The suicide bomb attack on Tuesday by a Baloch woman belonging to the separatist Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) Majeed Brigade was specifically targeted at Chinese nationals who teach at the Confucius Institute of Karachi University in Pakistan. Though there have been four previous attacks on Chinese interests or personnel (the first in 2018), this was the first where a woman suicide bomber was used.
In Pakistan, suicide bombings are generally associated with Islamist terrorists, and the BLA has historically eschewed these. But recent attacks demonstrate a shift in tactics, whereby suicide bombings that were held in disdain and contempt by secular-nationalist-leftist movements are now being utilised. According to columnist Dr Taqi, it appears that the Taliban’s success in Afghanistan has lent suicide bombings a twisted kind of legitimacy.
The fact that the Taliban were able to negotiate with the US, extract concessions and de-facto recognition, and Pakistan’s patronage of an outfit that parades suicide bomber regiments, sort of elevates suicide bombing as a more ‘successful’ tool to bring the adversary to its knees.
'Proud of Wife'
The use of a woman, too, is new. Analysts agree that the BLA resorted to using a woman because women generally do not arouse suspicion. This has alarmed peaceful Baloch women activists who have been protesting and agitating for years for the recovery of their abducted/missing family members taken away by intelligence agencies. One such woman, Sammi Baloch, told Al Jazeera, ”Families of missing persons are already under the radar. Such an attack by a Baloch woman allows Pakistani authorities to repress peaceful women.”
Having said that, the use of suicide bombings and women appear to be signs of both increasing desperation and commitment. Now, not just the pawns, but the knights, bishops, and rooks of the movement are being sacrificed: Bramsh, or Shari Baloch, was a school teacher with a master’s degree in zoology. She was also enrolled in another postgraduate program at Karachi University. Bramsh’s husband is a dentist and professor at Makran Medical College. Her father is a retired civil servant and registrar at the University of Turbat. Her brothers and uncles are senior professionals, academics, and government servants. And she was no lone, covert radical.
After the bombing, Bramsh’s husband tweeted a family photograph with both their young children saying he was proud of her and that the children would grow up being proud of their great mother. According to Al Jazeera, at least two of Bramsh’s relatives are known to have been involved in the armed struggle in Balochistan.
Why the Baloch are Against China's CPEC
Bramsh and her husband’s involvement in this bombing is symbolic of how the Baloch struggle has changed. The current insurgency is the fifth since the creation of Pakistan, but it is the first that is dominated and led by often highly educated and usually middle-class professionals and students, unlike the first four insurgencies that were dominated by tribal nawabs and sardars. It is a profoundly changed movement since the early 2000s. Moreover, there seems to be an uptick in activity, and whether it is due to increased funding, training or desperation, is hard to say at the moment.
But why have the Baloch separatists begun to attack the Chinese in the last few years? The first element to note is that attacks on the Chinese began soon after the commencement of the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The reasons could be two-fold. The obvious one is enunciated by the BLA itself: the Baloch see the Chinese as usurpers and abettors of the Punjabi establishment, which they accuse of trying to decimate the Baloch identity by suppressing the Baloch culture, language, and other elements of identity.
They see China’s $62-billion CPEC as an oppressive colonial project that aims to not only appropriate Baloch resources like minerals and the Gwadar coastline with its rich potential, but to also change the demographics in the area and make them a minority in their own land.
The BLA has called the Confucius Institute a symbol of Chinese economic, cultural, and political expansionism.
Raising the Stakes for Pakistan
The nationalists and separatists hold that the Baloch have historically never been fairly compensated by the state of Pakistan and that the province’s resources have been mercilessly exploited whilst keeping the Baloch acutely impoverished. They see CPEC as no different, which has displaced many Baloch from their lands and taken over the Gwadar port, with the spoils going to the Punjabi establishment and the Chinese.
After this attack, the BLA gave a clear message that Chinese presence in Balochistan, direct or indirect, will not be tolerated – indeed, the BLA is now going after the Chinese outside of Balochistan as evidenced by multiple attacks in Karachi and Dasu, Gilgit Baltistan in recent years. To the BLA, military cooperation between China and Pakistan also means that China is abetting the Pakistani state in hunting down Baloch rights activists and insurgents.
The other reason the BLA is now attacking the Chinese could be to raise the stakes for Pakistan. Killing a few security personnel here or there may not be seen as hurting the state as much as putting its foreign relations and related foreign investments at stake.
The Baloch Issue Is Not Just of Rights, But of Identity
“The issue with the Baloch is not just that of rights, but that of identity. First, the British carved out Baloch areas like Dera Ghazi Khan and Rajanpur and gifted them to Punjab, even Karachi used to belong to the Baloch. How many Mazaris, Zardaris, or Legharis now have economic or political ties to Balochistan? They may identify as Baloch in name, but their economic and political interests are tied to Punjab or Sindh because of British engineering,” says Dr Taqi. Therefore, there is a distinct and real fear of further erosion of the Baloch identity by state and Chinese machinations, and of the demography being permanently changed.
“The case of Balochistan is not dissimilar to Indian-occupied Kashmir – both were taken at gunpoint. The Pakistani state earlier tried it on in Bengal (and as a result lost it).”Dr Taqi
That the Baloch may benefit from the largesse of outsiders foisting ‘development’ upon them after usurping their land, sea, and resources, and at the cost of their identity, is a patently parasitic deal that the Baloch reject.
The question that arises here, then, is, if Baloch fears are correct, why has there been an onslaught on the Baloch identity by the Pakistani state? The answer may lie in the fact that the Pakistani state has from the beginning tried to homogenise a multi-national multi-ethnic polity, and to keep power concentrated in the centre.
It isn’t for no reason that the army has always tried to undermine or do away completely with the federal nature of the state. Bengali “nationalism” is blamed for the breaking away of East Pakistan, but in reality, the issue was one of the rights and resources of a nation (Bengali) that the state wasn’t willing to grant. The Punjabi civil and military bureaucracy was intent on dominating all other nations that made up Pakistan, including the then-majority Bengalis.
But specifically with regard to the Baloch, Pakistan has always had a colonial attitude towards Balochistan (it was coerced into Pakistan in 1948). To the Pakistani state, the assertion of original identity means the path to secession because a strong identity (language, dance, music, poetry, cuisine, clothing, festivals, history, folklore) leads to a sense of nationhood that can then lead to a demand of self-determination. Therefore, the Pakistani state has always imposed a “supra ethnic glue” of Islam on the entire country.
Genuine Engagement Is What Pak Has Failed At
The ironic assumption on part of the state here, that self-determination will always lead to secession, does not speak highly of its self-esteem. If it thought of itself as genuinely benign, fair, and paternal, it could reasonably expect smaller nations to opt for sticking under its protective umbrella. But the state of Pakistan seems to have decided that because it is more of a stepmother, smaller nations will exit given the first opportunity.
Genuine engagement is the one thing Pakistan has never tried with the Baloch. Deceit and force have been the means of choice to deal with the Baloch problem. From forcible annexation in 1948 to luring Nawab Nouroz Khan down from the mountains under the oath of the Quran and then imprisoning him in 1959, to repeated brutal pulverisation of uprisings, to decades of enforced disappearances, Pakistan has never changed tack.
On Wednesday, Baloch student Bebagr Imdad was abducted from the Punjab University in Lahore – ostensibly in an act of vengeance and spirit of collective punishment.
Unfortunately, the new civilian government, too, is unwilling to understand and address the actual grievances of the Baloch beyond throwing promises of “development” at them.
(Gul Bukhari is a Pakistani journalist and rights activist. She tweets @GulBukhari. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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