Gwadar has been tense because of continuing protests and sit-ins being held in the heart of the port town over the past two months. While the protests were still underway in Gwadar, I happened to meet Behram Baloch, Dawn’s Gwadar correspondent, in Islamabad on a cold evening.
Behram arrived along with Senator Kauda Akram Dashti, who hails from the same Makran division which Gwadar is a part of. All of us were concerned about the situation back in Gwadar.
Gwadar is at the heart of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), often touted as a future lifeline for Pakistan. Although the Gwadar port project has been in the spotlight since early 2000, it was officially launched only in 2002 during the rule of former dictator Gen Pervez Musharraf, who lauded China’s assistance at the inauguration ceremony in Gwadar.
The significance of the Gwadar port town increased greatly after the announcement of CPEC back in 2015 by the Chinese President Xi Jinping. Since then, Gwadar has been dubbed as the crown jewel of CPEC, while CPEC has been dubbed as crown jewel of Beijing’s multi-billion dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Gwadar has been reeling from a series of protests and charged encounters over many months, though news about what exactly has been going on has been hard to come by because of a clampdown on information from the port city. Eos presents a report from the ground, especially about the mysterious maulana who has become a lightning rod for Gwadar’s citizens’ grievances…
However, for the past year, the port city has been gripped by protests and sit-ins led by Maulana Hidayat-ur-Rehman, chief of the Haq Do Tehreek (HDT), who was previously a little known politician of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI). The Maulana was still leading the protests when I met Behram and Dashti, thus prompting me to ask them, “What is happening in Gwadar?”
Y Chowk, which lies adjacent to the main port area in Gwadar, is where Maulana Hidayat staged his demonstrations, attracting a crowd of hundreds of people. His procession of protestors would then move to the junction connecting the deep sea port to the Eastbay Expressway, which links the port to the main Makran Coastal Highway, blocking the flow of traffic to the port in the process.
These sit-ins eventually led to a crackdown against the maulana and his activists on the night of December 26, 2022. After our conversation in Islamabad, both Behram and I travelled to Gwadar just days before the clampdown took place.
Jan Bibib Baloch, who lives in the Mullah Band locality situated a stone’s throw away from where the sit-ins were held, narrated to me what happened on the night of the crackdown.
“I was fast asleep but the tear gas, firing and the commotion at the site woke me up,” she recalled while talking to me at her house. “After waking up, one of my neighbours came to me hurriedly and said that Maulana had been killed.
“I immediately went to my three sons to send them to Maulana because I had mistakenly thought that he had been killed in the firing with the personnel that had come to crackdown on the protestors.”
Mullah Band is mostly populated by fishermen and the sentiments of Jan Bibi are shared by many in her community. Without taking a moment to pause while speaking, she said, “I told my sons that, if they did not go to help Maulana or the protestors, then they are not my children. Upon hearing that, all of them went, and I accompanied them there too.”
Around a dozen protestors told me that the security personnel who conducted the crackdown had their faces covered and started firing tear gas in an attempt to try and disperse the crowd.
“We tried to escape, as the cops and law enforcement officials arrived and started rounding us up,” said one of the protestors while recalling the incident. “There was commotion all around. We could not resist.”
Jan Bibi, however, did not back off.
“I was out on the road when they fired the tear gas,” she recalls, revealing two wounds on her left leg. “One of the tear gas canisters hit my left leg. I fell down, teary eyed and out of breath. One of the tear gas shells struck my granddaughter on the forehead.”
Reportedly, cops continued to chase protestors and arrest them all throughout the night. When the sun finally rose the next morning, over 100 hundred protestors had been arrested. However, Mualana Hidayat had managed to evade being arrested.
In the morning, when Behram arose, he had received around a dozen missed calls. As he tried to call those numbers back, he realised that both the cellular network and the internet were not working.
Bakhshi Baloch colony, where Behram lives, is situated next to main Marine Drive and is adjacent to the police DIG (Deputy Inspector General) Makran Range office. Upon exiting his house that day, Behram saw that hundreds of people were marching on Marine Drive Road towards the DIG office after the maulana had called for a strike.
While the maulana had asked the protestors to be peaceful, a group of youngsters with their faces covered allegedly tried to set the main gate of the DIG office on fire. “The cops did not serve us biryani last night,” one of them quipped, “so why should we be peaceful and non-violent!”
As Behram hurriedly attempted to drive to Turbat, the neighbouring town in Balochistan’s Kech district, in order to email the news of the arrest of hundreds of protestors, he realised that the entire Makran Coastal Highway had been blocked by protestors belonging to the HDT.
They had gathered in dozens in front of Surbandan, a tiny town of fishermen near the sea and the hometown of Maulana Hidayat.
THE MAN FROM SURBANDAN
Locals in Surbandan still talk about their leader enthusiastically. In January, after driving through the tiny town, which is home to around 10,000 people, I reached Maulana Hidayat’s tiny house, which had been raided by the cops for three consecutive days and nights.
