Outcasting outsiders in Balochistan

The BLA statement following the attack on PNS Siddique Naval Airbase in Turbat on March 26, 2024, reveals Baloch animosity towards outsiders and the Chinese.

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A man comforts another mourning the killing of his relative in the blast in Balochistan [Arshad Butt/AP]

On April 23, 2024, at least two people from Punjab were killed by unidentified motorcycle-bone gunmen, in the Dannuk area on the outskirts of Turbat town in Kech District of Balochistan.

On April 12, 2024, gunmen shot dead nine passengers from Punjab riding a bus after checking their identification, on N-40 Regional Corporations Development Highway in the Nushki District of Balochistan. The gunmen had blocked the highway that connects Pakistan and Iran and, when the bus reached the location, they took the nine passengers to the nearby mountain region, where they were shot dead. On April 13, the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) claimed responsibility and alleged that the victims were Government employees. The outfit reiterated its intention to continue its attacks against what it called “enemy forces,” including uniformed personnel, intelligence officials in plain clothes, and local facilitators, until their demands for the withdrawal of Pakistani forces and recognition of an independent Baloch nation were met.

Some of the other attacks on non-locals in Balochistan in the current year, so far, included:

  • February 26: Unidentified assailants shot dead a non-local, identified as Kamran Riaz Ahmad, in Gwadar town (Gwadar District). Ahmad was a resident of the Khanewal District of Punjab.
  • February 22: Unidentified armed assailants abducted two non-local labourers who were working at a crushing plant in the Alyar Shah area of Kacchi District. Both hailed from the North Waziristan District of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. There have been no further reports about their whereabouts.
  • January 24: Five technicians from Punjab were abducted from Dandar village in Hoshap tehsil (revenue unit) of Kech District. Unidentified gunmen abducted the five, who were working to install a new tower for the ‘state-run’ telecom company Ufone. The abductees were identified as Nazir Ahmed, Muhammad Tariq, Safdar Ali, Farooq, and Hasnain. They were released on February 16. However, the circumstances of their release and the identities of the kidnappers remain undisclosed.

According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), a total of 270 ‘non-locals’ have been killed in Balochistan since August 26, 2006, (data till April 28, 2024). Of these, 214 were Punjabis. The other non-natives who fell to the ethnic collateral damage included 37 Sindhis. The ethnic identity of the remaining 19 was unspecified.

Most of the Punjabi settler killings were recorded in South Balochistan, which accounts for 174 of the total of 214 killings (principally in Bolan, Kech, Gwadar, Panjgur, Khuzdar, Sibi and Lasbela Districts); and 40 in North Balochistan (mostly in Kalat, Nushki, Quetta and Mustang Districts). The overwhelming concentration of such killings in the South is because of the presence and dominance of Baloch insurgent groups in this region, while the North is dominated by ethnic Pashtun Islamist extremist formations, such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Islamic States; as well as sectarian outfits such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and Jundullah.

Non-locals, who are thought to be Army collaborators, face the wrath of Baloch insurgents. These ‘non-locals’ allegedly work as spies for Security Forces (SFs), and are also believed to be part of a systematic effort to deny work and benefits to the Baloch population. Baloch insurgent groups such as BLA, Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) and the Balochistan Republican Army (BRA), among others, began to voice anti-outsider, particularly anti-Punjabi, sentiments in their campaigns in the wake of the military action against and killing of Nawab Akbar Bugti, leader of the Bugti tribe and President of the Jamhoori Watan Party (JWP), in a military operation in the Chalgri area of the Bhamboor Hills of Dera Bugti District, on August 26, 2006. Further, many of the ‘outsiders’ are engaged on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects and are targeted because Baloch insurgents fear that CPEC will convert the Baloch people into minorities in their own homeland. Indeed, CPEC projects principally employ workers brought in from outside the province, overwhelmingly from Punjab.

