Despite a crackdown against protestors, the situation in the port city remains tense
Quetta: On December 26, authorities launched a crackdown on the protestors who had been staging sit-ins at various key locations in Balochistan’s Gwadar city—a key node of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)—since the first week of November 2022.
The police—supported by troops of the Pakistan Navy and paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC)—used tear gas and batons to disperse the protestors.
They also pulled down their protest camp and rounded up dozens of supporters of the “Haq Do” movement, launched in 2021 by Maulana Hidayatur Rehman, the provincial general secretary of a centralist religious party, the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI). The crackdown took place hours after a round of negotiations between the lieutenants of Maulana Hidayat and a government team led by Balochistan Home Minister and Tribal Affairs Minister Mir Ziaullah Langau and Chief Secretary Aziz Uqaili failed. Earlier, senior military officials had also held talks with Maulana Hadayat at the latter’s residence. Corps Commander 12 Corps Lt Gen Asif Ghafoor had also participated in the negotiation via telephone.
The “Haq Do” movement protest sit-ins were staged at strategic locations of the port city like the main entrance to the Gwadar port—where at least 100 Chinese nationals were reportedly present—as well as the under-construction New Gwadar International Airport.
They had also blocked the Gwadar East Bay Expressway, the key artery connecting the port with the country’s main highway network. The expressway, airport and the port are all part of the $50 billion Pakistan component of the BRI called the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
During the talks, the military officials had asked Maulana Hidayat to open the port route but he had insisted that the government first accept his demands and take visible measures.
After the crackdown, the Maulana and other leaders of the movement went underground amid heightened tensions in the port city. As a protest against the crackdown, all shops, restaurants and shopping centers were closed while the protesters including women and children staged a sit-in at the main coastal highway that leads to the naval headquarters, military offices and a five star hotel.
As a result of this sit-in, there is now a shortage of food, drinking water and other stuff in the city.
The city has also been cut off from the rest of the country for the last 10 days as the authorities have suspended not only the internet service and the mobile phone networks but also the landline in all four port cities of the Makran division–Gwadar, Jevani, Pasni and Ormara.
Hidayat made headlines in December 2021 when he managed to pull large crowds from the length and breadth of the Makran division and ultimately forced both the federal and provincial governments to accept all the various demands of his protest movement by staging a marathon sit-in.
The provincial government and Mualana Hidayat on December 16, 2021 signed an 11-point agreement.
According to the agreement, the government was to stop the fishing trawlers from Sindh from entering Balchistan’s waters; take steps to reduce security checkpoints in Makran division and hand over affairs of the border trade with Iran to the district administration. Hidayat’s “Haq Do” movement, however, once again took to the streets almost one year after inking the deal – in the first week of November 2022 – as it claimed that the federal and provincial governments had failed to implement the agreement. Despite passage of almost 50 days, the provincial government was not seriously engaging with the protestors. However, everything changed when on December 22 Maulana Hidayat issued a video statement asking the Chinese workers to leave Gwadar.
Meanwhile a picture also went viral on social media in which Maualan Hidayat, wearing a tactical vest, could be seen standing with three armed men. The Maulana also started patrolling the sea along with some armed men to stop fishing trawlers from Sindh entering Balochistan’s waters.
In this situation—sources close to some Chinese officials at the Gwadar port told Bol News—Beijing communicated its concerns to Islamabad, which in order to seek a political solution to the problem requested the JI’s central leaders to intervene.
“Federal Minister Ahsan Iqbal and JI leader Liaqat Baloch had agreed to form a committee comprising government officials and Haq Do movement representatives for peaceful resolution of the matter.
“But the government launched a crackdown on the protestors, making arrests, lodging baseless cases against protest leaders and raiding houses [without proper warrant and protocols],” said Maulana Abdul Haq Hashmi, the JI Balochistan chief. He said the people of Gwadar had to resume their peaceful protest in the wake of a public outcry over non-implementation of the 2021 agreement. “The protest had been continuing for the last two months, but the government as well as the civil administration didn’t bother to engage the Maulana and his colleagues to resolve the issue,” he added.
However, a senior government official, who wished not to be named, said Maulana Hadayat misread the situation and continually hardened his stance instead of handling the situation politically. “He [Hidayat] made one mistake one after another and sent across the message to the government, the Chinese government and security forces that he had now become irreconcilable. “His first mistake was to pose with armed men in a picture that went viral. His second mistake was to refuse to take part in the talks with the high-powered government delegation led by the home minister.
“His third mistake was not to show flexibility despite assurances by the military higher-ups including the corps commander. His fourth mistake was his attempt to choke off trade and port activities. “His fifth mistake was that he did not surrender to authorities and rather went underground as many people in Gwadar believe that if he had been arrested his popularity would have increased.”
A lawmaker in the ruling coalition said the Maulana also refused to call off the protest despite being briefed about the Chinese reservations and concerns.
“Maulana Hidayat has also been using harsh language against the federal and provincial governments, ministers and the leaders of nationalist parties but now he is also harshly criticizing the security forces.
“Seeing this attitude of the Maulana, the federal government gave the go-ahead to the provincial government to launch a crackdown,” he said.
In order to disperse the demonstrators staging sit-ins, the police fired tear gas canisters. They also rounded up 15 main leaders of the movement including Hussain Wadelah and Hafeez Kiazai along with 50 other protestors.
During a hide and seek, a bullet allegedly fired by one of the protestors killed a police constable in Gwadar. A protestor also succumbed to his injuries due to alleged police torture in Ormara town.
After the crackdown, a general strike was observed and shops and markets remained closed in all the coastal towns of Gwadar, Ormara, Pasni, Jeevani and Turbat for five days. The police and the FC increased patrol at market and public places.
Maulana Hadayat went underground but now he faces difficulties in communicating with the protestors and people in the wake of suspension of mobile and internet facilities.
Home Minister Langau accused the Maulana of using women and children as human shields for his “nefarious designs”. He said the government accepted all demands of the movement in 2021 and implemented the agreement points which lay within its jurisdiction but the Maulana deliberately adopted a stubborn attitude.
The provincial security czar said the protest and closure of roads and main highways for the last two months had caused fear among the Chinese nationals and tourists. “Now the government has decided to deal strictly with those who disturb public order.” The JI on December 30 staged protest demonstrations in a number of cities of Balochistan against the crackdown. It rejected the allegations of Langau and said that 200 protestors were arrested during raids on the houses of the movement leaders. It accused the police of looting cash and gold during raids.
Talking to Bol News on the phone, JI provincial chief said the issue could still be resolved through talks.
“If the government wants to resolve the matter, it should first create a congenial atmosphere by releasing all the arrested protesters and leaders of Haq Do movement; withdrawing cases and restoring the mobile phone service in Gwadar and other coastal towns.”
The Balochistan High Court (BHC) has expressed its resentment over the police crackdown in Gwadar and asked the deputy commissioners of Gwadar and Kech as well as their police officials to submit their written explanations by January 15. A division bench of the BHC, comprising Justice Hashim Khan Kakar and Justice Shaukat Rakhshani, issued this order while hearing a petition filed by senior lawyers—Amanullah Kunrani and Rahib Buledi.