Pakistan ethnic fabric tears apart - Hindustan Times
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Pakistan ethnic fabric tears apart

ByHindustan Times
Jan 09, 2024 06:10 PM IST

This article is authored by Tara Kartha, distinguished fellow, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi.

Pakistan is in serious trouble, much worse than a series of recent terrorist attacks, the economic collapse, or its unending political skullduggery. And it’s probably going to get worse as an inept prime minister grapples with what is clearly a highly sensitive situation. Naturally he blames India, but that’s not going to gel anymore with his people. The curtain has lifted and the tragedy has come home, as the Baloch take to the streets.

A view of a victim on a stretcher being transferred to an ambulance, following a suicide blast, in Balochistan Province, Pakistan in September last year. (Reuters)
A view of a victim on a stretcher being transferred to an ambulance, following a suicide blast, in Balochistan Province, Pakistan in September last year. (Reuters)

Thousands of angry Baloch, have converged on Islamabad, with the simplest of demands, which is to stop the unending killing of their people, at the hands of security forces in what has been a practice of more than two decades. They’ve been sitting in the freezing cold for more than a fortnight, with the state trying to provoke them in manifold ways, including threatening to shoot them, taking away the sound system, disallowing blankets even for the old, and shutting down the bank account which was providing crowd funding for the movement. Those who offered food have been threatened, and the State has reportedly dismissed 44 civil servants who had marched with them. The Baloch themselves didn’t raise a finger in violence. This is not an ‘intellectual’ protest or even a political one. The images show a ragged, desperate people, many of them well into their 60’s, others are little children, and hundreds upon hundreds of women, the mothers, who have lost their sons to a tyrannical force who lift the boys and then ‘disappear’ them. It’s not the first time the Baloch have marched; most recently in November, Islamabad was the scene of chaos as police used force to evict women from entering the capital, in what was again an entirely a peaceful protest. The Pakistani mainstream media hardly noticed. This time they may have to.

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In the forefront is the indomitable Mehrang Baloch, whose father was abducted, tortured and killed in July 1, 2011. Mehrang has seen it all. She leads the Baloch Yakhjati Committee (BYC) which is one of the prime movers in the present struggle that escalated after the killing of a young man, all of 24 years old. Balach Mola Bakhsh was taken away by counter-terrorism department (CTD) on October 29. A month later, just a day before his bail plea was scheduled to take place, the police said four "terrorists" from a "proscribed group", including Bakhsh, had been killed during a shootout with police in Turbat. His family refused to bury the body, and there lies the origin of the present outrage. They have simply marched on, gathering supporters on the way, and being warmly greeted everywhere. After giving the State seven days to react, they then presented their list of demands in a press release. Foremost among this is that a United Nations lead fact-finding mission be convened to investigate human rights abuses. As they made clear, this demand follows years of parliamentary committees making recommendations to the government and then doing nothing.

But support is growing significantly. Videos show thousands gathered in Gilgit, in support of the shutter down strike called by the BYC. Manzoor Pashteen, leader of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) a social movement that is based in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, was arrested after he went to support the movement. But the PTM has since declared absolute support for the strike, an ominous sign that ethnic groups are leaving the Punjabi-dominated centre. Sindhis have identical demands as the cry for ‘Sindhudesh’ rises. Recently, Sindhi teenagers were detained for supporting the Baloch, even as several Sindhi organisations including the Sindhi Sujagi Forum, Voice for Missing Persons of Sindh, Sindh Sabha and Sind United Party have declared their support for the march. More ominously, Syed Ashgar Shah head of the Sindhudesh Revolutionary Party, has outlined a ‘strategic alliance’ with Baloch Resistance groups. Security experts have been warning of the coming together of these groups, even as the Sindhudesh People’s army claimed an attack on a Chinese dental clinic, and have near identical demands on Chinese ‘occupation’.

Support is also apparent from other quarters. A bench of the Supreme Court lead by Chief Justice Qazi Faez Isa, while hearing petitions from parents of ‘disappeared’ persons, directed The Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances, to submit, within ten days a comprehensive report detailing all orders issued to law enforcement agencies for the production of missing persons. The Commission lead by a retired judge seems to have made little progress, and the present Chief Justice has declared that the problem should be solved once and for all. Senior lawyer and former Senator Aitzaz Hasan has also filed a petition calling for the formation of an “effective and purposeful commission” led by a Supreme Court justice as well as presidents of the Pakistan Bar Council, the high courts’ bar associations, chairpersons of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) and National Commission on Status of Women, as well as heads of security agencies, with a deadline of four weeks to submit a report. Meanwhile, the shutter down strike has resonated across Pakistan, with even shops in Islamabad cooperating.

All this seems to have spooked the establishment. Prime Minister Kakar, a Baloch himself, in trying to project a ‘strong man’ image, declared that those protesting should go and join the ‘terrorists’. He added “The state is clear on how to deal with this menace. Please clarify your position”. And inevitably, he blamed India for it all. Following this, it seems that the Islamabad police have increased their pressure tactics. What is amazing is that the Baloch issue has been virtually wiped out from the internet in terms of day to day reporting. A few portals remain, but overall the contrast between reporting on the Baloch issue and Kashmir is glaring. None of this blame game and intel efforts is likely to help much as the Pakistani state lurches from one act of suppression to another. A think tank reported 1524 violence-related fatalities and 1,463 injuries from as many as 789 terror attacks and operations, marking a record six-year high, exceeding the 2018 level and highest since 2017. And it’s been increasing every year since 2021. In other words, 40 years of terror sponsorship to the east and west, a breakdown in governance, the ensuing collapse of the economy, and the complete erosion of democracy have all come home with a vengeance. Nobody’s is buying the ‘blame India’ story, and Pakistanis are instead pointing to an army that has wrecked their State. As an election looms, expect things to get rapidly worse, as a delicate ethnic coalition called Pakistan starts coming apart, unless the State reacts with genuine compassion to the demands of the Baloch, the Pashtuns and the Sindhis. That hasn’t happened for 76 years. It’s hardly likely to happen now.

This article is authored by Tara Kartha, distinguished fellow, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi.

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