How Mahrang Baloch, the Baloch lioness, is challenging the Pakistani establishment

Tens of thousands of protesters responded in unison to the chants of Mahrang Baloch. It is unusual for Balochi people to follow a woman. But 31-year-old Mahrang is special. A trained surgeon and fiery orator, she is fighting Pakistan’s brutal rule in Balochistan.

Tens of thousands gathered near Balochistan University in Quetta to welcome the participants and leaders of the Turbat long march, returning from Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. The air was soon to turn electrifying.

The gathering on January 25 was mostly attended by young students, elderly people and children. Waiting for a great orator.

Cameras and drone cameras were everywhere to cover the ‘jalsa’ or what was referred to as a “public referendum”.

Then the ‘lioness of Balochistan’, Mahrang Baloch, took the stage and addressed the thousands of people waiting to hear her.

“Today, the love and respect we have among our people in our land are a thousand times more powerful than the oppression of Islamabad,” she roared to the gathering.

She raised a slogan and thousands of those gathered chanted in unison.

It is a rare sight for Balochis to follow a woman leader. But Mahrang Baloch is different.

Baloch Mahrang, along with some women, children and elders, had just returned from Islamabad after protesting against enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings of Baloch people in Balochistan over the years.

The protests were being carried out on the aegis of the Baloch Yakjehti Committee (BYC). Mahrang is the face of BYC.

The protesters had walked some 1,600 kilometres from Turbat, Balochistan’s second-largest city, to reach the national capital on December 21. They met a heavy crackdown by the Islamabad Police in the cold, up north.

At least 13 criminal cases were filed against protestors across Pakistan, according to Amnesty International.

At least 200 people were arrested on their arrival.

In Pakistan, things have hotted up too, as the Islamic Republic is getting ready for National Assembly (parliamentary) elections in just under two weeks.

At the heart of the protests is Balochistan’s age-old story of discrimination and exploitation by the Islamabad-Rawalpindi regime.

Balochistan, systematically sidelined by Islamabad, has seen constant deprivation. For decades, the Baloch people have witnessed forced disappearances and kidnappings by security personnel.

That is the reason why Mahrang Baloch started the ‘march beyond silence’.

“What else remains but ‘Resistance’ and a movement against the genocidal and brutal policies of the state? This is a people’s resistance, and only the people themselves can resist to end such barbaric policies,” Mahrang Baloch wrote on X.

Pakistan’s largest province, Balochistan, is rich in natural resources, but the province, bordering Iran, has seen little or no real development on the ground, further worsening socioeconomic indicators.

The socio-economically backward Pakistani province lags in various socio-economic indicators, with around 41% of its households living under the poverty line.

Hence, a few sections of discontented Baloch people in Pakistan have picked up arms and others left to the regime’s apathy and high-handedness, being further sidelined and deprived.

The Baloch movement, which had carried on for decades, in various ways, now has a young, thoughtful and courageous leader – Mahrang Baloch.

It’s unusual for Balochis to rally behind a woman leader, but Mahrang is special.

A trained surgeon and fiery orator, Mahrang Baloch has become a symbol of resistance against the injustices meted out to the Baloch people by the Pakistani state and establishment.

The recent protests and the march from Turbat to Islamabad were triggered by the extrajudicial killing of a 24-year-old Baloch man, Balaach Mola Bakhsh, by the Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD).

Activists and locals say that the state, operating through death squads, engages in abductions and extrajudicial killings.

The province of Balochistan has seen at least 2,752 enforced disappearances since 2011, says Amnesty International.

People from Balochistan on X have blamed local leaders of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) for abetting the ‘death squads of Balochistan’ in carrying out discreet kidnappings and killings. The PPP is one of the main political parties in Pakistan.

Mahrang is herself a victim of forceful abduction.

Her father was picked up by security agencies in Karachi in 2009 and his body was discovered a couple of years later, according to the South Asian Avant-Garde. The body bore tell-tale signs of torture.

Mahrang Baloch’s brother, too, was abducted in 2017.

“It was the moment I decided to protest for everyone. And I removed my veil and showed my face to everyone,” Mahrang Baloch told the Guardian in 2021.

Since then, Mahrang has been raising her voice against unlawful enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and forced displacements of the Baloch people.

Mahrang Baloch hasn’t raised her voice of resistance just for her own people. She is seen as a staunch supporter of freedom of expression and has expressed solidarity with oppressed groups, including the Hazara, Sindhi, Muhajir, Pashtun, Shia, Hindu and Christians of Pakistan.

However, the latest protests in Pakistan saw little or no coverage, more so, in the Pakistani media. Whenever they found some mention in the Pakistani media, the stories did not do justice to the much bigger cause of the Baloch people.

Most reports were localised and had to do with public order disruptions and the police crackdown on the protestors.

“It is your journalistic responsibility to focus on the issues of the masses,” urged the Baloch Yakjehti Committee (BYC), the body leading the protests, to the media.

“We request national and international media to cover the National Grand Gathering of the Baloch Nation, to listen to and highlight the gross human rights abuses happening throughout Balochistan,” added a BYC’s post on X.

US Congressman Brad Sherman on January 27 expressed his concern over the issue of enforced disappearances in Balochistan and Sindh, reported The Balochistan Post.

“Today courageous women of Balochistan hold a peace rally in Quetta to demand an end to human rights abuses by Pakistan’s military & state, including disappearances, “kill and dump” extrajudicial killings & mass graves. I’m urging the UK to press Pakistan to ensure the safety of protestors,” John McDonnell, a Labour MP of the British Parliament wrote on X.

What the Balochis wanted was evident at the Mahrang Baloch-led rally outside Balochistan University in Quetta.

“Today it is not just a public meeting, it is not just a gathering, but it is a public referendum, it is the decision of the Baloch nation, it is the decision of the court of the Baloch people,” Mahrang Baloch wrote on X, reacting to the video of the mass gathering in Quetta.

“With this passion, consciousness and strength, we will wipe out the last traces of this system of oppression from our land,” she added.

The chants by thousands following Mahrang were a loud and clear call against the high-handed, self-obsessed Pakistani establishment. The status-quo can’t continue in Balochistan, and Mahrang Baloch is fighting to shake that brutal system.

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