Pakistan’s security agencies have cracked down on educated Baluch youth, forcibly “disappearing” suspected militants, sometimes for years, without trial, according to news reports, student advocates and human rights groups.
“These days, law enforcement agencies consider every university student from Baluchistan a potential militant,” said Faisal Nawaz, a student from Panjgur, in Baluchistan, who is studying at the University of Karachi.
Separatist attacks have been concentrated in the sparsely populated Makran region of Baluchistan, where residents depend on illegal cross-border trade with Iran in fuel and other commodities. In a desert area that has few job opportunities, smuggling can be a matter of survival. But the official border crossings were closed in March 2021, making the trade harder and worsening the misery of the local population.
“If the government set up industries for us, the youth would not be involved in dangerous business,” said Sakhi Dad, 28, who said he took up smuggling after graduating from a university and failing to find other work.
In November, a protest movement led by a Gwadar-based cleric, Maulana Hidayatur Rehman, mobilized thousands of people, calling on the government to address the plight of people in Makran. They demanded relaxation of border trade, easing of security checkpoints created to protect Chinese workers at the Gwadar port, and an end to illegal trawling that is devastating the livelihood of local fishermen.
The government has responded with vows to improve conditions. On April 23, the new prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, in a visit to Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province, cited neglect of the region as a cause of violence, and promised to “raise the issue of forced disappearances with powerful quarters.”
Pakistan’s military leadership has broadened its public interactions in Baluchistan, trying to present a friendlier face, particularly in Makran. After the February attacks, the army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, and other military leaders visited Baluchistan to meet political leaders and university students, and asked the local administration to open the border to trade. He also encouraged the youth to join law enforcement agencies.