The images coming in from Gwadar—on the coast of Pakistan—are probably unprecedented. Thousands upon thousands are marching near the seas, where fishing boats have been breached, even as supporters streaming in from neighbouring Sind swell the protests against the Imran Khan government.
Balochistan is no stranger to protests against State-perpetrated violence. But this time, the protests are being helmed by the Jamaat-e-Islami, one of the largest politico-religious groups in Pakistan, and once the pet of the military. And no, this massive march has nothing to do with the now-routine religious frenzy in the country. This one is for demanding basic rights for the Baloch people, including protection against Chinese incursions into their traditional fishing grounds. Indifferent to Baloch protests for decades, this time it has all got very embarrassing for the Imran Khan government.
The Jamaat in the lead
Once a sleepy fishing village, Gwadar turned into China’s main strategic hub and potential business centre overnight. The protest is led by Maulana Hidayat-ur-Rehman, the Balochistan general secretary of the Jamaat-e-Islami.
The fact that the Jamaat is agitating against the Imran Khan government—and presumably its military backers—shouldn’t surprise anyone. It has been sidelined in favour of more extreme groups like the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), which were used to split Nawaz Sharif’s vote share in the 2018 elections. The Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), which included the Jamaat, did poorly, and its spokesman stirred a controversy by saying that Pakistan had rejected Islam.
Since then, it has been on the warpath intermittently. Particularly since October, it has shown more persistence, calling for nationwide protests on issues such as inflation, unemployment, and misgovernance and declaring Pakistan has been taken over by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In November, its members were on the streets in Islamabad on the same issues.
Balochistan however, the Jamaat is on a slightly different and interesting footing. Since November, its cadres have been demanding “Gwadar ko Haq do” (Give Gwadar its rights). rights). Championing the Baloch is rather a new turn of events for the group, and the slogan has clearly gotten the support of not just locals, but also those from outside the province, Dawn noted. As the face of the protest, Maulana Rehman has received solid support on social media and across sections of the opposition. In early December, the Punjab Assembly passed a resolution that was introduced by a member of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), Nawaz Sharif’s party. Certainly, protests by nationalist parties had never before received the kind of massive support that is being seen at this site. The Jamaat’s patronising of Baloch demands could be something of a game changer.
The issue of Chinese trawlers
Among the 19 demands raised, which includes a demand for jobs in major projects and getting rid of humiliating check posts, the protesters have expressed concerns on the illegal fishing by Chinese trawlers. With the major population on the coast dependent on fishing, this is an important issue that melds with the resentment against the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Fishermen complain that they are not allowed to fish in their traditional waters near the port due to security reasons. However, when they brought up this issue with Zhang Baozhong, Chairman of the Chinese Overseas Port Holding Company (COPHC), he observed that “the Chinese boats were only sheltered during a storm.” The State-run company under Beijing proudly advertises its complete management of all aspects of the Gwadar port, including the projected Free Zone area of 923 hectares, and this is a telling hint of its authority.
The issue was examined by a senate standing committee, which confirmed that Chinese ships did not seek permission to enter Pakistan’s waters and “did not respond to the mandatory very high frequency and louder calls.” The importance of the whole issue was evident when Lijian Zhou—spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry—saw fit to denounce it as ‘fake news,’ and said that no Chinese trawlers had been involved. Baloch resentment, however, is not limited to this. They have received no benefits from the Chinese entry—not even jobs—despite promises. Meanwhile, it is Pakistan’s real estate tycoons who are making a fast buck.
Pakistan reacts on cue and on demand
By late November, Islamabad had agreed to two key demands. One, a notification transferring Pakistan-Iran border affairs from the Frontier Corps—which makes quite a buck out of it—to the district administration. Two, it agreed to joint oversight of the foreign trawlers by the Pakistan Maritime Security Agency (PMSA), the district administration, and the fisheries department. By the second week of December, all the demands seemed to have been met, or at least shown progress, according to a listing by Dawn. However, the protesters refused to move out, leading to Islamabad reacting with time-tested tactics. It targeted Mir Yousaf Masti Khan, a respected politician of the Baloch Muttahida Mahaz. The arrest was condemned by rights groups and on social media. But they made no attempt to detain the real power centre—Maulana Rehman—despite his rhetoric against the Pakistan army. Meanwhile, the whole issue has been shelved by the Pakistani media, even though the protest is acknowledged to be one of the largest to be held in Balochistan for decades.
The Jamaat is picking its words
That the protests are being allowed to go on without any major setback put their way is probably due to three reasons. One, its sheer size makes it impossible to consider the usual paramilitary actions against it.
Second, this is clearly a show by the Jamaat to regain its lost ground in the political space, and a show of force against the Imran Khan government.
The army seems to have left the negotiating to the civilian government, and is now assuming a stand-off position. It also seems that the Jamaat is avoiding the burning issue of the ‘Disappeared’ Baloch—a term that has become a part of the lexicon of protests in Balochistan, and is a highly sensitive issue because it involves finger-pointing at security forces. The issue refers to the Baloch youth picked up in the night, tortured, and dumped on road sides. There are no clear numbers available, but a United Nations (UN) report of 2019 noted some 47,000 missing. That includes not just those suspected of perpetrating terror or violence, but bloggers, journalists, and others seen as dissenters of the government. The PTI government set up a commission in 2011, ostensibly to probe this, but a report by the International Commission of Jurists condemned the fact that it had failed to hold a single hearing. While the issue is a part of the social media coverage of the protests, the Jamaat itself does not seem to have raised it specifically.
Third, Siraj-ul-Haq—the leader of the Jamaat—chose to condemn India and raise the Kashmir issue at the protest site, thereby establishing his credentials as one who was in no way a threat to the army.
The Jamaat might not recognise the momentum that it has generated. The anger of the Baloch people is real, and if general elections propel the Jamaat to power in the State, it will have to deliver on this anger, and calm the Chinese simultaneously. That’s going to be a challenge. For Pakistan, threats from rising radicalism, Sindh nationalism, the virtual capitulation to the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, not to mention student protests across 11 cities, are issues to be still dealt with. With the Jamaat in the lead, it’s not going to be a walkover.
The author is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. She tweets @kartha_tara. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)