Gwadar — microcosm of Baloch discontent

Gwadar ‘Haq Do Tehreek’ initiated by Maulana Hidayatur Rehman (Jamaat-i-Islami) epitomises that sentiment

Imtiaz Gul January 25, 2023
The writer heads the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad and is the author of ‘Pakistan: Pivot of Hizbut Tahrir’s Global Caliphate’

Gwadar remains a microcosm of the Baloch discontent. It not only represents civil, military bureaucracy’s disregard for public sentiment but also a disinclination for closure of issues that sit at the heart of the Baloch disenchantment in general. Limited education opportunities, unemployment, poor health infrastructure, nominal access to state finances for the common man and enforced disappearances are some of the complaints common to nearly all Baloch citizens. Gwadar only symbolises them.

Gwadar ‘Haq Do Tehreek’ initiated by Maulana Hidayatur Rehman (Jamaat-i-Islami) epitomises that sentiment. For months, the Maulana stayed put to press for demands that include unhindered right to fishing in their seas, protection of the rights of fishermen communities, prohibition of big trawlers that sweep the waters around Gwadar and leave local fishermen with little fish catch. The cleric also became the voice of the unemployed locals. One of the demands that has been largely met is the minimal involvement of security forces in the daily life of locals.

Touted as the ‘crown jewel’ of CPEC, Gwadar draws unusual attention. The new airport, to be the country’s largest being built under CPEC, is also 60% complete. It is likely to undergo test runs in a couple of months. No surprise that Gwadar has been part of discussions in the region as a deep sea port with tremendous potential for East-West connectivity via Arabian Sea. But peace on ground is the prerequisite to harness this potential. Key stakeholders within state institutions need to comprehend that without addressing some basic demands of the locals, discontent will continue brewing and thus keep peace and potential of the port at bay. Closure of issues such as enforced disappearances and punitive actions against vocal socio-political activists provide the biggest source of justification for protests.

Sometime in the middle of 2022 a young man, who also runs an online magazine from Gwadar, went missing after attending a leadership training workshop in Islamabad. He returned home after nearly three months. No explanation thus far as to why he was picked up.

What must be worrying for civil, military establishments is the fallout of absent opportunities or high-handed management of grievances arising out of the socio-economic disparities. Why? Because these grievances act as fault-lines that outsiders can easily exploit for sowing discontent and perpetrating terror. This also serves as the cover for new anti-state alliances and subversive activities. No surprise that the year 2022 saw the emergence of a vicious triad comprising TP, BLA and IS-K that led the surge in terror both in KP and Balochistan.

The unmet demand for protection of livelihoods stands out fault-lines that can be easily exploited against state interests. Hundreds of huge trawlers, using sophisticated equipment, continue to fish in deep waters, according to protesters in the Makran coastal region. Local fishermen, relying on conventional subsistence fishing methods, are denied fishing opportunities by these trawlers. Fisherman in Gwadar, Pasni, Khad Koocha (near Mastung), Awaran, Khuzdar and surrounding areas worry that poverty and hunger would worsen.

How will investors look at recurring protests against ‘alien’ trawlers that take away fish from Baloch waters, thus depriving them of livelihood? This is a disruptive phenomenon both for the local life as well as the investors — primarily Chinese companies at the moment.

Life in Gwadar — compared to a couple of years ago — has definitely improved. But public confidence in government as a whole is missing. The continuing disconnect between the people and the authorities — often aggravated by high-handed handling of the public — serves as another fault-line that external forces exploit. Deficient health and education opportunities, disregard for the sensitivities of civilians and the sense of helplessness vis a vis the predator fishing trawlers — which locals allege belong to bigwigs from Sindh — are some of the simmering issues that do provide a justification for public uprising. One evident example is the thousands of locals that have been rallying around one cleric. Pushing the issue under the carpet will only accentuate this fault-line.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 25th, 2023.

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