They had failed to arrest the maulana, but they did manage to arrest his elder brothers Aslam Baloch and Mohammad Jan Baloch. The brothers, who had since been released from jail, welcomed me at their house.
All of them live in a joint family, comprising six brothers and two sisters. Their father, Malang Baloch, passed away two years ago, while their mother, Taj Bibi — commonly known as Taji in the neighbourhood — continues to worry for her son ever since he went into hiding.
“We have nothing to do with Maulana’s politics,” says Mohammad Jan, who is in his 40s and sports a grey, trimmed beard and moustache. “I am a government employee in the fisheries department. I wonder why the authorities arrested me and my elder brother, who is a fisherman, despite the fact that we have nothing to do with his politics.
“Unlike Aslam, the cops beat me up before putting us behind bars,” he further revealed to me in his guest room in Surbandan. “They did not serve us anything for three consecutive days in that jail, and what hurt me the most is that the cops violated the sanctity of our house.”
IN SEARCH OF THE MAULANA
Ever since I arrived in Quetta, I had been desperately trying to contact Maulana Hidayat. After learning that he had reportedly escaped to Karachi shortly after the crackdown and ensuing protest at the DIG office, I rented a car to travel to the city in an attempt to meet him.
After waiting for over a day inside my shabby hotel room in Saddar for the maulana’s people to contact me, I finally received a call. I was informed that Maulana Hidayat was waiting for me along with a group of HDT leaders.
Upon finally meeting the maulana, I found him to be a man who was very confident, even though he was ostensibly in hiding. After greeting him and his colleagues present in the room, I asked him straightforwardly as to why he ran away despite being a leader of the people of Gwadar.
“I did not want to run away,” he said, “but my tehreek [movement] colleagues wanted me to leave the port town as they feared for my life. But I am going back to Gwadar to face my cases.”
Before the crackdown, Maulana Hidayat and his supporters had staged the sit-ins at the main junction in Gwadar, which connects the Chinese-funded deep sea port and the Chinese-funded Eastbay Expressway. Background interviews suggest that the maulana had threatened and told Chinese workers to leave Gwadar and had also patrolled the area armed with weapons in order to challenge the writ of the state.
“No, I am neither against the Chinese nor am I against the China Pakistan Economic Corridor,” Maulana clarified to me when I asked him about this. He added that he only displayed the weapons because the government was not taking action against illegal trawlers that come all the way from Karachi to deprive the local fishermen of their livelihood.
“That is tantamount to challenging the writ of the state, isn’t it?” I asked him. “No,” he replied without offering any further explanation. “We did that simply because the state was not taking action against them.
“Our demands are simple and they are not anti-constitutional,” he added as he sat comfortably on a sofa. Interestingly, Maulana claimed that he enjoys reading books and that the autobiographies of Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, and learning about the history of Europe and South Asia, have had a great influence on him.
In lieu of this love for the written word, the maulana presented me with a gift when I got up to leave after our meeting — a book. He sent one of the members of the HDT to bring an Urdu book for me called Aayey Zindagi Badal Leejiye [Come, Change Your Life]. On the cover of the book was a picture of Masjid-e-Nabawi, alongside images of honey, almond, dates, injections and a stethoscope. After taking a brief look at the cover of the book I was reminded of the maulana’s brief introductory sentence earlier, “I am a mullah [cleric].”
“WE ARE NOT AFRAID”
In the Padizar beach area on Marine Drive, where people marched and protested under the leadership of Maulana Hidayat, the local administration has imposed Section-144 for a month, prohibiting any gathering of more than 4 people. This has led to the area returning to a semblance of normality once more.
After I spoke with four young fishermen sitting at the beach, it became increasingly evident to me that the people of Gwadar see in the maulana a man who gives a voice to their concerns.
“Gwadar is the heart of Balochistan, but its people are deprived of their livelihood,” they said. “In Gwadar’s sea, trawlers rule the roost and they leave nothing for us to fish, including the eggs of the fish. Maulana speaks out against this injustice, among other things. This is why he has been arrested.”
Alongside this, there is the water and electricity crisis which is plaguing the city. One of the fishermen at Padizar beach told me that in his mohalla [area] of Nayabad there are over 200 houses, all of which are plunged into darkness when the area’s transformer fails during the summers.
“There is no electricity for months because we do not have a transformer in the main town,” he said despondently. “The same problems and shortages are prevalent when it comes to the provision of water in our locality.” For these young men, the maulana helps shine a light on their plight.
The arrival of Chinese workers in Gwadar for CPEC-related projects is also forcing locals to demand that their way of life and livelihood is preserved and not sacrificed at the altar of supposed developmental projects.
