Ten labourers belonging to district Naushehro Feroz of Sindh were cold-bloodedly executed by a militant group near Gwadar in Balochistan on May 13. These labourers were working on a road project. They were lined up and showered with bullets after checking their ethnic identity. One of them was spared after he conversed with the assailants in Balochi language.
Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) claimed responsibility of the terrorist act.
The incident was not the only one of its kind. One week later, three labourers hailing from Rajanpur district of Punjab were gunned down near Turbat. In April 2017, four labourers belonging to Ghotki district of Sindh were executed in Kharan district of Balochistan. In April 2015, 20 labourers including seven from Sindh were brutally killed by the self-proclaimed freedom fighters near Turbat.
The series of assaults and killings actually started with targeting of security forces. However, cowed by their retaliatory power, the militants moved their guns to empty-handed labourers working on the government’s projects.
Southern coastal belt of Balochistan has been the hotbed of the Baloch militancy that gained impetus after the murder of Nawab Akbar Bugti. The obdurate octogenarian, who dodged security forces before being holed-up and assassinated in an operation in August 2006, emerged as an icon of the Baloch militancy.
Baloch rights movements maintained a tradition of armed confrontation with law enforcement forces. Having a scant middle class, sparsely populated settlements separated by swathes of parched land, the Baloch society is a mosaic of tribal fiefdoms dominated by sardars who wield unrivalled power within their remits.
However, southern coastal strip of the province eludes customary tribal system with a different social fabric. Districts of Gwadar, Turbat and Panjgur are home to a politically fertile and socially liberal Baloch middle class. The Baloch nationalist movement draws its ideologically steadfast cadres from these areas. Inherently tranquil yet politically dynamic far-flung pockets of these districts such as Tump, Mand, Jiwani and Pasni are now infested by militants.
In spite of a prolonged operation by the security forces, these militants manage to evade their fences and assault security forces and labourers in these areas inflicting considerable loss of lives. Dozens of Baloch militants have been killed in targeted and retaliatory operations by security forces and scores of mutilated bodies of the abducted persons have been dumped. Unabated bloodshed has turned the area into a war zone.
Gwadar has been the centre of gravity of this insurgency. Gwadar became part of Pakistan when the government formally purchased it from Oman at the cost of Rs5.5 billion in 1958. Balochistan became a province after abolition of the One Unit in 1970 and Gwadar subsequently became a district of the province.
The fishing town attained a strategic significance when Pakistan decided to construct a modern deep-sea port at Gwadar. The port is being constructed in two phases at an initial cost of $248 million. The first phase was completed and inaugurated by the former dictator, Pervez Musharraf, in 2007. The port has now become lynchpin of the topical China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). China has been interested in the port since its inception.
With the onset of CPEC, the port attained supreme strategic paramountcy. Under CPEC, the port is set to expand manifold having additional container berths, a cargo terminal, two oil terminals, a four-lane expressway to connect it with the coastal highway, a new international airport, a floating liquefied natural gas terminal, a special economic zone, a desalination plant, a 360 megawatt coal-fired power plant and a range of other investments. In 2013, China Overseas Port Holding Company was awarded a 40-year contract for construction and operation of the port.
Located at a distance of only 600kms from the Strait of Hormuz, the port will provide a vital link to China through Kashgar in the western province of Xinjiang.
China imports half of its oil from the Middle East, and much of this oil has to pass through the Strait of Hormuz. Currently, tankers of oil have to sail for approximately 10,000 kms to reach China through the Arabian Sea, after crossing Strait of Malacca.
Both these straits are sensitive for China due to international geo-political interests.
Gwadar provides an opportunity to China to make its presence in the proximity of the Strait of Hormuz. It will also curtail the distance to only 4,500kms for oil and other goods to reach Xinjiang. Even adding 4,500kms to dispatch consignments to the eastern China, the Gwadar route is economical, faster and safer by skirting the strait of Malacca.
This makes Gwadar an important location for Chinese strategic interests.
Considering the geo-strategic eminence of Gwadar, security establishment claims that rival regional powers are inciting violence through quislings to jeopardise the CPEC related investments. Machinations and clandestine acts of the adversaries cannot be ruled out altogether.
Baloch nationalists loath Gwadar port project. They maintain the port city will open a floodgate of non-local population that will distort demographic balance drastically. It will not only convert the native Baloch into a numerical minority but they will also lose control over their coast, like other natural resources in the province.
Former president Musharraf tried to assuage their fears by offering a gambit that the land ownership rights of the local communities of Gwadar could be secured through appropriate legislation. Addressing a gathering of tribal elders at the residence of the Khan of Kalat in April 2005, he said, “while people from other areas could come to Gwadar to develop it, no one could dislodge the locals”.
Baloch nationalists dismissed such assurances.
Twelve years down the road in January 2017, the provincial cabinet constituted a committee to formulate recommendations for legislation to safeguard social, economic and political rights of the natives of Gwadar. Political leadership of the province is also miffed due to an insolent behaviour of the federal government as the Islamabad-based establishment took no measures to address the concerns of the native communities.
Baloch militants use the charade of nationalism to justify their xenophobic acts as a measure to forestall development of the Gwadar port. They are apprehensive of a looming threat of inexorable influx of hundreds of thousands of people from other provinces. Whereas the political concerns are not completely misplaced, yet the terrorist acts targeting labourers will fetch little empathy in the contemporary world. After failing to trounce those who carry guns, the militants have unleashed their brutality against those who carry spades and shovels in search of their livelihood.
Political issues merit sane political solutions. A peaceful and consistent political movement is the best option in a parliamentary democratic system. Sindh’s movements against the One Unit and the Kalabagh Dam are pertinent examples to cite. At the time of the anti-One Unit movement, large swathes of land of Sindh were allotted to the civil and military bureaucrats mainly from Punjab. Dozens of settlements of communities from Punjab were established in Sindh. The Sindhi nationalist movement was at its zenith in those days. The movement was completely peaceful and strictly confined to political means. No one attacked Punjabi-speaking communities, neither were their settlements targeted. There could have been localised fistfight and slugfest but no grisly incidents of communal violence occurred.
As a corollary, six decades on, most of the Punjabi settlers have been subsumed into Sindhi identity both culturally and politically. Young generation of those settlers speaks Sindhi fluently, they study in Sindhi-medium schools, recite Shah Latif Bhitai’s poetry with the same reverence and dance to the tunes of Sindhi music with the same enchantment. They are inextricably intertwined with Sindhi identity and one could hardly distinguish them from native Sindhi communities.
Punjabi-speaking community of Sindh contributed some outstanding music maestros, singers, poets and writers of Sindhi language. A large number of such Punjabi-speaking people actively participate in political movements on the issues of Sindh such as Kalabagh Dam, water shortages and Sindh’s share in the National Finance Commission (NFC) Award. They have tied their cultural, economic and political knots with the Sindhi society and have become Sindhi for all practical purposes. Sindh has demonstrated a successful model of an inclusive and peaceful political movement that culminated at the interment of the One Unit.
The Baloch militants, on the contrary, have resorted to violent options by discriminately targeting innocent citizens due to their ethnic identity. Baloch militants are thus erasing the blurry line between nationalism and racism. Violence against peaceful citizens will only sully the image of the Baloch rights movement and undermine its political legitimacy.