Gwadar’s Trials and Tribulations

In a video that has been widely circulated on Twitter, a child, dressed in red shirt and black jeans, is seen throwing a stone at a group of security personnel, who are carrying sticks and shields. The troops retaliate by throwing stones toward the child, who runs away. In another video, dozens of security forces personnel are seen standing by as someone, reportedly the child of a fisherman, is beaten and dragged on the road by other troops.

These are only two violent incidents that have emerged since the internet shutdown in Gwadar, a port city in Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest and most impoverished province, ended after more than a week.

For over 50 days, a sit-in protest outside the main entrance of the Gwadar port was ongoing before the protests turned violent during the last week of December, resulting in clashes between the police and the protesters. The sit-in was staged by the Haq Do Tehreek (Gwadar Rights Movement), which has emerged as a popular activist movement over the last couple of years in the city. Gwadar is lauded as the heart of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and widely seen as the main plank of China’s Road and Belt Initiative, but locals have long felt cut off from any benefits that status bestows on their hometown.

Led by Maulana Hidayat ur Rehman, who has emerged as a popular leader among the masses, the demonstrators blocked the Gwadar East Bay Expressway, the key artery linking the port to Pakistan’s main highway network. Protests were also staged outside the under-construction New Gwadar International Airport.

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The protesters demanded an end to illegal trawling, which remains a struggle for the people of the port city for whom fishing is one of the only sources of income. Other demands included easing restrictions on informal cross-border trade with Iran, the reduction of security checkpoints in the area, and access to clean drinking water, hospitals, and electricity.

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The sit-in was peaceful until Rehman closed the main entry road to Gwadar port and asked Chinese nationals to leave the port city. Rehman and his followers also showed up with weapons and threatened armed resistance if their demands were not met.

The Woes of the People of Gwadar

Gwadar has seen much development in the last few decades but many of the locals feel left out – that none of the development have benefited them. On the contrary, there is resentment. Residents of the fishing town feel like they are being turned into outsiders in their own area. The construction and investments in the coastal city, instead of making lives better for the citizens, have worsened their plight.

“Before the Haq Do Tehreek began, many issues had been and continue to plague Gwadar,” said Behram Baloch, a journalist and analyst from Gwadar. One of those issues is the ubiquitous refrain of “Kaha ja rahe ho? Kaha se a rahe ho?” (Where are you going? Where are you coming from?), which Baloch said symbolizes “the constant surveillance that the people were under within their own city, being questioned at security checkpoints.”

In addition, “the fishermen have been facing several issues, like being required to have tokens and being allocated fixed times for when they can go to the sea for fishing,” Baloch added.

Residents of the port city also complain about being denied basic facilities, from healthcare to electricity to clean drinking water.

Illegal trawling remains one of the biggest issues for the fishing community, whose survival depends on the industry. Trawlers from neighboring Sindh and other countries come to fish in the waters off Gwadar, impacting the catch of the local fishermen. The issue goes beyond illegal trawlers, as the government had reportedly licensed Chinese trawlers to fish in the waters off the coast – locals, with their small boats, are unable to compete with better equipped Chinese competitors.

The frustration of the residents of Gwadar is not new; it has been building up for years of neglect. It has now started to erupt like a volcano, as the city has seen unprecedented protests over the last two years.

“People in Gwadar are unhappy – there are various issues, there is unemployment, illegal trawling, border trade issues,” said Nasir Rahim Sohrabi, a social activist and president of the Rural Development Council of Gwadar.

“At the same time, the government claims that Gwadar is developing. There are developments in Gwadar but this development is not for the common people. The people are not benefiting anything from the projects – The voice of the people is not being heard by the provincial government.”

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The Haq Do Tehreek

The 50-day sit-in that began last fall wasn’t the first time that Gwadar witnessed a large-scale, months-long protest. In 2021, Haq Do Tehreek leader Maulana Hidayat ur Rehman, who is also the general secretary of Jamaat-e-Islami in Balochistan, led a similar protest that lasted for 32 days. The demands were the same as now. The protests ended in successful negotiations with the provincial government, which assured Rehman that the demands would be met.

Some progress was made, but the vast majority of the issues continued to fester.

“The district administration claims that a lot of the initial demands have been met, such as the abolition of checkpoints, action has been taken against illegal trawling and people have been facilitated with border trade,” said Behram Baloch. “However these actions were taken for a short duration and then everything continues as before.”

