Hope and political discontent in Makran

Hope and political discontent in Makran

From Haq Do Tehreek protests and the Kech killings sparking BYC demonstrations to Iranian airstrikes in Panjgur, this part of Balochistan has been making headlines. But despondent locals say most previous candidates have failed them.

FROM being a quiet fishing village in Makran to becoming a geopolitical asset as the flagship venture of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Gwadar has had an interesting journey through time.

A part of the Khan of Kalat’s dominion before Partition, suzerainty over the port was granted to the brother of Oman’s then-ruler, Sultan Bin Ahmed, after he had a falling out with the sultan and sought refuge in the neighbouring state.

By some accounts, the gesture was made in keeping with Baloch tradition of hospitality and offering refuge, but the warmth not reciprocated, and after becoming the ruler of Oman, the former refugee ruler refused to return Gwadar to the state of Kalat.

It was only in 1958, after a local movement and four years of intense negotiations, that Balochistan’s historic warm-water port became part of Pakistan after it was ‘purchased’ for a sum of $3 million.

Today, it is a different story. The fisher folk who dominate the seaside hamlet’s population have been on the receiving end of what they call “the state’s injustices”, such as being driven out of their old settlements in the port town to make way for development projects.

While Maulana Hidayatur Rehman has found fame and support, the Kalmati family is well-versed in the art of surviving political challenges. So far, the HDT chief has not been able to dent the traditional power base of the clan

On a frosty January morning, they converge at their traditional haunt, the dhoria, a raised, open platform where they repair fishing nets, play cards and talk about everything – from illegal trawling to local politics – especially during election season. Interestingly, the dhoria looks out on the four berths of the anchorage. From here, The Eastbay Expressway, which cost $168 million and is a part of the $62 billion CPEC, is a mere stone’s throw away.

Ever since President Xi Jinping of China announced the CPEC project in 2015, Gwadar’s significance has increased manifold. As Chinese investment poured in, the port city has been catapulted into national and international discourse, and has also been shaken by attacks on Chinese nationals and security forces. However, nationalists from across the province agree that Gwadar, in its new avatar as a development hub, is intrinsic to Baloch politics. But locals, and nationalists in particular, are skeptical about their identity in Gwadar as the seat of business and regional connectivity; they harbour fears of being outnumbered.

Abubaqar Baloch, 50, is from the Kumari Ward, another town near the dhoria inhabited by fishermen for centuries. The bespectacled, bearded fisherman dressed in Balochi shalwar kameez wants to comment on the upcoming polls with his fellow fishermen. His ward lacks basic facilities, including water and a sewerage system.

“Voting is our basic democratic right and we will vote for those who will make our lives easier,” he says. “In the past, everyone we voted for failed us. This time, we want a new face so that our issues of water, sewage and illegal trawling are resolved.”

Other fishermen also echo Abubaqar’s aspirations, their voices tinged with despair. However, Shahid Khuda Baksh, says, “Mir Hammal Kalmati (the previous MPA from the area) did resolve our issues related to dams and education. But we need facilities like drainage, as the Kumari Ward is inundated with water in the monsoon.”

“Even though the elections will be engineered to once again to bring the selected to power, Maulana Hidayatur Rehman is an interesting chapter in Gwadar’s politics because his Haq Do Tehreek (HDT) rose to prominence after a large rights movement. Locals are keen to see how it will impact elections in their port town,” observes Nasir Rahim Sohrabi, a Gwadar-based analyst.

Other than the provincial assembly, Gwadar and Kech have a single national assembly seat between them. Fearing the Maulana’s strength, ex-MPA Kalmati, a Balochistan National Party-Mengal (BNP-M) contender for PB-24, has joined forces with former MNA and rival, the independent Mir Yaqoob Bizenjo contesting for NA-259. In 2009, Bizenjo was listed among the world’s top four drug barons by the Obama administration.

Haq Do Tehreek: from movement to political gambit

Maulana Hidayatur Rehman, the face of the Haq Do Tehreek (HDT) – a movement for fisherfolk’s rights in Makran and Gwadar – was first introduced to the Baloch populace at the dhoria.

