Whispers from Balochistan

Published March 6, 2022
The writer is a security analyst.
The writer is a security analyst.

BALOCHISTAN is changing rapidly. Conventional provincial allies of power elites in Islamabad and Rawalpindi are losing their utility. They include sardars, nawabs and elders of ‘peace committees’ who keep an eye on dissidents, acting against them when needed. Local accounts say that realisation of the grave situation in the province is increasing among the power elites. Some say the security establishment is reviewing its outlook on Balochistan but aren’t certain if that will shape a new approach.

Increasing literacy, access to information through social media, greater exposure of Baloch students studying in Punjab, Islamabad and Sindh, active nationalist politics and the CPEC discourse are some recent factors that have deepened awareness of Baloch socioeconomic and political grievances. However, Maulana Hidayat-ur-Rehman’s rights movement for Gwadar (Gwadar ko haq do) and the banned Balochistan Liberation Army’s attacks on security forces in Nushki, Panjgur and Kech districts have made the local population more vocal. Recent interactions with Balochistan’s residents, mainly in Makran, revealed they have lost trust in the ruling political parties, the opposition and the media. This may be one reason why the security leadership is broadening its interactions in Balochistan. Apart from regular interaction between the FC chief and the local people, the army chief too recently met residents in Turbat and Panjgur who reportedly expressed their grievances and anger openly.

Read more: Balochistan’s youth in focus

CPEC has securitised the region and caused damage. First, it has aggravated the residents’ anger. Second, the lack of interaction between Chinese workers and the local population have not only triggered conspiracy theories about CPEC but have also made the Chinese a target of insurgents. ‘Respect’ was a major demand made by the maulana during the protests along with calls for stopping illegal trawlers which render local fishermen jobless, and reopening informal trade with Iran.

Many in southern Balochistan say that the attitude of security forces at checkpoints has improved and the number of posts has been reduced after the December agreement between the Balochistan chief minister and Maulana Hidayat-ur-Rehman. Zamyad, the blue Iranian vehicles, have returned to the highways after the gradual reopening of border trade with Iran. These vehicles are known for smuggling in Iranian diesel and edibles. A common perception is that allowing Zamyad on highways will help engage the youth, addressing unemployment issues and shielding the youngsters from insurgent influences. Though the number of these vehicles is far less now compared to the year preceding the construction of the border fence and the ban on informal trade with Iran, many in Balochistan hope that trade will pick up again as it is practically the only source of income for residents of the border areas.

The demand of the people is genuine political participation.

The government has also opened two formal border crossing points in Kech district and plans to do so in other districts as well. The provincial government has abolished the condition of possession of a token for the local people to cross into Iran and bring back oil. The local administration is now authorised to register a driver and his helper based on their national identity cards, and should facilitate the registration process.

Meanwhile, administrations in the Makran region, especially in Gwadar, have been tasked with expediting the development projects committed under CPEC and the prime minister’s southern Balochistan package. These projects include changing water supply pipelines, coal power to address Gwadar’s energy needs, and technical education institutions across the region as well as an industrial estate in Turbat. However, the citizens doubt these projects will be completed soon given the government’s past record. The biggest worry is that a mafia of contractors consisting of influential people in the government, bureaucracy and establishment want the contracts to execute these projects. If they get these, it could inflict huge damage on national treasure and CPEC’s reputation and will increase the trust deficit between the state and Balochistan’s citizens.

For power elites, development is a major strategy for addressing local grievances, but this model has not produced results because of corruption and lack of parliamentary and citizenry oversight. The demand of the people is genuine political participation.

A free and fair election was the key demand of the local people in their interactions with the media, traders, professionals, academics and political activists in Makran. Many believe fair elections can provide a passage for genuine nationalist parties and leaders to come to power and they have a relatively better record of delivering. The political landscape is complex in Balochistan, and at this time, the maulana factor needs to be discussed.

Many analysts, national leaders and even the ruling parties suspect he has been allowed to ‘exploit’ the grievances of the people of Gwadar because of his religious credentials. That could be a factor, but his real contribution lies in having a strategy which religious parties employ to ensure their demands are fulfilled, be it the TLP, the Jamaat-i-Islami or Shia parties. His association with JI would have encouraged him to strategise a long-term protest movement, which nationalist parties are not capable of doing. Apart from the JI factor, the real inspiration appears to have come from the fishermen protests of 2018 that called for amending the design of the East Bay Expressway, which links Gwadar Port to the Makran Coastal Highway. They eventually forced the government to alter the design and allow the free movement of fishing boats. The maulana, himself a fisherman, was part of that movement, though he was not leading the protest.

These protests provided a way to the local population to get their demands fulfilled. Nationalist parties have not taken advantage of the opportunity as the maulana has. However, it is too early to say whether this will translate into electoral success for the maulana or JI since nationalist tendencies are still strong in Makran region.

Indeed, in any review, the nationalist parties hold an important place. But it will be a big test for the establishment to give political advantage to its conventional allies (who have not brought it a good name) in the province, while abandoning them would be ‘risky’.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, March 6th, 2022

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