March Issue 2013

By | Newsbeat | Published 11 years ago

The recent targeted killing of six labourers belonging to the Pashtoon community led to protests and a shutter-down strike in Balochistan. The labourers, who were working on a road construction project, were lined up and gunned down in cold blood in the coastal town of Pasni, Gwadar district in the last week of February.

Although no armed Baloch separatist group has claimed responsibility for the murders, given their track record, the blame was being laid at their doorstep. The Baloch militant groups have made it abundantly clear that they are severely opposed to any federal government-funded project because they believe it is not intended for the benefit of the locals, but only to further the government’s own interests.

Earlier hundreds of Punjabi labourers involved in similar development projects, particularly in the restive areas of Balochistan, were forced to leave in the wake of targeted killings. This is badly affecting development work in the province. Work on all construction projects, including the Gwadar-Hushab-Ratodero highway linking Gwadar port city with the Indus highway via Khuzdar and Shahdat Kot, has come to a halt as labourers are unwilling to work on them. Nearly 80% of the work on the highway, that is being built at a cost of Rs. 18 billion, was completed a couple of years back. However, construction of some small and big bridges is yet to begin. The March 22 incident, in which Baloch militants had slain 11 employees of the Frontier Works Organisation and the National Highway Authority in Gwadar district, generated tremendous fear among all contractors, including the local ones.

The militants have also been targeting those Punjabi labourers who use the south-west of Balochistan as a passage to cross illegally into neighbouring Iran and onwards, in a bid to seek jobs and citizenship in European countries. On November 21, 2010, five Punjabis were gunned down when they were waiting in the office of a transport company in Bulo Mand, a town bordering Iran. Another tragic incident took place on July 12, 2012 in the mountains of Buleda in the same district, Kech, when activists of the Baloch Liberation Front sprayed two vehicles with bullets, killing all 18 “illegal” immigrants. Similar attacks on Punjabi labourers in other Baloch districts like Nushki and Punjgoor in 2010 also claimed a dozen lives.

In the wake of such incidents, the contractors started replacing Punjabi labourers with Pashtoons, considering them safer for construction work in troubled areas. There was a general perception that the Pashto-speaking, who are already running their businesses in the Baloch areas, would not be targeted as violence against them could trigger an ethnic war between the two communities. But the separatist groups have started targeting the Pashtoon labourers as well.

The killings did create unrest among the population, but they held their tempers in check. They did not want to create conditions that could harm the interests of the large number of Pashtoons settled in Baloch areas for business purposes.

So far the Baloch militants have refrained from attacking this section of the Pashtoons, but they are beginning to target the labour force that is being brought in for development projects. So far, 50 Pashtoons have lost their lives in a series of attacks over the past three years. The worst among them was the Dasht incident in Mastung district, some 30 kms south of Quetta, in September 2012 when 10 Pashtoon labourers were lined up and executed.

“A day prior to the incident over a dozen armed persons riding two vehicles appeared at our camp and asked all labourers to leave the area or else be ready to face the consequences,” one of the injured, Barat Khan, told reporters in the hospital where he was recuperating. Baloch militant organisations, through the print media, have been warning Pashtoon political parties to stop members of their community from undertaking construction work and becoming tools in the hands of the establishment as it is harming Baloch interests.

“What benefit will the Baloch derive from Gwadar port and the Pak-Iran gas pipeline?” asks Mir Asad Baloch, agriculture minister in the suspended Balochistan cabinet. “Keeping in view the bitter experiences of the past, if Islamabad was so concerned it should have taken the Baloch, who are the owners of these resources, into confidence.”

“Instead of serving as fuel for the Punjabi-dominated army against the Baloch movement for independence, they should stay away from development projects which are unacceptable to the Baloch and which the government wants to execute by hook and crook,” says Mureed Baloch, a spokesman of the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), which is led by Dr. Allah Nazar Baloch.

That aside, Balochistan is bracing itself for another eventuality.

Once the Gwadar port becomes operational and work on the Pakistan-Iran gas pipeline commences, the situation in the province could deteriorate further and Makran may become a “political arena” for world powers.

The Gwadar port has been completed at a cost of USD 250 million, with China providing 80% of the finances. Meanwhile, work on the pipeline is expected to begin as soon as Pakistan and Iran sign the agreement for the 781-km long pipeline in the Makran region on the Pakistani side in the second week of March. The estimated cost of the project is $ 1.5 billion. These two projects have ostensibly annoyed both international and regional players, particularly the United States and India, and it is being rumoured that they will make “every effort” to sabotage the projects.

With work on these projects expected to start soon, the construction of the railway and the roads will be undertaken on a war footing. And not just the common Baloch and Pashtoon, but people from all over the country will be heading towards Gwadar to make their fortunes,and to protect the ensuing business activity, armed forces will have to be deployed in the entire Makran region. This is bound to further sharpen the divisions between Islamabad and the Baloch population.

Almost all Baloch nationalist forces, and even the Balochistan National Party (Awami), which has remained part and parcel of both the Musharraf and PPP governments, are opposed to the two projects, viewing it as “loot and plunder” of Baloch resources.

“Handing over the Gwadar port to China is like driving the last nail in the Baloch coffin,” says Sardar Attaullah Mengal, former chief minister of Balochistan.

“What benefit will the Baloch derive from Gwadar port and the Pak-Iran gas pipeline?” asks Mir Asad Baloch, agriculture minister in the suspended Balochistan cabinet. “Keeping in view the bitter experiences of the past, if Islamabad was so concerned it should have taken the Baloch, who are the owners of these resources, into confidence.”

Even the Balochistan Governor Nawab Zulfiqar Ali Magsi, who represents the federation, talks about protecting the interests of the Baloch population. While he agrees that the Gwadar port and the Pak-Iran gas pipeline are sound projects “that will benefit the country as well as Balochistan,” he feels that the federal government “should focus on protecting the rights of the Baloch, who have had hostile experiences in the past.” That, in his view, will guarantee the success of the projects and the region itself.

The writer is a journalist based in Quetta and is President of Quetta Press Club (QPC).