As always, Balochistan remains in the background, despite the Long March led by Mahrang Baloch from Turbat to Islamabad. Who is Mehrang Baloch and why is Pak Army Chief General Asim Munir afraid to speak about her and the women leading the protest march from Turbat to Islamabad?. While Munir spoke about everything under the sun from Gaza to Kashmir, the one word he did not utter in Washington during his recent US visit was Balochistan. Given the media blackout in Balochistan, no one in Washington asked him who Mehrang Baloch is, the soft-spoken woman who has become the voice of this gathering storm of public anguish and anger over the disappearances of their sons and fathers. The Long March is reminiscent of the various peace marches and protests that the Baloch people have held in the last few decades. The challenge is that each time the peace dividend appears on the horizon, the Pak state pushes its down with a heavy hand, making it a chimera. It is hoped that this Long March will change the fortunes of the Baloch people for the better.
The Long March began in December 2023, when hundreds of Baloch people marched to Islamabad from Turbat protesting enforced disappearances and killings in Balochistan. Despite the Islamabad High Court’s permission to stay and protest, the Pakistani State used force, arresting and forcefully sent them back. This led to more protests in Balochistan, with complaints about unreleased detainees. A month earlier the killing of Balaach Mola Baksh, who was picked up from his home in October in Turbat, by the Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) triggered a wave of protest. Initially produced at the court, he ended up dead along with three others in early December. According to his family, Balaach was killed in custody by the CTD, which threw his body along with other unidentified men. Following the death, the family members of Balaach protested with his corpse against the extra-judicial killing and asked for filing an FIR against the CTD personnel. On 9 December, the police had filed an FIR against four CTD personnel but by then protestors had started their march to Quetta, the capital of Balochistan, and subsequently, to travel to Islamabad. What started as a protest in a town in Balochistan in late November reached the provincial capital during the second week of December and then to the national capital during the third week. As with all such peaceful protests, an initial demand for an impartial inquiry into the killing of Balaach converted itself into a demand for an end to enforced disappearances.
It is Mehrang Baloch, a doctor by profession, who led the Long March. Mehrang became a student activist by compulsion as her father was abducted by Pak Security Forces in 2009 on the way to hospital. She was 16 then. She went out on the streets and began her protest seeking the release of her father, Ghaffar Baloch. This was how she became part of the Baloch protest movement. The tortured body of Ghaffar Baloch’s body was found in July 2011. Mehrang was shell shocked. “I used to think that I failed to bring my father back from the dungeons. Every day from college to home I see children holding their father’s hand and during such moments I dearly miss my beloved father”, she recalled in a media interview.
Then in December 2017, her brother was abducted. He was freed after three months torture in a dungeon, secret cells set up by the army and security forces across Balochistan where hundreds and thousands of men were detained without any charges, tortured and many left to die. In 2020, she led a group of students protesting the proposed removal of the quota system at Bolan Medical College, which reserves spots for medical students coming from remote areas of the province. The movement compelled the authorities to cancel the policy change.
The relatives of the missing Baloch individuals arrived in Islamabad to voice their concerns against the fake encounters, hoping to present their grievances before the Caretaker Prime Minister Anwar-ul-Haq Kakar, who hails from their own province.
However, the peaceful male and female protesters had no idea that they would become victims of this brutality. Tear gas shells were fired at them and targeted with water cannons. They were subjected to severe baton charges to deter them from raising their voices for their rights again. An interesting strategy by the protestors now and earlier – has been their choice of venue – the press club in Karachi and Islamabad. During the last two decades, there were multiple occasions with the protestors sitting in front of the press clubs, at times for weeks, with the photos of their loved ones who had disappeared.
There are two reasons – unlike Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, which publish reputed newspapers, Quetta does not have strong provincial media. There are a few with limited reach; some had to be closed due to pressure from the intelligence agencies. Few news blogs, mostly run by Baloch youths who are forced to leave Pakistan, get closed down. Besides the lack of their voice at the national level, the Baloch also feels that there is no national news agency that speaks for the province. Long marches like the one to Islamabad in December 2023, and protests in front of the press clubs do get the media attention, however short they remain. Dawn, wrote in its editorial on 23 December: “The Baloch community, long marginalised and voiceless, took to Islamabad’s streets to raise concerns over enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in Balochistan. These serious allegations warrant thorough investigation, not brutality.”
Despite efforts to block the Long March against the “genocide” of the Baloch people in various districts, participants managed to reach Islamabad. The Police set up barriers to prevent the Long March from entering. Earlier, in Quetta, the heirs of missing persons were also stopped from protesting, and police erected barriers when entering Punjab from Baluchistan. Participants of the Long March expressed their desire to go to the Supreme Court but were prevented. Some participants demanded that Chief Justice of Pakistan, Justice Faiz Isa, take notice of this situation. Mehrang Baloch then said that, “We clarify that we are not going to Islamabad with any hope because there is no justice there. Instead, policies of suppressing oppressed nations are formulated. We are going to awaken the world, not seeking justice in Islamabad, but to inform the global community about Baloch genocide. In this endeavor, we need the support of the entire world.” Sardar Akhtar Mengal, the head of the Balochistan National Party, remarked that they are tired of trying to make the Pakistan state understand. “Has nobody learned any lesson from Bangladesh?” he asked. Mengal insisted that relationships are being further spoiled. He urged everyone to use reason. “It’s already too late. The matter is now out of our hands.”
According to the last annual report of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) published in 2023, “the unlawful disappearance of people, especially of political activists, by state agencies continued with impunity through the year.” Not only political activists from the province but also Baloch students studying in other provinces “were also forcibly disappeared.” Another 2023 HRCP report titled “Balochistan’s Struggle for Hope,” notes that there is a pattern in which “political dissidents, journalists, students and rights activists disappeared for short periods and subsequently released—followed by a string of fresh disappearances soon after.” Until January 2023, according to the Commission of the Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances COIOED data, it had received 2192 cases in Balochistan, of which 445 have disappeared. According to the same data, 247 in Punjab, 166 in Sindh, 1335 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and 49 in Islamabad have disappeared.
Before Meharang there was Karima Baloch and scores of other activists who protested enforced disappearances and killings. Unfortunately, the Pak deep state often takes recourse to political assassinations and kidnappings to stem the tide of Baloch nationalism. The brave Baloch are fighting fearlessly for their freedom. It is high time the international community wore up to their struggle and pressurised the Pakistan Government to resolve the Baloch issue, before it is too late.