As the port has expanded, entire localities have had to be shifted in order to accommodate the unrelenting steam train of ‘progress’. For many of the locals, this has not only led to a loss of their land, and access to certain fishing waters and communities, but has also systematically eradicated their way of life. Since these grievances have continued to build steadily over the past two decades, it seems that they have now reached a boiling point.
Like the four fishermen, everyone I spoke to was alarmed at the arrest of Maulana Hidayat and other activists.
“The entire town of Gwadar is in a state of depression,” says social activist Nasir Rahim Sohrabi, who hails from the well-known and politically influential Sohrabi family in Gwadar.
“The people in Gwadar are on the roads because they have been frustrated for quite some time now. On the other hand, over the last two decades, the expectations from the locals have been increased by successive governments, which say that Gwadar should be the second Dubai or Singapore. All this while the people of Gwadar are still deprived of basic amenities.”
Sohrabi is right to assert that the locals of Gwadar have not risen for their rights suddenly. Their issues are complex, manifold and have been festering for decades.
Despite living on their own land for generations, the locals have been losing their lands quickly in the wake of development projects that have been taking place in the entire district, let alone the port town.
As renowned academic Asim Sajjad Akhtar notes in his book The Struggle for Hegemony in Pakistan, “The Baloch national question is more acute than all of Pakistan’s other oppressed ethnic nations; in 2004, the fifth armed insurgency led by Baloch nationalists against the Pakistani state was triggered by a series of events which included the initiation of port construction in Gwadar.” He further writes, “A plethora of proverbial gold hunters have descended upon Gwadar — and indeed on the entire 600 km coastline stretching to Karachi — to generate windfall profits from the sale and purchase of real estate.”
Since then, the state of Pakistan has cracked down against the Baloch nationalist forces in Gwadar, which is why a political vacuum has been created in the coastal district.
“Maulana is trying to fill this vacuum through his political meanderings,” argues Professor Mumtaz Baloch, who teaches political science at the University of Balochistan. These protests are bound to add to the instability in the region, with Chinese Consul General Li Bijiang revealing to Dawn with regards to CPEC, “We are concerned about the protests in Gwadar.”
Upon returning to Gwadar from Karachi, the maulana was arrested at a local court by District Police Officer Najeebullah Pandrani on January 13, 2023. A case had been registered against him over the death of a policeman during one of HDT’s protests and, according to the police, this is why he was taken into custody.
“He [Maulana Hidayat] was infringing other peoples’ rights,” Pandrani told Dawn at his office, adding “which is why we arrested him.”
After moving the maulana to Quetta following his arrest, he has now been shifted back to Gwadar along with four other party leaders for their trial, after an anti-terrorism court granted a six-day travelling remand to the police.
RIGHTS OF GWADAR, NOT MAULANA
Sixty-five-year-old Maasi Zainab is the female face of Gwadar’s HDT and she is the one who helped bring Maulana Hidayat to the fore. At the time, the maulana’s name had newly started circulating in Gwadar, after he had protested in Surbandan following the arrival of five Chinese trawlers in his hometown.
I met Maasi Zainab in the Mullah Band area, where her tiny house is situated. The locality is home mostly to poor fishermen and the town has partly been absorbed by the construction in and around the Gwadar deep sea port. When I greeted her, she asked me how I had recognised her, to which I responded that her face had been plastered all across the news and social media in Balochistan.
“I thought you were arrested too along with the other activists,” I asked her. She remained silent for a while before asking me, “I am told they have released my arrest warrant. Do you know anything about that?” “No,” I responded as we walked down to her house near the road.
“If the administration has announced some money for my arrest, say five lac rupees, tell the authorities to give it to me so that I can give the amount to my children before going to jail,” she says defiantly.
“Maulana wasn’t even in Gwadar the first time he ever came to participate in one of my protests against the authorities,” she said. “At the time, he was on his way to Turbat. But when he heard my message on his phone, he travelled all the way to be with us for the protests.” Ever since then, Maasi Zainab has resolutely stood by the maulana and she continues to go door to door to bring women to the maulana’s protests and sit-ins.
A few days after my conversation with Maasi Zainab, I awoke to a rain storm in Gwadar. After having breakfast, I called Maasi Zainab to ask her a question which I had been thinking about since our meeting: what if the maulana, like many other politicians, forgets about Gwadar and its people if he goes on to become a minister from Gwadar?
She was quiet for a moment before saying, “Then I will be the first one to stand up against him for the rights of my people in Gwadar.”
As the situation in Gwadar continues to remain tense, it is evident that the grievances the locals have harboured for decades will continue to deepen the growing hostilities.
When I asked Maasi Zainab about what the future holds for Gwadar, she proudly and revealingly told me, “In the past, we had a fear, the fear of our children being picked up. After the arrival of the maulana, however, that fear has gone away.”
Behram Baloch also contributed to this report.
The writer is a member of staff.
He tweets @Akbar_notezai
Published in Dawn, EOS, February 5th, 2023