaders and names from Fourth Schedule
Progress: Matter sent to the provincial cabinet.
Damages for losses due to storms and illegal trawlers
Progress: Survey completed of fishermen’s losses, matter of compensation sent to the Provincial Disaster Management Authority and orders issued for immediate compensation.
Removal of DG GDA, DC Gwadar and AC Pasni
Progress: Officials changed.
Implementation of quota for disabled people
Progress: Orders issued for strict implementation of quota.
Open Kulki point for transportation of oil and essentials
Progress: Kantani point completely opened for transport and distribution of oil and essentials.
— Based on a dawn.com report
The writer is a member of staff. He tweets @Akbar_notezai
Published in Dawn, EOS, January 2nd, 2022