Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur is among the few Pakistanis who have raised the issue of “missing people” or victims of enforced disappearances in the troubled province of Balochistan, making him a marked man in the eyes of the security establishment.
Talpur is watched constantly and his movements monitored. People who meet him too are marked by intelligence agencies. In April last year, he was on a panel that discussed the “missing people” at T2F, a Karachi cafe popular with rights activists, following which T2F founder Sabeen Mahmud was shot and killed while driving home.
Karachi Police arrested a man supposedly linked to the Islamic State for the murder. But Talpur, 65, says he has no doubt the killing was meant to send a message to every Pakistani to disassociate themselves from the Baloch cause. “They don’t want anyone to speak about it,” he says.
Balochistan is aflame again with a full-scale insurgency being waged by several rag-tag militant groups. The army has conducted operations in the resource-rich and sparsely populated province for the past decade but with limited results.
Hundreds who opposed the military operation and the presence of outsiders have been picked up by intelligence agencies and, in most instances, never heard of again.
According to the group Voice for Missing Baloch Persons, about 18,000 people have been kidnapped in Balochistan over the past four decades. Since 2009, more than 700 bodies of missing Baloch activists have been found dumped across Balochistan and in Karachi.
The bodies are invariably mutilated, sometimes beyond recognition, and have marks of torture and bullet wounds. The killers usually tag bodies with slips of paper bearing the person’s name so relatives can recognise them.
Repeated demands by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the country’s leading rights NGO, for the government to take notice of these killings have been met with complete silence.
Those, like Talpur, who raise their voice are regularly hounded by the army and security agencies. He says the issue of “missing persons” is not a recent phenomenon.
“However, it is more systematic now and it is the main tactic of the dirty war being conducted against the Baloch people,” he says, adding he has catalogued the cases of hundreds of people that have gone missing.
Talpur, whose hands were crippled by torture years ago, has been involved in the struggle for the rights of Baloch people since the 1970s. A student of journalism at Karachi University, he left studies to participate in the fight against government forces sent by then prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province, to quell disturbances.
After Bhutto was removed in a coup in 1977, the situation in Balochistan calmed down when military dictator Gen Zia-ul-Haq withdrew government forces and freed all political prisoners.
But the situation, Talpur says, has become grimmer since plans were unveiled in 2013 for the $46-billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which will run the length of Balochistan and end at Gwadar, a port on the southern-most tip of the province.
Talpur says the Baloch will resist its construction because the project brings little or no benefit to local people. The CPEC “only benefits the Chinese and the Punjabis” and will never be built “as long as the last Baloch is standing”, he says.
For its part, the federal government led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has hinted it will quell any resistance with force. Troubled times lie ahead for the province that has been described by the media as an “information black hole” because of the way in which the security establishment prevents the coverage of disturbances.