On the Eid-ul-Fitr day this year, instead of celebrating and feasting, relatives of Baloch missing persons chose to assemble outside Quetta press club and stage a hunger strike.1 They demanded the early return of those missing so that it could be a happy occasion for them to celebrate. The sad case of missing persons has been going on for decades now. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has over the years condemned the Pakistan state for its dismal record in handling the cases of enforced disappearances in Balochistan and hinted at the involvement of state agencies in such cases. Media personalities taking up this issue have been coerced into silence; the attack on Hamid Mir in 2014, a well-known Pakistani journalist, is a case in point. In August 2019, members of the HRCP lamented that “the Government of Pakistan has always treated Balochistan as a conflict zone” from where truth does not see the light of the day.2 The approach of mainstream media towards the province has been abysmal as they refrain from reporting massive human rights violation for fear of reprisal.
Some years ago, a retired banker, Mama Qadeer, had led a more than 2000 km long protest march from Quetta to Islamabad (October 2013-February 2014) to convey the anguish and angst of the Baloch people.3 The Supreme Court had also sought to intervene in the case. But the number of enforced disappearances continued to mount. The government figures in Pakistan, which are not reliable, point to more than 2178 unresolved cases by March 2019.4 However, HRCP has reported about 47,000 Baloch who have gone missing or disappeared. According to the Hakkpan organisation, a Baloch human rights organisation, 568 persons disappeared and 241 were killed by the Pakistan security forces in 2019 alone. A 2019 report of the group read that “students remained a main target of military and military-backed death squads during the year 2019.”5
Balochistan provides an apt example of how the Pakistan state has failed to accommodate the socio-cultural, political, and economic aspirations and grievances of the Baloch people, which has led to the present state of affairs. The coercive kill-and-dump policy of the army has only resulted in killings and disappearance of hundreds of innocent Baloch people, hardened nationalist sentiment among the people and steeled their nerves to continue with a popular movement that has become a thorn in the flesh of the Pakistan state.
The Case of Missing Persons
In Balochistan, human rights violations have become the norm. The Pakistan state and its security agencies have habitually trampled on the human rights of the Baloch people in the name of security and territorial integrity. The Pakistan state has been extremely sensitive to all expressions of ethnic autonomy and resistance, and more so in the case of Baloch leaders championing their rights. They are often charged with treason, branded as terrorists, and killed in encounters or picked up by security forces at will only to be added to the ever-expanding list of missing persons. In many cases, their dead bodies are either found in a badly mutilated condition by the roadside or their skeletal remains are discovered in mass graves.
In recent months, going by the reports in social media and online portals run by the Baloch diaspora, there has been a spike in military operations in Baloch areas like Kech, Panjgur, and Awaran districts.6 These areas were reportedly shelled by helicopter gunships and massive raids were carried out afterwards. This is all happening amidst the COVID-19 lockdown. In April alone, in the military raids, 16 Baloch were killed and as many as 73 people were picked up by the Pakistani forces, including students, women, children and infants. However, 28 people were later released.
The Baloch have never felt safe inside Balochistan and now they do not feel safe even outside Pakistan. The case of the disappearance of Rashid Hussain Baloch from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in December 2018, and the recent discovery of the dead body of Sajid Hussain Baloch in Sweden after he went missing in March 2020, only serves to demonstrate that the Baloch rights activists are being trailed even when they have quit Pakistan and are meeting the same fate as their ethnic cousins back home. According to Baloch forums worldwide, Pakistan’s intelligence agencies are extending their influence and operations even in distant shores, especially in countries where the Baloch diaspora is actively propounding the case of Baloch marginalisation in Pakistan.
In the case of Rashid Hussain Baloch, he fled Balochistan after his close relatives were killed by the Pakistan security forces. His cousin, Abdul Majeed, was abducted on October 18, 2010 and his bullet-ridden dead body was found six days later. Two years later, Rashid’s uncle and Majeed’s father, Muhammad Ramzan, was shot dead on February 2, 2012. Rashid had been working in UAE since 2017. While he was travelling to Sharjah in December 2018, his car was intercepted and he was arrested reportedly by the UAE intelligence agencies, and ever since he has gone missing. The online media run by Baloch activists allege that he was handed over to the Pakistani agencies.