A video of the cleric went viral in 2021 where, surrounded by fishermen, he spoke to army and naval officials about their injustices. His was catapulted to fame by a WhatsApp message from Masi Zainab, 65. She lamented the absence of a leader for fishermen and the people of Gwadar as they fought for their rights at Gwadar Eastbay Expressway. This brought Mr Rehman to the dhoria and he has continued to lead locals in Gwadar.

Surbandan, or Sur, some 25km from main Gwadar, is the young Maulana’s hometown. In his early forties now, he is a known dissenter in the village. A resident leader of the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), Mr Rehman first gathered a sizeable number of Baloch in the heart of the port town in late 2021. Since then, the protests have not subsided, despite his imprisonment, and he has not faded into obscurity either. Instead, the cleric has emerged as an immensely popular political player in the coastal belt.

Gwadar’s Kalmati scions

For over three decades, the Kalmati clan has known power closely in the port city. In 1985, Hammal Kalmati’s father, the late Mir Ghafoor Kalmati, won the provincial assembly seat in the non-party-based elections held under the military government of Ziaul Haq.

Mir Ghafoor’s father, Mir Behram Kalmati, was a prominent local figure in the days when Gwadar was still a part of the Sultanate of Oman. The family has changed political loyalties often since then. Mir Ghafoor joined the Muslim League, then moved to the Jamhoori Watan Party (JWP) led by Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, and Sardar Akhtar Mengal’s Baloch National Movement (BNM) was his final destination.

He then won the 1997 general election as a BNP nominee and, in 2005, former Balochistan chief minister Jam Mohammad Yousaf helped him assume the office of mayor. In 2008, his son Hammal contested as a PML-Q candidate, later switching over to BNP-M in 2013, and made it to the assembly in both subsequent polls.

While Maulana Hidayatur Rehman’s movement has seemingly weakened Hammal’s hold on the area, the family continues to retain its vote bank.

Perhaps the Kalmatis should be wary of the Maulana Rehman’s ascent, as people from different towns of Gwadar have come to believe in the maverick cleric. “He is our leader,” says one of the fishermen Dawn interviewed in Pasni. “He owns our issues, particularly illegal trawling which has deprived us of our livelihood.”

Masi Zainab, who mobilises and spearheads Gwadar’s female demonstrations, has ensured that the Maulana stays in the public eye. “I support him because he has worked and protested for our rights tirelessly, which others had forgotten about,” she asserts. “He has made us raise our voice without fear.”

But while the Maulana has found fame and support, the Kalmati family is well-versed in the art of surviving political challenges. So far, the HDT chief has not been able to dent the traditional power base of the clan. Will these elections see a new face replacing the old bastions of power? Only time will tell.

Kech: centre of Makran’s politics

Kech is a political enigma, with a rising number of educated locals guiding its political direction. Like other parts of Makran, separatists have gained some ground in the area since the fifth Baloch insurgency in the year 2000. The political vibrance of Kech makes it a region of interest for rebels too.

For instance, the recent killing of Balaach Baloch, supposedly in an ‘encounter’ with the Counter Terrorism Department, sparked a widespread Baloch movement that began in Kech and Turbat and culminated in Islamabad. Moreover, the Baloch Yakjehti Committee sit-in in Islamabad, led by Dr Mahrang Baloch and Sammi Deen Baloch, also originated from Turbat.

National Party (NP) head Dr Abdul Malik Baloch, who also hails from Turbat – the headquarters of Kech district – first visit the bordering town of Tump (which has been afflicted by militant violence) after 20 years. When I met him in Turbat and asked about the reason for such a delayed visit, he evaded the question, saying: “Why don’t you ask the insurgents?”

The party accuses insurgents opposed to elections of killing its workers, and even attacking Dr Malik’s house in Turbat. Much like other parties, the NP remains active in the coastal zone and, even though it did not win a majority in 2013, Dr Malik was appointed chief minister for two-and-a-half-years. With the party leadership convinced of a good showing in the upcoming general elections, Dr Malik recently met PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif as well, to firm up his bid to become chief minister for a second time.

