PR Insights

Photo Source: Dawn

Pakistan Reader# 116, 30 June 2020

Contemporary Balochistan:

Between the BLA’s Karachi attack and the BNP’s exit from the PTI coalition

Between a militant attack in Karachi by the BLA and the political exit of a Baloch party from the Parliament, there are serious issues that drive the political frustration by mainstream parties such as the BNP-M and the pursuit of violence by radical Baloch groups, such as the BLA.

D. Suba Chandran, Lakshmi V Menon & Abigail Miriam Fernandez


In June 2020 there were two significant developments within Pakistan relating to Balochistan. The latest one first – the militant attack on Pakistan Stock Exchange in Karachi on 29 June 2020, which is reported to be claimed by the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) (See the following from the domestic and international media on the attack and the BLA links: “BLA out to bleed Pakistan economy, Chinese interests,” Dawn, 30 June 2020; “Pakistan attack: Deadly raid on stock exchange in Karachi,” BBC, 29 June 2020, and “Gunmen Wage Deadly Battle at Pakistan Stock Exchange,” The New York Times, 29 June 2020.

The second development of the month (June), took place earlier in Islamabad, in the national Parliament. The Mengal faction of the Balochistan National Party (BNP-M), a member of the PTI coalition, announced its decision to exit. On 17 June 2020, Sardar Akhtar Mengal, a member of the National Assembly elected from Balochistan and the President of the BNP-M, announced in the Parliament that his party would withdraw from the ruling coalition. The reason: failure of the PTI government to honour the two agreements signed in 2018. (“BNP-M chief announces withdrawal from PTI coalition govt,” Dawn, 17 June 2020). The agreements had a focus on a six points demand that would include the recovery of the missing persons in Balochistan, return of the Afghan refugees from Balochistan, and authority over the Baloch resources. (“BNP-M rules out compromise on its six-point agenda,” Dawn, 16 October 2018.)

Are the two developments relating to Balochistan during June 2020 in Islamabad and Karachi, interconnected despite the vast difference in the expressions?


Between a militant attack in Karachi by the BLA and the political exit of a Baloch party from the Parliament, there are serious issues that drive the political frustration by mainstream parties such as the BNP-M and the pursuit of violence by radical Baloch groups, such as the BLA.

One could identify the following issues that drive the political and militant unrest in Balochistan.
The Missing Political Dialogue with the Baloch
While announcing his withdrawal from the PTI coalition, Sardar Mengal stated in the Parliament that there were multiple committees in Pakistan, but none of them look into the issues of Balochistan. In the Parliament, he stated: "[The government] is worried about Kashmir more than Balochistan. [The government] is constituting committees on Kashmir which is not with it, but is not worried about losing what it already has. This House can discuss issues of wheat, sugar and tomatoes, but not the blood of the Baloch people.” (“BNP-M chief announces withdrawal from PTI coalition govt,” Dawn, 17 June 2020)

The failure of a national dialogue with Balochistan has been one of the primary issues for the political unrest and militant outburst. Instead, the State has been pursuing a military strategy towards Balochistan and its political leaders. The current round of unrest in Balochistan started in the early 2000s, with an assault on a lady doctor by a military official in the Pakistan Petroleum Limited at Sui. Though the victim left Pakistan subsequently and shifted to the UK (“I’m still terrified: Dr Shazia,” Dawn, 30 June 2005), it triggered a series of protests, and subsequently an insurgency against the State. It was first led by Akbar Bugti, and subsequently by numerous other militant groups, including the Balochistan Liberation Army that has claimed the latest attack in Pakistan Stock exchange in Karachi.

