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A women-led movement against enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings has recently started and has grown exponentially in Pakistan. The protesters demand an end to the enforced disappearances rampant in Balochistan, as well as accountability for those involved in the murders of Baloch people. The organizers call the protests the “march against Baloch genocide”.
The protests were sparked after the 22-year-old Baloch man, Balaach Mola Baksh, died in November. Baksh’s relatives believe that he was shot dead while in police custody. On December 6, hundreds of women – some accompanied with their children – began to march from Baksh’s hometown of Turbat in Balochistan to Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad. After arriving in the city, they set up a camp in front of the National Press Club.
For the past two months, protesters have lived in tents despite freezing temperatures. Meanwhile, back in Balochistan, thousands swarmed the streets.
The protesters remain under attack. Ms Baloch posted on X, formerly Twitter, on January 21:
“Today, in the capital of this state, the world witnesses the cruelty and violent actions of this regime.
“Despite the state’s attempts to hinder the International Oppressed Peoples Conference since last night, taking away equipment and blocking participants, we’ve successfully conducted our conference. The state confiscated speakers, chairs, tables, and other items, and this morning, many of our guests were prevented from joining, with roads blocked and the sit-in surrounded by barbed wire. However, we persevered, holding the conference without the necessary resources.
“This, I believe, is our victory. We stand firm against oppression and brutality, determined to endure until the end of the Baloch genocide.
“In these challenging times, we seek unwavering moral support from the global community, hoping that the world will amplify our voice.”
Balochistan is a distinct cultural and historical region that is now divided between three countries: Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan. The Baloch people are a unique ethno-linguistic group. Most of the Baloch people in Pakistan are Sunni Muslims. The Punjabi are the main ethnic group in Pakistan, and they account for approximately 45 percent of the population.
In August 1947 the Indian subcontinent was partitioned into two independent nations: India and Pakistan. On March 27, 1948, Pakistan attacked and forcefully annexed Balochistan. Baloch people observe March 27 as a “black day”.
“The neglected, militancy-hit region of Balochistan in Pakistan was once free,” notes journalist Rishabh Sharma. “But this freedom lasted for only 227 days… Kalat, a princely state in what is now Balochistan, lost its freedom and was forced to become a part of Pakistan.”
Since the region’s annexation by Pakistan in 1948, Balochistan has seen at least five rebellion movements for independence or wider autonomy. The latest wave of rebellion began in the early 2000s. The region’s history is marked by Pakistan’s forceful suppression of the Balochi right to self-determination.
Balochistan is the poorest and least developed of all of Pakistan’s provinces. However, it is the country’s largest province and is richly endowed with natural resources that include coal, copper, gold, and huge oil reserves. These generate substantial revenue for Pakistan’s government. It is also home to Pakistan’s only deep-water seaport at Gwadar, Balochistan’s capital, which features prominently in the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) plan that aims to connect China with the Arabian Sea through Pakistan.
The Pakistani government’s typical response to requests from the Baloch people has been a bloody counterinsurgency and crackdown on the region which includes murders and enforced disappearances. Bodies have turned up, according to media reports, some with clearly visible torture marks.
The Voice of Baloch Missing Persons, an organization that works for the rights of people missing in Balochistan, says about 14,000 from Balochistan are missing.
According to a 2023 report by the organization Defence of Human Rights Pakistan,
“It is becoming increasingly clear that impunity for serious human rights violations is endemic, entrenched and institutionalized in Pakistan. It has resulted in concealing the truth, denying victims the right to effective remedy and reparation, and emboldening perpetrators of human rights violations. It is also essential in understanding why the practice of enforced disappearances has persisted and is spreading — both in terms of geographical reach and the categories of people being targeted.
