The recent death (or the suspected murder) of the Baluch political and human rights activist Karima Baloch is the most significant event in Baluchistan’s political history since the killing of the former governor and the chief minister Nawab Akbar Bugti in August 2006.
Both developments have striking similarities. Most importantly, it has brought people from various sides of the political spectrum on the same page. Former Chief Minister Nawab Aslam Raisani has reportedly demanded that Prime Minister Imran Khan take up the issue with the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to conduct an impartial investigation into the mysterious death. Nawabzada Lashkari Raisani, an ex-senator and a former provincial chief of the Pakistan People’s Party, has suggested renaming Quetta’s Hockey Chowk after Ms. Baluch. Other former chief ministers, Sardar Akhtar Mengal and Dr. Malik Baloch, whose politics and approach often clashed with Ms. Baluch’s, have kept political differences aside and demanded an investigation into the incident.
Even Federal Minister for Defense Production in Imran Khan’s cabinet, Zubaida Jalal, who has held key ministries in multiple governments in the past two decades, in a rare expression of grief with the Baluch nationalists, has condoled with Ms. Baluch’s family over her demise. Bushra Rind of the ruling Balochistan Awami Party also went on to what Ms. Baloch’s supporters would describe as to shed some crocodile tears, blaming Canada over its failure to protect a “Pakistani national”, but added that Pakistan was in touch with the Canadian authorities to get more information. She said the government would facilitate the return of her dead body to her ancestral Baluchistan for burial.
As usual, the Pakistanis are trying to create the impression that if Ms. Baloch was killed, the Indians were behind it. So, Ms. Rind stated that Canadian police have arrested two suspects related to the case and taken them to an unknown location. Her claims could not be verified through other news sources.
Latif Johar, a close friend of Ms. Baluch, who travelled with her to Canada together to apply first political asylum, vehemently rejected the Pakistani government’s claims about the arrest of two suspects.
“We have full faith in the Canadian institutions and their investigations,” he said, adding that Ms. Baluch would be taken to Baluchistan for burial as she had wished. However, no request has been made to the government of Pakistan to make that possible.
Protests have erupted across Baluchistan, Islamabad, Karachi, various Pakistani cities, and even outside the Toronto Police Station. More protests are being planned in different world capitals, including Washington D.C.
Ms. Baloch’s husband and brother have publicly expressed dissatisfaction over the initial conclusion of the police that said that they were not probing the case as a criminal incident. We don’t know the extent to which the family and the police are on the same page regarding all the available evidence of her death. We don’t know if they will ever go public with more details about this tragic episode. The police would probably have a strict confidentiality policy concerning issues of the victim’s privacy. This seems to be conflicting with the fact that Ms. Baloch was a public figure with a great support-base in her native Baluchistan. Her follows deserve to know how she died.
The most strident diatribe has come from the Baloch National Movement (BNM), Ms. Baluch’s party, that has not only rejected the police findings but also castigated the Pakistani High Commission in Ottawa for issuing a statement claiming to be in touch with the Canadian authorities.
Dr. Murad Baloch, the BNM’s secretary general, questioned why the Pakistan High Commission declared Ms. Baloch as its citizen when she was in exile in Canada “due to their atrocities.” Dr. Baloch also reminded that Pakistan had intervened in Ms. Baluch’s asylum application and asked for her deportation to Pakistan. “Pakistan should not forget that it has kidnapped, disappeared, and martyred many of Karima Baloch’s family members and political friends. Her two uncles and cousins have also been martyred. Her home was raided several times to whisk her away, similarly, her paternal home was shelled with mortars by [the] Pakistani army,” the BNM senior leader stated.
What has transpired since the news of her death broke indicates that a detailed police investigation would hardly convince Ms. Baluch’s supporters that she was not murdered. In Balochistan, there is hardly any doubt among the Baluch nationalists if the Pakistani military and its spy agencies were not behind the incident. This might be factually incorrect and contrary to the evidence the police have. But her supporters in Baluchistan have already begun to call her a martyr, assuring that her blood will one day culminate in a revolution. Let’s not forget that facts and evidence are not always the cornerstone of setting up a narrative surrounding a popular figure. It’s the public perception that will define Ms. Baluch’s legacy. If you put yourself in her supporters’ shoes, there is no way she could die other than being murdered. And, her murderers will have to be the Pakistani spymasters. No other account seems to be acceptable by her supporters. The family and the Canadian authorities will have to share more information with the public than what is currently available to minimize confusion snd misunderstanding.