Unfortunately, the State pursued a military strategy against Balochistan then. It is continuing with the same strategy even today. “How can negotiations on political issues continue with the government in this situation? A military operation and negotiations cannot continue side by side. If the authorities launch an operation, then with whom will they hold negotiations?” asked Akbar Bugti in January 2005. (“Remembering Akbar Bugti,” Dawn, 16 August 2009). Gen Musharraf then threatened the Baloch with violence (“this time, you won’t know what hit you”); Akbar Bugti, a political leader and a former Governor of the province was hounded like a criminal and brutally murdered. Later in 2013, the then Chief Minister Balochistan Abdul Malik Baloch accused Musharraf of “igniting the fire in Balochistan” and wanted him to be tried for violating the constitution. (“Musharraf ignited fire in Balochistan,” Dawn, 24 June 2013). However, in January 2016, an anti-terrorism court acquitted Musharraf. (“ATC acquits Pervez Musharraf in Akbar Bugti murder case,” Dawn, 18 June 2016).

After the killing of Akbar Bugti by the State in 2006, the Baloch extremist groups gained support within the province.

The second major political push from the Baloch side came in 2012 when Sardar Akhtar Mengal presented his six points as a road map for Balochistan. This included the suspension of all covert and overt military operations against the Baloch, producing the missing persons before a court of law, disbanding of death squads operating under the supervision of the ISI, allowing Baloch political parties to function without any interference from intelligence agencies, and bringing to justice those responsible for the torture and disappearance of the Baloch leaders and activists (“A province in crisis: Fiery Mengal presents six points for building trust in Balochistan,” The Express Tribune, 28 September 2012). Subsequently in 2018, Akhtar Mengal and his party took part in the elections in 2018, and signed two agreements with the PTI on Balochistan. He left the coalition citing no development on those two agreements.

The enforced disappearances in Balochistan and the case of missing Baloch
The issue of missing persons in Balochistan is not a recent one and dates back to 1973. (On the question of Baloch-Pashtun unity over the dilemma of missing persons in Pakistan,” The Asia Dialogue, 22 March 2019) This has been a stain on Pakistan’s human rights record (“Pakistan: Enduring Enforced Disappearances,” Amnesty International, 27 March 2019).

The disappearances have been continuing. The Annual Report published by the Human Rights Council of Balochistan reported that 2019 saw no improvement in the human rights situation for the people in Balochistan. Enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, target killings and military operations continued unabated and with impunity. It received partial details of 568 cases of enforced disappearances and 241 killings during the year 2019. Most of the forcibly disappeared persons were from Awaran, Gwadar, Kech, Khuzdar and Pangur districts of the province. Meanwhile, the other twenty-seven districts of the province were not accessible to us due to continued military operations and blockade of communication networks. (“Balochistan 2019: Military whisked away 568 persons and killed another 241”, Hakkpan Annual Report 2019, Human Rights Council of Balochistan, 8 March 2019)

According to a recent statistics, 73 people were picked up by the Pakistani forces, including students, women, children, and infants, but 28 were later released (“Extrajudicial killings: Traced cases of Balochistan, Human Rights Council of Balochistan, 7 March 2020). Amid the Covid-19 lockdown, Balochistan witnessed a surge in military raids with 16 killed and 45 abducted in April. In cases, people have been missing for years. Another unsettling development is that of women disappearing in certain areas, such as Dera Bugti and Awaran. However, these cases go unreported.

According to a recent analysis, from 2013 to 2017, the state agencies adopted a kill-and-dump strategy against Baloch activists, resulting in killing and disappearances of innocent Baloch people. Though a few have returned during the recent years, the number of those disappeared remains a big issue for Balochistan. (Read the following: Tariq Khosa, “Baloch lives matterDawn, 20 June 2020, “Missing persons as bargaining chip,” The Balochistan Post, 2 February 2020,  Behram Baloch, Saleem Shahid, “Missing persons start returning home in Balochistan,” Dawn, 20 January 2019, Imtiaz Ali, “4 'missing persons' return after more than two years: committee,” Dawn, 10 May 2019)

