CALM has once again descended on Gwadar city, which has been roiled by massive, month-long protests by citizens for their basic rights, but how sustainable is the peace? It all depends on whether the state understands the depth of disaffection within Baloch society.
The protesters called off their sit-in on Thursday following successful negotiations with the government. The provincial Minister for Planning and Development Mir Zahoor Buledi tweeted: “Government has accepted all demands of Maulana [Hidayat]” who had been leading the dharna. Federal ministers Asad Umar and Zubaida Jalal and the SAPM on CPEC Affairs Khalid Mansoor also visited the port city the same day on the prime minister’s instructions to try and resolve the issue.
Chief Minister Qudoos Bizenjo reportedly met with the protesters to tell them that all their demands were “legitimate” and that a complete ban had been imposed on illegal fishing in the waters off the coast. Chinese trawlers plying in the sea have been a source of enormous anger among the residents because they were robbing the local fishermen of their livelihood and were perhaps the final straw that compelled them to come out on the streets.
On the face of it, Gwadar city should have been an unlikely location for a rights-based demonstration, already a rarity in Balochistan’s heavily securitised environment — not counting sit-ins by the Shia Hazaras in Quetta to protest sectarian violence against them. The port, after all, is the centrepiece of the much-vaunted economic corridor that has long been touted as a ‘game changer’ for the country, and especially for those living in its shadow. But the fact that tens of thousands of people — not only from Gwadar but also from other districts — participated in the dharna was testament to an ugly reality that people in Pakistan’s largest province live with every day.
Balochistan has been historically, egregiously, neglected and while the proceeds from its vast stores of mineral deposits enrich the coffers of the ruling elite and perhaps the state, even the basic needs of the residents are not met. Consider the demands of the protesters: aside from a ban on trawler fishing, several of them centred on the lack of education and health facilities, and the extreme shortage of electricity and drinking water.
There is also the question of dignity. One of the demands was for unnecessary check posts in Gwadar, Kech and Panjgur to be abolished. Residents in these districts complain of being treated like strangers in their own land, questioned about their movements, restricted from certain areas after sunset, etc — humiliating actions reminiscent of a colonial state rather than a federation. They deepen the sense of alienation among the Baloch, a simmering anger on which separatist elements capitalise. One hopes this time the state follows through on the promises it has made to the hapless people of Balochistan.