Another reason for the Baloch insurgents targeting these ‘outsiders’ is the ongoing disappearances and extrajudicial killings of Baloch nationals, engineered by Pakistan’s SFs and their proxies. According to the SATP database, of the 4,782 conflict-linked civilian fatalities recorded in Balochistan since 2004 (data till April 28, 2024), at least 1,569 are attributable to one or other terrorist/insurgent outfit. Of these, 509 civilian killings (311 in the South and 198 in the North) have been claimed by Baloch separatist formations, while Islamist and sectarian extremist formations – primarily Islamic State, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Ahrar-ul-Hind (Liberators of India) – claimed responsibility for another 1,008 civilian killings, 925 in the North (mostly in and around Quetta) and 83 in the South. The remaining 3,265 civilian fatalities – 1,875 in the South and 1,390 in the North – remain ‘unattributed’, and are largely believed to have been the handiwork of the SFs and their death squad proxies.

The ‘outsiders’ have also become collateral to the grouse against CPEC projects in the province. Since the inception of CPEC-related projects in 2013, people associated with these have been targeted as have outsiders in general, as the BLA and other Baloch groups remain convinced that the native Baloch people have been deprived of their land and opportunities, despite the abundant natural resources of the province. According to the Geological Survey of Pakistan, Balochistan has huge deposits of more than 80 mineral resources. The province also accounts for at least 35 per cent of the country’s proven and recoverable gas reserves. Despite this great natural wealth, Balochistan remains an underdeveloped and a poverty-stricken region, with up to 65 per cent of the Baloch population living below the poverty line, according to UNDP.

The flood of planned non-Baloch migrants into the province has also provoked fears of demographic imbalance. Baloch nationalists argue that CPEC is bringing in more Punjabi and other non-Baloch settlers, in what they perceive as a process of ‘neo-colonialism’ by Punjabis in collaboration with China. Shabir Choudhry, a prominent writer and activist based in London, has issued a stark warning regarding the CPEC project, predicting a bleak future for the Baloch people: “The increasing Chinese presence in Balochistan is alarming. According to reports, if their numbers continue to rise at this rate, Baloch could become a minority by 2048.” 

In this, Choudhry was reiterating Noordin Mengal, a human rights campaigner from the province, who had declared, on March 17, 2017, that, with the influx of outsiders as a result of the CPEC projects, the identity of the Baloch was being threatened. According to the Census 2017, the total population of Balochistan was 12.3 million, and the Baloch population (Balochi language speaking population) had shrunk from 61 per cent of the total to 55.6 per cent over a period of 19 years (since the Census of 1998), in the 21 Districts where the Balochi-speaking population form a majority.

The technical and administrative staff on CPEC projects is overwhelmingly Chinese, and a complex eco-system of Chinese workers and service providers has been established around the CPEC projects. Pakistan currently hosts a sizable Chinese population and the numbers are only slated to grow as the project progresses. Concerns about the demographic transformation of Balochistan have been reiterated since a December 28, 2016, report by the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FPCCI), which noted that, at the current and projected rate of influx of Chinese nationals into Balochistan, the native population of the area would be outnumbered by 2048.

The Baloch hatred towards outsiders and the Chinese is evident in the BLA statement after the recent attack on the PNS Siddique Naval Airbase in Turbat city on March 26, 2024, which declared that the operation aimed to protect the Baloch coast from ‘occupation and exploitation’, particularly in connection with projects such as the CPEC, and to retaliate against what they describe as the ongoing ‘genocide’ against the Baloch people. The statement also warned China about its involvement in the region, threatening severe attacks on Chinese nationals and projects in Balochistan unless it ceased exploitative activities and support for the Pakistani military. BLA reiterated its call for the withdrawal of Pakistani forces from Balochistan, vowing to continue its attacks until its objectives were achieved.

Despite repeated censure from the Supreme Court, as well as domestic and international human rights organisations, Islamabad persists in its policies of violence, ‘disappearances’ and targeted killings in Balochistan, even as its exploitation of the province’s natural resources persists and the local populations suffer acute neglect and poverty. Under the circumstances, the Baloch nationalist campaign against Pakistani forces, the Chinese and ‘outsiders’ can only continue, and could possibly intensify.

Tushar Ranjan Mohanty

Tushar Ranjan Mohanty is a Counter-terrorism Expert on Pakistan at Institute for Conflict Management (ICM) in New Delhi

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