Implementing the National Action Plan
This is an important demand of the BNP-M. The National Action Plan (NAP) comprising 20 points, included  empowering the people of Balochistan and registering Afghan refugees (other points include: uplifting the moratorium on capital punishments through a constitutional amendment, strengthening counter-terrorism, banning hate speech, eliminating terror financing, registering and regulating religious seminaries, mainstreaming the restive Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), restoring peace in Karachi, eliminating militancy in Punjab etc). However, the progress in implementing this NAP has been irregular. (Sehar Kamran, “The uncertain future of Pakistan's National Action Plan,” Arab News, 17 December 2019) Especially concerning Balochistan, the objective of the NAP remains unfulfilled. The NAP has not been implemented in letter and spirit, its plan was not implemented for previous governments at both the centre and province lacked the political will to do so (“National Action Plan in Balochistan,” Balochistan Express, 14 March 2019).

In 2019, the Balochistan provincial assembly urged for the implementation of NAP to root out terrorism highlighting the thousands of people who have suffered and lost their lives. (Mohammad Zafar, “Balochistan MPs demand implementation of NAP,” The Express Tribune, 10 August 2020)
Repatriating the Afghan refugees
Balochistan was opposed to the settlement of the Afghan refugee in the province since their first arrival in the 1980s. When BNP-M and PTI formed a coalition in the Centre, repatriation of Afghan refugees featured in the six-point agreement which was PTI’s pledge to BNP-M in exchange for support. Most analysts considered them “impractical” and “unsustainable.” The Baloch fear that the refugees are penetrating their politics, institutions, employment opportunities and altering the demography of their province causing electoral and political shifts. (“BNP-M supports PTI government in center in exchange for pledges,” Arab News, 29 June 2020, “Voluntary repatriation for Afghan refugees suspended temporarily,” Relief Web, 17 March 2020)

According to UNHCR, of the 1.4 million Afghan refugees that Pakistan hosts, 317,900 reside in Balochistan. Although voluntary repatriation of Afghan refugees through the Chaman and Torkham official border-crossings commenced on 2 March 2020, it was suspended on 17 March due to the implementation of precautionary measures to mitigate the pandemic. During the Afghan talks on 9 June, Pakistan Army chief and Afghanistan president maintained that the dignified repatriation of Afghan refugees was key to normalcy. (“Voluntary repatriation of Afghan refugees to start tomorrow,” The Nation, 1 March 2020, “Dignified Repatriation of Afghan Refugees in Pakistan Key to Normalcy,” News Week Pakistan, 10 June 2020, “BNP threatens to quit ruling coalition over granting refugees citizenship,” The Express Tribune, 19 September 2018)
Baloch fear over Gwadar and other CPEC projects in the province
Although Beijing and Islamabad claim that CPEC will be a win-win for both countries, the Baloch are wary of the CPEC projects. The Gwadar Port connecting Pakistan with Kashgar in Xinjiang, China is at the heart of the CPEC. China has pledged to build the deepest seaport in Gwadar, creating energy, infrastructure and transportation projects along the way. Beijing says that the resultant socio-economic development would transform Pakistan. But the Baloch have their own fears, based on their earlier experiences. There is a strong perception within Balochistan, that despite the rich mineral resources, they receive a disproportionate income. (“CPEC: A Bad Deal for the Baloch People?,” The Diplomat, 30 December 2015)

Apart from this, the Baloch fear that under the banner of development, CPEC will turn them into a minority in their own province. The Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FPCCI) report that said Balochistan’s local population would be outnumbered by 2048 given the present rate of influx by Chinese aggravated local apprehensions.