Sajid Hussain Baloch had fled Balochistan in September 2012 after he was targeted by the Pakistani establishment for investigating disappearances of the Baloch people. According to reports, some unknown persons broke into his house in Quetta and decamped with his laptop. After passing through different countries to save his life, fate brought Sajid to Sweden in 2018. He was granted asylum in 2019.7 He ran an online newspaper, ‘Balochistan Times’, which sought to raise awareness about Baloch sufferings and lend a voice to the voiceless. On March 2, Sajid boarded a train from Stockholm to Uppsala where he was supposed to check into a new flat. According to Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF), he was to collect the keys to his new flat but he did not get off the train in Uppsala. On April 23, Sajid’s body was found in the Fyris River outside Uppsala. The police spokesperson said that the death could be due to an accident or suicide while not ruling out crime. President of the Swedish chapter of RSF, Erik Halkjaer, said that Sajid’s “disappearance might be work related”.8 Observers suspect that he may be a victim of targeted killing as many activists and bloggers of Pakistani origins in Europe claim to be “targeted for speaking up against human rights violations in Pakistan”.
Internal Colonialism and Nationalist Sentiment in Balochistan
Balochistan, almost the size of Germany, constitutes 44 per cent of the total area of Pakistan; however, it is sparsely populated and accounts for only 2.4 per cent of the total population of Pakistan. The Baloch see the dominance and exploitation of the resources from the province as a form of “internal colonialism.” For example, roughly 5.81 per cent of the total gas produced in Balochistan is consumed by it and the rest goes to other provinces, leaving the majority of the province without gas.9 According to the official data, Balochistan contributed gas and oil royalty to the tune of Rs 23.8 billion but it received only Rs 0.09 billion from the year 2013-14 to 2017-18.10
The Baloch fear that the activation of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and development of Gwadar Port will lead to further colonisation of the state by the Punjabis. The Baloch are targeting the Chinese workers as they think that China is colluding with their tormentors to colonise them and exploit their resources. They argue that the Baloch people were not consulted when the decision to build the port was taken, and that a major part of the revenue from it will fill the coffers of the central government while the province will receive only a minor share of it. During the implementation of the CPEC project, the Baloch alleged that the locals were hardly recruited. Sana Baloch of the Balochistan National Part.11
Right from the days of partition, the people of Balochistan have resisted the Pakistan Army’s bid to subjugate them by force. As a mineral-rich area with invaluable resources ranging from copper to natural gas, Balochistan remains a prized possession for the Pakistan state, one that Pakistan has tried to keep under tight control. Beginning with the passing of a resolution for independence in the Kalat National Assembly on August 15, 1947, the aspirations of the Baloch people have oscillated between autonomy and independence. The Pakistan Army has unsuccessfully tried to silence the Baloch voice through the use of overwhelming force, while the ongoing fifth wave of resistance (earlier ones were in 1948, 1958, 1962, and 1973) continues to rage on.
The Pakistan military’s practice of enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention in illegally established military and paramilitary cantonments in and around Balochistan, and innovative methods of torture and torture-killing has continued unabated. Baloch activists, innocent women, children, students, journalists, researchers, and social workers have been put to death indiscriminately. While the world is busy fighting its war on terror in the region, the state terror unleashed on the Baloch people has largely gone unnoticed.
There has also been a proliferation of state-sponsored radical outfits in Balochistan. They operate with impunity and function as de facto para-military arms of the state. The Quetta Shura of the Taliban was also allowed to have its base in Balochistan where it continued to prosper with the active connivance of the Pakistan military. Pakistan’s agencies have unleashed radical Islamist groups such as the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Lashkar-e-Taiba and other non-state actors and collaborators on the Baloch population in their bid to Islamise them. The Baloch people are known to be temperamentally secular and tolerant in their approach to religion.
The world at large has turned a blind eye to the gross human rights violations perpetrated by Pakistan on the innocent Baloch people for the last 73 years, and especially since 2001-02. Pakistan has unleashed a well-crafted plan to crush the people of Balochistan in its brazen quest for the resources of the region. Despite fledgling democratic rule in Pakistan since 2008, there has been hardly any change in the approach of the Pakistan state towards the Baloch people as cases of politically motivated detention and killing and disappearance of Baloch people have increased manifold.
Nevertheless, the movement of the Baloch people to safeguard their rights is likely to continue because of the strong undercurrent of popular disaffection in the province against the Pakistan state, and the sustained enthusiasm of the people to fight for their freedom, autonomy and their rights.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.