After he came to power in 2018, Prime Minister Imran Khan told the Balochs that “Centre will work with Balochistan as a partner,” and assured them that “We will not make any such promise for which we may have to excuse later on.” On National Minority Day, Imran Khan publicly admitted that“Balochistan is impoverished [since] Pakistan has always neglected the region.” Though it’s no secret that the people of Balochistan have been historically marginalised by the country’s powerful Punjab lobby and brutalised by Pakistan Army, Islamabad has never admitted this earlier.
So, when Khan reiterated that the future of Pakistan was linked with that of Balochistan and announced his willingness to talk with Baloch insurgents, his willingness to undo the wrongs of the past expectedly raised a lot of hopes amongst the Baloch. There was another compelling reason why the people of Balochistan had high expectations from him– before becoming Prime Minister, Imran Khan had been vocally quite critical of Pakistan Army’s horrific excesses and atrocities in Balochistan.
Khan’s concern for the pitiful condition of Baloch is apparent from an undated video in which he can be heard saying, “Our Army bombing people in Balochistan, how can we bomb our own people?” Not only this, he even said, “It is our own people with their children, but it is important to understand are we just bombing out people, just think about the immorality of bombing villages with the women and children.” So, the oppressed Baloch genuinely believed that after becoming Prime Minister, the cricketer turned politician would walk his talk.
However, while Khan’s assurances fooled the people of Balochistan for two years, his pretense finally crumbled in November when thousands of Baloch in Gwadar city took to the streets in response to a call from Jamaat-i-Islami leader Maulana Hidayat-ur Rehman. Initially, while the government tried to play down this massive protest, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian dismissed reports of this humungous protest as “fake news” aimed at maligning China-Pakistan Economic Corridor [CPEC] project.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin claimed that “China-Pakistan Gwadar Faqeer Middle School, the vocational training institute in Gwadar, and China-Pakistan Fraternity Emergency Care Center in Gwadar, which have been completed, have played important roles in and made China’s contributions to creating education opportunities, improving employment skills and responding to COVID-19 for the benefit of the local people.” He also said that “… all CPEC projects including the Gwadar Port will play a more positive part in improving people’s livelihood in both countries.”
But with large scale protests continuing for a month, it’s patently clear that while Khan was just making false promises, Beijing was issuing blatantly fallacious statements. So, while the Gwadar Port development project is being touted as the “crown” of the ambitious US $60 billion CPEC project that would boost infrastructural development as well as provide employment to locals on a large scale, what was actually happening on ground was just the opposite. So, the Gwadar protest was both justified as well as expected.
While a series of check posts has made movement of locals in the area a nightmare, security reasons are being cited to prevent fishermen from venturing into the sea. Resultantly, while local traders and commuters are facing severe hardships livelihood of fishermen is being adversely impacted. At the same time, Chinese nationals are moving around freely in Gwadar while Chinese trawlers are having a field day fishing merrily in Pakistani waters. The very fact that the government has accepted 19 demands made by protesters makes it absolutely clear that Islamabad was being grossly unfair to the people of Balochistan.
The tragedy of Balochistan is two-fold- one, its illegally occupation by Pakistan, and two, the step-motherly treatment meted out by successive governments. Balochistan is today inextricably associated with Baloch being abducted, tortured, killed and their corpses simply dumped. The top ten results of Google search for “kill and dump policy” will be about Balochistan!
In his illuminating piece titled ‘The rise of Maulana’ that appeared in ‘Dawn’ on December 1, Muhammad Akbad Notezai quotes Jamaat leader Hidayat-ur-Rehman as saying “There are two main demands in our protest: first, our respect; second, joblessness. Our source of livelihood and employment in the name of security, via fishing, trade, and other businesses have become ruined. In a nutshell, we want our very own employment that has been snatched from us in the wake of development and security, not the one from you to be given to us.”
The important thing to note here is that the people of Gwadar haven’t fallen for the much-hyped claim that CPEC will be a “game changer” and usher in prosperity, being peddled by Beijing and Islamabad. Baloch are quite happy and content with their traditional sources of livelihood and all they want is a fair share of the income accrued from sale of its mineral resources. It also wants that security forces should treat them with due respect and dignity.
However, there is a problem.
Imran Khan is openly pandering to Chinese interests as evident from his priorities. Even when public discontentment in Gwadar was palpable, rather than address concerns of the locals, Khan was busy assuring a Chinese business delegation of support “on a priority basis,” and bending backwards by saying that Pakistan is “grateful to them for their keen interest in accelerating their investment in special economic zones.”
Similarly, Pakistan Army and other security agencies under its command hold Baloch in utter contempt and views them as terrorists. Therefore, the chances that the people of Gwadar would be treated with respect may be difficult to ensure at grass root levels.
What should concern Islamabad is that though spearheaded by a Jamaat-e-Islami cleric, the Gwadar protest isn’t a movement inspired or spurred by religious considerations. Au contraire, it’s a campaign for ensuring that Baloch are given basic amenities guaranteed by the Constitution of Pakistan and that Pakistan Army ends its highhandedness and unlawful actions. The Gwadar protests also highlights the phenomenal rise in regional and ethnic prejudices within Pakistan that are compelling several minority communities to unite and in an act of self-preservation, raise their voices against Islamabad’s discriminatory treatment.
The writing on the wall is clear. Balochistan can no longer be fooled by hollow promises of a bright future or unimaginable riches and prosperity. So, offering cakes to the economically weak who struggle to earn their daily bread will no longer work and thus, Khan has no other option but to act. However, whether he will be able to take the bull by its horns and make Chinese commercial interests in CPEC subservient to those of Balochistan, remains a million dollar question!