Kech chaos reflective of the larger Balochistan problem long ignored by the state

Balaach Mola Bakhsh's killing, allegedly at the hands of CTD officials, and subsequent protests tell what we already know about Balochistan.
Published December 6, 2023

Over the last couple of weeks, Balochistan’s southern Kech district has been gripped by mass protests following the reported killing of a young man, who was earlier taken into custody by the Counter Terrorism Department (CTD).

The CTD termed the killing a result of “armed clashes with militants”, adding that three more suspects were killed in the clash on Pasni Road in the north of Kech’s district headquarters, Turbat.

One of the deceased was identified as Balaach Mola Bakhsh. The CTD claimed to have arrested him with five kilogrammes of explosives on November 20. An FIR was registered against him on November 21, and he was presented before the Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC) on the same day in Turbat. However, on the night between November 22 and 23, Bakhsh’s body was brought to Turbat Teaching Hospital, where his family identified him.

Initially, the CTD, in a brief statement, said that four insurgents were killed in an intelligence-based operation on Pasni Road. Later in the evening, in a more detailed statement, the CTD explained that based on a tip-off provided to its personnel by Bakhsh, a CTD team raided a house where insurgents had taken shelter.

During the exchange of fire, three insurgents, including Bakhsh, who the CTD said was acting as a guide, were killed. The CTD also claimed that Bakhsh died as a result of firing from the insurgents.

Soon after, Bakhsh’s family refuted the CTD’s claims, saying he was forcibly taken away from their home on the night of October 29 and produced before a court almost a month later. They accused the CTD of extrajudicially killing him. Subsequently, the family, along with thousands of residents of Kech, staged a sit-in with Bakhsh’s body on Turbat city’s main road, demanding an impartial inquiry against CTD officials.

On November 25, a sessions judge directed the Station House Officer (SHO) of Turbat City police to register an FIR against the CTD Regional Officer, the investigation officer and the lock-up officer. During the hearing, the sessions judge also expressed skepticism over the CTD’s claim that three terrorists attacked the CTD team and the raiding party did not even sustain a minor injury, while Bakhsh, who was in their custody, died.

Despite the sessions judge’s directives, an FIR was not registered, and protests continued with Bakhsh’s body placed on the city’s main square. Subsequently, the provincial government, represented by the prosecutor-general, approached the Balochistan High Court on Thursday (Nov 30), requesting it to overturn the sessions judge’s order. The high court, however, upheld the sessions judge’s order until further hearings into the matter.

The provincial government also formed an inquiry committee, headed by Fisheries Secretary Imran Gichki, but the family rejected the committee and called for an independent judicial inquiry, while also demanding the implementation of the sessions judge’s Nov 25 order.

Meanwhile, after seven days of protests, Bakhsh was laid to rest in Turbat on Friday (Dec 1) amid a massive crowd that is rarely seen at the funerals of regular, working class youth. His family and rights activists asserted that they would continue the sit-in until an inquiry against CTD officials was launched.

Bakhsh’s funeral was not just a mere congregation; it was an expression of anger against the state’s use of brute force to bring peace to Balochistan. Kech is not known for its religious tolerance — a fact signified by the killing of a man over blasphemy allegations just this August. However, even in such a region, the locals looked beyond religious and sectarian lines and followers of various faiths an sects attended Bakhsh’s funeral, where slogans were raised against the authorities, indicating an increase in resentment among the public.

It also begs the question: is this the beginning of a new movement in Balochistan?

Unprecedented protests

Since 2013, Balcohistan has witnessed several major protest movements — such as the one in Gwadar in December 2022 and in Quetta in February this year, in July 2022, and in October 2021 — but the current wave of demonstrations in Kech’s headquarters, Turbat, particularly stands out.

The current protests, which have turned into a sit-in, are also unique due to the participation of a large number of women. While Gwadar saw similar scenes last year, the nature of those protests — where the demands centered around the lack of provision of basic necessities and civil rights — differed from the situation right now.

Today, not only is there widespread anger against the CTD’s actions, the public is participating in these protests in large numbers. It’s been more almost two weeks now that the participants have been protesting and demanding both an impartial inquiry into the CTD’s actions and the filing of an FIR against officials involved in the incident. The sit-in has already outlasted the previous ones.

The alleged targeted killings of Baloch youth by law enforcement agencies, followed by a lack of impartial inquiry into the circumstances of the said murders, have created a deep mistrust between the Baloch people and state institutions. At the same time, mainstream political parties and the media are seemingly ignorant of the issue, adopting an ostrich approach. This is exactly why such incidents keep happening in Balochistan from time to time.

This approach has also alienated the Baloch youth, heightened the already widespread sense of deprivation among the province’s residents and boosted the insurgency, which had seen a decline after the 2013 election that had led to a coalition provincial government of Dr Abdul Malik Baloch’s National Party, Mahmood Khan Achakzai’s Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party and the PML-N.

The waning insurgency resurfaced in 2018 following the formation of a new provincial setup when a series of incidents riled up sentiments once again, and sympathy for the insurgents reappeared in no time.

One too many times

In July last year in Quetta, several families protested in the Red Zone against the alleged killing of six people in a “fake” encounter in Ziarat by security forces. Following 50 days of protests, government officials, including then interior minister Rana Sana Ullah, law minister Azam Nazeer Tarar, and BISP chairperson Shazia Marri, met the families and pledged to address their demands. The families ended the sit-in, and the Balochistan government formed a judicial inquiry commission, but the case never reached a logical conclusion.

Similar judicial inquiries followed the mysterious death of former Senator Usman Kakar in 2021, the killing of 70 lawyers in Quetta in August 2016, and the discovery of three mass graves in Tootak, Khuzdar, in 2014. Reports of these inquiries were either not disclosed, government recommendations were ignored, or the inquiries never reached their conclusions.

Other incidents have simply been brushed under the proverbial carpet. These include the July 2022 killing of nine youths in a military operation in Ziarat, the August 2020 killing of university student Hayat Baloch in Turbat, the April 2021 alleged sexual assault of a young boy by an FC soldier, the October 2021 deaths of two children in the Hoshab area of Kech district when a Frontier Corps mortar shell exploded, and the April 2022 killing of a Baloch driver by security forces in Chagai district.

These events underscore the interconnectedness of the various untended grievances that contribute towards adverse sentiments against state institutions and the resurgence of the insurgency that has reared its ugly head in the province yet again after a brief lull.

As stated earlier, the killings in Balochistan are largely given a cold shoulder by the mainstream political parties, media, and even civil society, whose focus falls disproportionately on bigger provinces. A prime example of this disparity was between the media coverage of the Sahiwal killings from January 2019 — which garnered nationwide outcry and attention from the then prime minister — and the slew of incidents in Balochistan. The indifference to Baloch plight is clearly noticeable.

Over the past two decades, this cycle has continued, with law enforcement agencies accused of employing extrajudicial methods to curtail the violent separatist insurgency. At the same time, Baloch youth, feeling unheard and disillusioned, are increasingly drawn towards the idea of taking up arms to seek justice or exact revenge.

As wounds are left open, grievances unaddressed, and justice inaccessible, the cycle perpetuates, contributing to an alarming escalation of violence in the beleaguered province.

In the dark, the only ray of hope remains the most basic solution on offer: accountability of the perpetrators under the law of the land, and prompt and fair justice for the victims’ families.

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