On October 27, 2022, Rehman and his supporters started another sit-in, accusing the government of going back on its promises.

When the sit-in entered its 25th day, tens of thousands of protesters, including women and children, blocked an expressway leading to the Gwadar port as the government failed to meet the deadline to implement the demands.

The sit-in continued well into December. On December 10, thousands of women rallied in Gwadar in support of Rehman. The tension continued to build.

Rehman went on to issue a warning to Chinese nationals working in Gwadar port to leave, vowing to completely stop work on all CPEC projects in Gwadar.

Things turned violent on December 27, a day after negotiations between the government and movement leaders failed. The police clashed with protesters who responded to Rehman’s call for a strike.

One of the successes of the Haq Do Tehreek has been the mobilization of women. In an otherwise conservative society where women are confined to their homes, the Haq Do Tehreek has managed to encourage women to participate and lead the protests for their rights. This also meant that when the protests turned violent, women too were targeted by the police.

Nazia Jan Muhammad, a resident of Gwadar, recalled that when the police came to attack “peaceful men protesters,” women along with their children went forward to their rescue.

However the police started baton charging on everyone, women included.

“We had little children with us who fell unconscious from the tear gas. They treated us as if we were animals. They say they are here to safeguard the people – Is this what it means to protect the people?” Muhammad said.

“What was our crime? To demand for our basic rights that the constitution ensures?” she questioned.

Masi Zainab, a 70-year-old poet who was at the forefront of the protests in 2021 and on whose call Rehman led the initial protests, participated in the 2022 protests as well. “A lot happened to me due to my participation,” she said.

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“Our children were pleading for relief from the shelling. I had to beg the security forces to not hit us with shells. The next morning, another batch of security forces came,” Zainab recalled in a phone conversation. “Our doors were broken, we were abused, and my headscarf was snatched. My daughter-in-law’s hand was broken, an elderly woman’s knees were injured and a young girl was pelted with shells and her face is still injured. These people are still injured.”

While several protesters were injured, one policeman, identified as Yasir Saeed, was shot in the neck, which proved fatal.

Unrest ensued in the city, as people continued protesting against the police’s actions and the subsequent crackdown against the Haq Do Tehreek leaders and supporters. The government imposed Section 144, an emergency law, barring more than five people from gathering at the same time for a month. Cellular services and internet remained suspended up until this week.

Hundred of arrests followed. A local journalist, Haji Obaidullah was arrested allegedly for taking videos of the clash and for his reporting. He was later released.

The detained leaders of Haq Do Tehreek include veteran politician Hussain Wadila, Yaqoob Joski, and Sharid Miandad. Rehman, the movement’s chief, too was booked in an FIR but he has been at large since the protests ended.

On Monday, Rehman took to Twitter to announce that he was going back to Gwadar.

‘There Is a Force Behind Maulana’

Some believe that the movement isn’t purely seeking the rights of Gwadar but is tied up in a local political battle between Rehman and Hammal Kalmati, the current member of the Provincial Assembly from Gwadar.

“The Haq Do Tehreek demands have been the demands of the people, but Rehman’s tone was always political. He always stated his intention to take part in elections. He won the by-elections as he has the support of the people,” said Sohrabi.

Others see an even bigger plan at work: At a time when Pakistan is drifting toward the West, some say that Rehman has been launched to disturb the Chinese work in the port and CPEC.

Senator Akram Dashti said that there is no denying that Rehman has taken up the issues of the masses, but he pointed out that the Maulana – a title given to a respected Islamic leader – belongs to a conservative religious party, Jamaat-e-Islami, which has always been on the payroll of the military establishment.

“The Makran region is the epicenter of Baloch nationalism,” Dashti pointed out. “Just imagine if the nationalists had protested with weapons and chanted slogans against China and besieged the port. Would the establishment have allowed it? I doubt it.”

The senator argued that “the establishment has never liked nationalist parties in Balochistan – it is highly likely that it supports a project like Maulana, for we know that the establishment has always had a major role in political engineering.”

He added, “Maulana is being treated differently [than Baloch nationalists] and it can be a bigger plan by the establishment to bring a right-wing party [to power] in Makran. Or maybe he is being used as a weapon in a greater game against China, only time will tell. But there is a force behind Maulana.”

Whether the movement has any ulterior motives besides safeguarding the rights of the people remains to be seen. For most of its followers, though, Haq Do Tehreek is simply a peaceful movement that has stood up to the state, which remains oblivious to the grievances of the impoverished and restive province.