Justin Trudeau’s silence, despite global media coverage of the incident, is astonishing and disappointing at the same time. He seems to be pretending to be unaware of this tragedy as much as his Pakistani counterpart, Imran Khan, often does with respect to China’s suppression of its Muslim minorities. Some in the media say Trudeau’s posture is intentional as he does not want to irk the Pakistani government and the large Pakistani population in Canada that would most likely be offended if their home country is blamed for the alleged murder of a Baluch activist. Pakistanis living abroad mostly tend to be conservative and staunchly pro-army which makes it difficult for them to tolerate any criticism of the country’s armed forces and their intelligence agencies. Trudeau’s commitment to liberalism and human rights seems to be selective. Even if Ms. Baluch was not killed (a scenario that will save Canada global embarrassment for failing to protect an asylum-seeker), Ms. Baluch’s death in itself merits a statement from Trudeau on the plight of the Baluch people and a call to Pakistan to end its atrocities against the Baluch.
Canada should share more information with the public because if it was a murder, it would tarnish her reputation as a safe country for refugees and asylum-seekers. A murder also would give credence to the belief that the Pakistan spymasters are actively locating and assassinating political critics in Canada without being traced and punished, as Ms. Baloch had alleged when she was alive. The BNM, on its part, should also bring forward evidence that confronts and contradicts the police so that they have a chance to appeal to higher authorities in Canada and international bodies to investigate the incident further. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have already called for investigations into the incident. Transparency and proper communication would help all stakeholders.
This death has terrified Baluch refugees and asylum seekers across the world, and they want to know what’s going on with all these mysterious deaths of the exiled Baluch people. Baluchs in exile are active in politics and advocacy in different countries and these killings distract them from their actual mission.
While Nawab Bugti’s killing intensified the armed movement in Baluchistan, Ms. Baluch’s death is likely to open a chapter of fearlessness among Baluch activists who openly call for Baluchistan’s independence. Many people have come out in support of Ms. Baluch, hoping that protest will eventually exert more pressure on the Pakistan establishment to give up its double standards on the definition of the right to self-determination and the distinction between a freedom fighter and a terrorist. Pakistan cannot continue to call the Kashmiri fighters “freedom fighters” and then label even peaceful Baluch activists as “terrorists” or asking exactly the same thing in Baluchistan that the Kashmiris are seeking with Islamabad’s support. This double standard must stop. Even if the Baluch demand for the right to self-determination is unacceptable to Islamabad, there is still no justification and legal basis for Pakistan to kill Baluch activists because of their political views. The Pakistanis often argue that Baluchistan is different from Kashmir or the number of people supporting Baluchistan’s independence movement is less than one percent of the province’s population. It still does not matter. What needs to happen is an immediate end to Pakistan’s extrajudicial operations in Baluchistan. Respect for all human lives must be restored. Since Pakistan does not respect its own laws and commitments to international law, an arrangement, backed by the world community and international organizations, is urgently needed to protect all the Baluch citizens who are being prosecuted in Pakistan in the name of ‘national security.’ If this is not done urgently, the violence will continue.
It is misleading to say that if they (the Baluch activists) don’t ask for independence, Pakistan will not torture or kill them. Let’s look at this situation like a case of domestic violence. It does not matter whether a member of the family (say the victim) is mean or defied the family’s culture, there is simply no justification for domestic violence and that case should be reported to higher authorities. The section of the Baluch people who are pro-independence must be protected from Pakistan’s domestic abuse and the Pakistani courts have shown over years that they do not have the will or the capability to stop all this for the obvious reason that Pakistan does not have institutional checks and balances. There are no institutions (the media or the judiciary) that can hold the military and the intelligence agencies accountable for their extrajudicial violence toward the Baluch. Hence, that’s where the intervention of international organizations comes in. The Baluchs need an international helpline they should be able to dial as soon as Pakistan resorts to violence against them, considering their inability to defend themselves against a nuclear armed state. If it is not done sooner, the situation will get far worse considering the Chinese involvement in the region. With the ongoing plans to fence the Gwadar Port, there is every possibility that Pakistan and China will convert the whole of Baluchistan into something similar like a concentration camp where residents will no longer have the right or the privilege to think independently, have political views or protest government policies.