“While there are reports that the practice of enforced disappearance has existed in Pakistan since at least the 1970s, such cases have been recorded in significant numbers in the early 2000s…
“Some of the victims, once placed in secret detention, died after being subjected to torture or were summarily executed. In Pakistan, victims of enforced disappearances would “reappear” years or even decades later but that’s not the case in other countries. Cases of enforced disappearances are also reported in large numbers in Balochistan, Sindh, Punjab and KPK [Khyber Pakhtunkhwa]; basically, from all over Pakistan, where this practice is commonly used to curb the freedom voices.”
According to a 2020 report by Amnesty International,
“Enforced disappearances targeting students, activists, journalists and human rights defenders continue relentlessly in Pakistan’s southwestern province of Balochistan. People are wrenched away from their loved ones by state officials or others acting on their behalf, placing them outside the protection of the law. The authorities then deny the person is in their custody or refuse to say where they are. Families of the disappeared are plunged into a state of anguish, trying to keep the flame of hope alive while fearing the worst. Many have been in this limbo for years.
“The disappeared are at risk of torture and even death. If they are released, the physical and psychological scars endure. If they are killed, the family never recovers from their loss. Disappearances are a tool of terror that strikes not just individuals or families, but entire societies. This is why they are a crime under international law, and if committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against a civilian population, they constitute a crime against humanity.”
Mickey Kupecz, an expert on international security, notes that among the long-term conflict drivers between Balochistan and Pakistan’s government are a weak tribal alliance system, the pattern of economic oppression, rivalry with neighboring ethnic groups (such as the Baloch-Pashtun divide), domination by Punjabis, and resource exploitation:
“After the partition, Punjabis would maintain their domination of the civil and military bureaucracies of the state, continuing the alienation of the Balochs.
“Exploitation of the province’s natural gas has remained a major Baloch grievance since it was first discovered in 1952, soon after the departure of the British. Despite being Pakistan’s most abundant province in natural gas, Balochistan has seen little benefit from its gas fields relative to the Sindh and Punjab provinces… Consequently, Balochistan is heavily in debt.
“Aside from the historical grievances of political and economic subjugation, the construction of the Gwadar mega-port (Despite its importance, the federal government has excluded Balochs from the Gwadar development process), expanded natural gas exploration, the war in Afghanistan, and the military’s harsh response to nationalist demands have fueled the current Baloch insurgency.”
“The Baloch insurgency in Pakistan is the result of both historical and contemporary factors and has implications for stability across South Asia. However, Balochistan is often overlooked or forgotten altogether because of the more prominent internal and regional issues facing Pakistan.”
Four consequences are evident regarding the persecution against the Baloch by the central Pakistani government.
First, Muslim-on-Muslim violence driven by political, sectarian, economic and/or ideological differences have been widespread in majority-Muslim countries since the emergence of Islam in the seventh century.
Second, Muslim authorities’ recognition of the right to self-determination or autonomy of minorities – including Muslim minorities such as the Baloch and the Kurds – is a rare phenomenon, perhaps even non-existent. International human rights law does not mean much for Muslim governments. The rule by which they operate is that “might makes right.”
Third, human rights abuses are also prevalent in Muslim communities. These abuses target not only non-Muslims, but also Muslim ethnic or sectarian minorities. Women and political dissidents are marginalized and persecuted. As the Golden Rule (the principle of treating others as one would want to be treated by them) or an ethics of reciprocity is largely non-existent in the Islamic scriptures, dehumanization of “the other” has become normal in Muslim communities.
Fourth, Pakistan is a hell on earth for all minorities: Christians, Hindus, Ahmadis, the Baloch, Sindhis, and others. The borders drawn for Pakistan in 1947 do not serve justice for the non-Punjabis and non-Muslims in the country. The Pakistani government and military have systematically repressed Baloch citizens since Balochistan’s annexation. This has resulted in a bloody insurgency and thousands of Baloch people forcibly disappeared, tortured, and killed with impunity. Baloch women in Pakistan are now leading a new movement seeking justice for the disappearance of their loved ones. The historical injustices imposed on the Baloch should be reversed according to the principle of the right to self-determination within international law.