Political manoeuvres in Makran

Muzaffar Hussain, a PhD scholar from the University of Hull and an assistant professor in the Political Science department of University of Turbat, says there is hardly any political activity in Makran and elsewhere in Balochistan. “You only see some electioneering on social media.”

When asked about the reasons for Makran’s torpor, Mr Hussain’s response is astute. The movement led by Baloch women, under the banner of the Baloch Yakjehti Committee, which endured batons and water cannons and the indifference of local parties in Makran, has deepened the mistrust between local people and the politicians. “People believe that politicians do not support the cause of Baloch missing persons.”

“Secondly, the threat of Baloch insurgents is a persistent danger to the electoral process. They carry out attacks during election time, leaving Makran vulnerable and disturbed. A case in point is the recent lethal assault on former minister Mir Aslam Buledi in Turbat. Locals are also frustrated with political engineering and see the elections as a mere formality.”

After recent visits by key PML-N and PPP leaders, Quetta was rife with rumours about who would be forming the next government in the province. Nawaz Sharif came to Quetta, but Asif Ali Zardari also visited Turbat to address a public meeting. Wearing a white Balochi turban and accompanied by party leaders, he was welcomed by seasoned and new politicians from across Makran. One of them was Mir Zahoor Buledi, a strong candidate from Buleda town.

Meanwhile, PPP candidate for the National Assembly from Gwadar Malik Shah Gorgaij, who is known for being close to the establishment, has been instrumental in recruiting fresh candidates for PPP in Makran and other parts of Balochistan. Meanwhile another notable from the area, Sarfraz Bugti, recently stepped down as the caretaker interior minister and also joined Mr Zardari’s party, hinting towards the possibility of a PPP-led government in Balochistan’s future.

“Makran has been the centre of political activity and awareness since the Bhutto era, when the Kalat division was bifurcated and the three tehsils of Makran — Panjgur, Gwadar and Turba — were given the status of districts,” says Abdul Rahim Zaffar, a senior politician from Makran who was a contemporary of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his PPP. “This is why the Baloch in Makran have traditionally voted for politicians.” But he regrets that Makran’s old political spirit his dissipated and notorious apolitical actors have taken over.

The February general election too is marred by allegations of engineering. In 2018, Malik Shah Gorgaij’s son-in-law Akbar Askani, an unknown figure for locals, became a member of the provincial assembly from Kech district. Residents fear that similar manoeuvres will play out next month – a primary factor in the escalation of insurgency in Makran and the province.

Panjgur and polls

A few weeks ago, Panjgur made international headlines when Iranian airstrikes in the district left two children dead and three others injured. Gwadar, Kech and Panjgur share a border with Iran, and Baloch live on either side of it.

Unlike the rest of Makran, Panjgur district has witnessed some election campaigns, corner meetings and political gatherings by local leaders of the NP, such as Rehmat Baloch, and his rival, Assad Baloch of Balochistan National Party-Awami (BNP-A). Both are former MPAs.

But Panjgur was not spared by militants either. A large-scale attack on the Frontier Corps camp by the BLA’s Majeed-brigade lasted for almost two days in 2022. Then-army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa had visited Makran at the time, and most locals he met complained about politicians parachuting into the assembly through rigged elections.

“Election campaigns have been ongoing in Panjgur for over three months,” says Rafiq Chakar Baloch, a senior journalist in the district. “Rehmat Baloch and Assad Baloch are vying for seats and have their own vote banks because Panjgur supports them.”

In Panjgur, more than any other part of Makran, border trade with Iran is a deciding factor. District politicians are trying to secure their vote banks in the name of business with Iran, especially oil, as their localities depend on it. “Through Rehmat Baloch and his father, the NP has expanded its influence in Panjgur, pegging its politics on border trade,” claims Naeem Baloch, a resident.

Published in Dawn, January 29th, 2024


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Header image: A group of fishermen congregate to discuss Gwadar’s politics at the dhoria near the main port, with the Eastbay Expressway visible in the background. — Dawn

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