On January 1, Pakistan’s caretaker prime minister, Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar, lost his cool at a news conference in Islamabad. When asked about the Baloch people who had been protesting in the Pakistani capital, demanding government action on enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings, Kakar became visibly angry.
He called those demonstrating “relatives of those fighting against the state” and their supporters “advocates of terrorists in Balochistan”. His tirade aimed to delegitimise the Baloch protestors and justify the violence the Islamabad police had unleashed against them.
The approach of the caretaker prime minister, himself a Pashtun hailing from Balochistan, underlines the main issue with government policy towards the Baloch people. For decades, the civilian and military rulers of Pakistan have presented the Baloch issue as a security matter instead of looking into the community’s grievances and demands.
This approach has led to systematic violations of the human, political and economic rights of the Baloch people and fuelled a conflict in their region. The crisis will only deepen unless the Pakistani government changes tack.
Conflict in Balochistan
Balochistan is the largest province of Pakistan, making up some 43.6 percent of the total area of the country. The province is rich in natural resources like gold, copper, oil and natural gas and boasts a 770km (478-mile) stretch of coastline, where the strategic Gwadar Port is located – a prominent feature of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
Despite being rich in natural resources, Balochistan remains the poorest province in Pakistan. The Baloch ethnic group, which makes up a third of the population, has long been marginalised due to the Pakistani government’s discriminatory policies. This history of marginalisation has been accompanied by sustained armed resistance.
The latest cycle of violence started in the 2000s, prompted by demands for an equal share of the province’s resources for the Baloch people. Eventually, calls for independence also emerged.
But not all Baloch people support the armed groups and many believe that a political solution is possible, if Islamabad were to listen to and address their grievances.
For decades, successive governments have responded to the problem with force, not only seeking to decimate armed groups but also demonising and terrorising the Baloch community. Even Baloch activists and politicians who have not taken up arms but have instead chosen to engage in political and legal ways of seeking a solution to the conflict have been branded as “terrorists”.
As a result, Islamabad has missed many chances to engage the Baloch society and seek a peaceful, political solution.
The Pakistani government’s security approach to the Baloch issue has resulted in a growing human rights crisis. Enforced disappearances, in particular, have been a pervasive phenomenon that has caused increased tensions and protests among the Baloch people.
According to the Voice for Baloch Missing Persons, the number of the forcibly disappeared has crossed 5,000. According to the government, there have been 2,700 cases, out of which 468 remain unresolved.
Human rights violations of the Baloch have been widespread and have been increasingly acknowledged not just by international and local rights organisations, but also by Pakistani institutions.
In its 2023 fact-finding report, Balochistan’s Struggle for Hope, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) stated: “Some members of the district administration in Gwadar and Turbat conceded privately to the HRCP team that there had been a rise in enforced disappearances in the province.”
The HRCP found that young people, especially students, have become frequent targets of this practice; it even mentions reports of the enforced disappearance of minors.
Common Baloch do not feel safe in their own land, not even in their own homes. The chasm of distrust between them and the local and central authorities is only growing. Worse still, the Baloch have been targeted even when they have tried to express their grievances through peaceful protest.
This is what happened recently in Islamabad. In November, a Baloch man was killed after being forcefully disappeared from his home in the city of Turbat. The Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) claimed that he was a “terrorist” while the relatives and other community members maintained that he was killed in an extrajudicial encounter by the CTD.
Reflecting what has become a routine in the province, family members of the murdered man organised protests and were joined by local activists. They eventually started a long march from Turbat to Islamabad, where they took their demands to end extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances to the seat of power.
But the government – again – did not listen. Instead, the Islamabad police were dispatched to disperse the protesters with water cannons and detain some of them. These actions only increased the anger and disenchantment among the Baloch.
Addressing the Baloch issue
Dismissing valid grievances by the Baloch community and attacking its members who are seeking peaceful ways to address them is really the wrong approach to the Baloch issue.
It is high time the Pakistani political elite realise that it is in the interest of the country to secure political stability in Balochistan and that can only happen by addressing the demands of the Baloch people for equal human, political and economic rights.
Several steps can be taken to resolve the ongoing crisis.
First, the underlying causes of the conflict need to be assessed and understood, including the use of military force to suppress dissent in the province. It would be worthwhile to engage the moderate sections of the Baloch population whose demands come within the law of the land, instead of clubbing them together with the radical groups.
Second, relevant state institutions and the judiciary should investigate enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings and hold to account those who have perpetrated them. The files of political prisoners should also be reviewed and in the cases where there are no major crimes committed, they should be released.
Third, these gestures of good faith should be used for trust-building with the Baloch community that can ultimately lead to negotiations on mechanisms for equal distribution of the profits from the exploitation of Balochistan’s natural resources.
The effort that undertaking these steps would take far outweighs the benefits that it can produce. Balochistan remains vital for Pakistan’s economic development. A politically stable Balochistan can mitigate the ongoing conflict and significantly reduce security threats emerging from the province. It would facilitate the completion of the various projects of the ambitious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and help government efforts to attract foreign investment that Pakistan desperately needs at the moment. The only thing still missing from this equation is political will in Islamabad.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.