This is commonplace but still absurd to kill fellow citizens only because the government disagrees with their views and demands. Nobody should die because of a difference in political views, nor should anyone be compelled to leave their homeland because the State feels threatened by their peaceful democratic struggle. The Pakistani government has failed to provide any evidence of Ms. Baloch’s involvement in terrorist activities. They reportedly tried several dirty tricks to dissuade her from activism.
Among many things that contributed to Ms. Baluch’s popularity included a Raksha Bandhan video message she had sent to the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, addressing him as “brother,” in which she appealed for his help for the Baloch people. The video had come in the backdrop of Modi’s extraordinary and widely unanticipated mentioning of Baluchistan in his 2016 Independence Day speech. That gesture raised expectations among the Baluch activists regarding a change in the Indian policy toward Baluchistan, but Pakistan reacted so aggressively that the Indians had to step back.
Although Anurag Srivastava, a spokesperson for the Indian External Affairs Ministry, has condoled Ms. Baluch’s death, Prime Minister Modi has not directly spoken about the death of his Baluch sister because of the fear of not antagonizing the Pakistanis. But since when has Modi been afraid of offending Pakistan? Probably Baluchistan is one issue that he believes does not merit being used to fight with Islamabad. Ironically, India’s liberal class, just like the liberals in America, is too apologetic about Pakistan’s Baluchistan policy. Since they support the normalization of ties with Pakistan, increase in trade and cooperation between the two countries, they will not speak up against Pakistan’s atrocities in Baluchistan simply because they view all this as Pakistan’s internal matter.
Since the aftermath of Bugti’s killing was not maturely handled, it got out of control and the fire started by Musharraf has lasted for more than a decade, a pertinent question now is what can be done to do some damage control in Baluchistan.
This is a tough time for both sides. The Pakistani military is understandably incensed that it is being ‘maligned’ for being behind Ms. Baluch’s death, while the Baluch nationalists are equally furious for this new trend of tracing and killing Baluch opponents overseas. However, there are confidence-building measures that can help in deescalating tensions between Pindi/Islamabad and the Baluch. As always, the initial breakthrough must come from the Pakistani side. As a first step, Islamabad must lift the ban on the Baluch Students Organization (BSO-Azad) and the Baloch National Movement because despite their tough rhetoric, organizing street protests and addressing press conferences is not terrorism. Calling every Baluch who questions Islamabad’s policies as a “terrorist” is immature, irresponsible and a bullying tactic to prevent people from having different political views. Islamabad must also minimize its reliance on the use of force in dealing with political issues and should it find any activities of the BSO and the BNM objectionable, it should follow the legal channel instead of engaging in enforced disappearances or violence against these activists.
Ms. Baloch’s death has taken Baluchistan back to 2006 when Nawab Bugti was killed and I described it as Baluchistan’s 9/11 because Baluchistan never returned to its pre-8/26 period. We should be prepared for a new public uprising and new recruitments in the nationalist camp. Young girls will join the nationalist movement in numbers never seen before. Even women-led protests in Quetta, Karachi and elsewhere in Baluchistan have stunned Baluch men over their women’s readiness to mobilize, petition and participate in politics. This will only get better for the Baluch nationalists and worse for the government because late Ms. Baluch was all about mobilizing people, street protests and raising voice on all available platforms. It was clearly harder for her when she started because she did not have any Baluch female role models to emulate. She pioneered the women’s political movement in Baluchistan but the future generations will have a role model to follow at almost every stage of their lives.
Finally, preventing more damage requires a prudent approach rather than allowing provocations to dictate the future. Hence, more turbulence seems to be on the way, but both sides must avoid the mistakes they made after the killing of Nawab Bugti.
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Categories: News & Analysis