Chief of the BNP-M and former CM of Balochistan Sardar Akthar Mengal have stated that the CPEC projects without the consent of the local population are unacceptable. He added that it offers nothing to Balochistan. These statements have fuelled the growing concern amongst the Balochis. BNP-M and Balochis fear that CPEC will change their economic prospects, social outlook and political future, thus, endangering the Baloch national entity and posing an existential threat. (“Balochistan: Understanding CPEC from the Inside,” Unrepresented Peoples’ and Nations Organisation, 2 June 2017, “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor: Opportunities and Risks,” International Crisis Group, 29 June 2018)
Legislations to prevent the demographic changes in Balochistan
The Baloch fear of changes to the demography of the province, owing to the influx of refugees and migrants from Afghanistan and KP respectively. Balochistan’s northern districts are turning Pashtun. This demographic change reflects the changing electoral and political behaviours -  voting patterns and politics as reflected in Balochistan’s Provincial Assembly. The increasing numbers of Pashto parties and the support they enjoy - point towards the shrinking Baloch population. Balochistan is witnessing a rise in Pashtun and non-Baloch parties. (“Counting Refugees: Where do Afghan refugees stand in Pakistan's census?,” Afghan Refugees)

Presently, the ruling coalition government has a predominantly Pashtun component – Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) (24), which was formed on 29 March 2018 by political dissidents of the Pakistan Muslim League (Q) and the Pakistan Muslim League (N) in Balochistan; a largely Pashtun Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf PTI (7); and a self-declared secular and leftist Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party (ANP) (4).

After the release of 2015’s census, Balochi lawmakers accused the federal government of purposely changing demographics of various districts of their province. In 2017, the federal government’s decision to not include Afghan refugees in the census, as ordered by Balochistan High Court (after a month-long hearing of the petition filed by BNP), was a relief to Baloch nationalists who worried that their inclusion would formalize demographic changes. Pushes for the rehabilitation of displaced Balochis also aim to counter these shifts. (“‘Balochistan politicking’: Govt accused of changing demographics,” The Express Tribune, 9 September 2015)

Meanwhile, the Pashtuns accuse Balochis of purposely under-representing Pashtuns to maintain Balochi supremacy. (“Number of Balochi-speaking people in Balochistan falls,” The Baloch House, 10 September 2017, “Census 2017 language data,” Pakistan Defence, 28 May 2018)
Continuing Violence in Balochistan during recent years
According to the Pakistan Security Report 2019 published by the Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) for the past few years, much of the militant violence in Pakistan has visibly concentrated in Balochistan. In particular, the violence led by the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) managed 27 terrorist attacks in 2019, including 25 in Balochistan, and one each in southern Punjab and interior Sindh, killing 40 people and injuring 120 people. These attacks are higher when compared to the 25 attacks launched by the group in 2018. “Pakistan Security Report 2019,” PIPS, 5 January 2020

Among the nationalist insurgent groups, the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) was one of the leading actors of instability in Balochistan province. In 2018, the BLA’s attack on Chinese consulate in Karachi was one of the major terrorist attacks by the Baloch militants outside the Balochistan province. (Imtiaz Ali, “Attack on Chinese consulate in Karachi foiled, militants killed,” Dawn, 24 November 2018) Another attack by the group killed three Chinese engineers near Dalbandin in August 2018. (Saleem Shahid, “Three Chinese engineers among five injured in Dalbandin suicide attack,” Dawn, 12 August 2018) In June 2020, BLA has carried out attacks on security forces in Balochistan along the Iran-Pak border. (“BLA claims bomb attack on Pak Army troops,“ The News International, 10 May 2020) (Baqir Sajjad Syed, “Analysis: BLA out to bleed Pakistan economy, Chinese interests,” Dawn, 30 June 2020)

To conclude, as Sardar Akhtar Mengal demanded in the Parliament, Balochistan needs a political dialogue. The issues of missing persons need to be addressed immediately. Implementation of the NAP, projects under the CPEC without consultation and/or benefits for the province, demographic changes, and the repatriation of Afghan refugees are other immediate concerns for the Baloch.

The challenge for the PTI government (and the earlier elected governments), besides their lack of attention, is the lack of political space. The Deep State has assumed a disproportionate position in deciding the strategy towards Balochistan. And the political parties have yielded to the same – either under pressure or abdicated their responsibilities to govern Balochistan.

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