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Gwadar: The Dragon and rise of Maulana

Long-simmering Baloch resentment at being ignored by the Punjabi elite in the country’s development, local economic issues, anti-China sentiments, growing Islamic radicalization, and above all – the sense of humiliation at being treated as second class citizens in their own country, subservient to the interests of the godless Chinese military-industrial complex and the Pakistani state’s narrow vision of its own identity.

Gwadar: The Dragon and rise of Maulana
Manish ShuklaManish Shukla|Updated: Dec 19, 2021, 10:53 PM IST
New Delhi: The month-long Gwadar protests have thrown into sharp relief Pakistan’s tenuous grip over its domestic narratives. Numerous underlying grievances have found expression in this popular movement by the impoverished fishing and agricultural community. Long-simmering Baloch resentment at being ignored by the Punjabi elite in the country’s development, local economic issues, anti-China sentiments, growing Islamic radicalization, and above all – the sense of humiliation at being treated as second class citizens in their own country, subservient to the interests of the godless Chinese military-industrial complex and the Pakistani state’s narrow vision of its own identity.

While the immediate causes may appear to be economic in nature, the protestors’ nineteen demands have more to them than meets the eye. The issue of ‘humiliating check-posts' in Gwadar points to the fawning attitude of every rung of the Pakistan Government towards their Chinese benefactors. In the name of security, an exclusive zone carved out for Chinese workers, consultants and the like, all point to the unequal partnership.


Symptomatic of a larger malaise that plagues the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as a whole, such restrictions, along with numerous accommodations made for Chinese personnel in Pakistan, only serve to alienate the local population, who already suffer from a deep sense of subjugation.

Over its history, not only has the Pakistani state violently crushed expressions of Baloch identity, choosing to put down dissent with an iron first instead of providing democratic outlets for divergent views, it has now relegated the Baloch to a second level of subjugation – to China.

On the one hand, Baloch nationalism has been brutally suppressed and Balochistan’s natural resources held hostage to the interests of the “mainstream” Pakistani interests viz. those of the Army and of the Punjabi “heartland”. On the other, the Chinese are accorded an exalted status, with exemptions for consuming alcohol and pork – otherwise a capital offence in a country where lynching on concocted charges of blasphemy are commonplace. Priyantha Diyawadana, the Sri Lankan factory manager brutalized to death earlier this month in Sialkot, might have been spared his gory end had he been Chinese. The hypocrisy is almost quixotic, and is not lost on the Baloch.

Likewise, the demand for closing down wine shops in the area points to the deep religious offense caused to the local inhabitants. The grievance stems from “exceptions” for the Chinese, at the cost of local custom and beliefs. Another demand relates to removing restrictions on cross-border trade with Iran. The Baloch live on both sides, and both countries are wary of Baloch solidarity.

However, Pakistan has additional reasons to shut down people-to-people trade and cultural contact. The long-term Chinese presence necessitates a pliant local population, preferably economically marginalized. The very fact that all of Gwadar’s projects have been designed keeping Chinese preferences in mind, and with no thought to local issues, is indicative of the importance Islamabad attaches to keeping Beijing in good humour, never mind their own Baloch minority or their culture.

More ominously, the protests were led by local Jamaat-i-Islami leader Maulana Hidayat ur Rahman, which speaks of the degeneration of democratic space in Pakistan. That an Islamist party was at the forefront of what were ostensibly local, economic grievances, is a harbinger of the treacherous path ahead. Pakistan’s Islamists, more so than Islamists elsewhere, stand emboldened by the Taliban’s march to victory in neighbouring Afghanistan. They harbour dreams of a similar capture of the state in Pakistan. This state has been riding the Islamist tiger from its very inception, having sought to instrumentalize militant Islam without falling victim to it. But there are limits to how long the latter can be staved off.

Islamabad’s recent flip flop with the Tehreek-e-Labbaik, and their constant fight-truce-fight merry-go-round with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), are merely the overt manifestations of a much deeper fracturing of society. Given the military’s iron hold over power, the lack of any democratic outlets for legitimate grievances, and the State’s deliberate cultivation of militant transnational Islam as a tool of foreign policy, the strengthening of Islamic parties has always been inevitable in Pakistan.

The Jamaat’s stewardship of the Gwadar protests, and the absence of Pakistan’s mainstream political parties from the same, bodes ill for not only the CPEC and the Gwadar project, but the Pakistani state itself.

The Pakistan Government has now acceded to the protestors’ demands for the time being, and there appears to be calm. However, a storm has been brewing in Balochistan for long, and it threatens to engulf the rest of Pakistan too. These events would also have caused much consternation in Beijing, given the obvious implications for its billions of dollars’ worth of investments in Pakistan.

There has been a spate of attacks targeting Chinese nationals in Pakistan this year and these are reason enough for a headache for the Communist Party leadership. However, the popular expression of rage in Gwadar complicates the situation considerably more. Isolated terrorist attacks can still be written off as the handiwork of some extreme elements, but a mass agitation involving thousands of people will likely cause China to question its welcome in Pakistan.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether this would be the last straw. Probably not. China has steadfastly expended economic and political capital on its mercurial friend, despite the latter more often than not found teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, sectarian conflict and coups d’état. Now, though, the swelling undercurrent of revulsion for China in Pakistan’s increasingly radicalized society, may eventually lead Beijing to rethink this romance


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