Forced disappearances
of Baloch students

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By Zahid Hussain

FREQUENT reports of abductions of Baloch students from universities across the country allegedly by security agencies have triggered widespread protests, and the spectacle of the police brutally beating up families of missing students and other protesters in Karachi last week caused nationwide outrage. 

The issue of forced disappearances has plagued Pakistan’s troubled Balochistan province for decades. Yet the latest surge in cases of illegal detentions of Baloch students in other parts of the country marks a new trend in the state’s policy to deal with the separatist movement in the province. 

It follows a new wave of terrorist attacks, claimed by Baloch insurgent groups, in and outside the province. Several students have been picked up from campuses in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi over the past few months. Among them are also some female students. They have not been produced before any court of law. 

These draconian actions have worsened an already volatile situation in the province. The use of force to suppress the protests have fueled resentment. Such blatant violations of basic human and democratic rights may push people to radicalization. Rights groups have accused the administration of “racial profiling” of Baloch students enrolled in various universities in different parts of the country. 

Doda Ellahi and Ghamshad Baloch return home after the demonstration and police action in Karachi last Monday.

Most of the victims of latest forced disappearances belong to poor families from backward areas of Balochistan and studying in the country’s top universities on scholarship. For example, Hafeez Baloch who was taken away by security agencies in March this year was an MPhil student at the Physics department of Quaid-e-Azam University Islamabad. The family is so poor that it cannot even fight the case in court. The story of other abductees is not very different.

In order to address the grievances of Baloch students, the Chief Justice Islamabad High Court has directed the President of Pakistan to ensure the security of Baloch students on university campuses and that no racial profiling takes place. But that has not stopped the abductions.

Hundreds of people have gone missing over the years in Balochistan. Security agencies do not deny their role in the disappearances and say that they are going after “militants.” But they also maintain that not every person missing is attributable to the state. According to them, some of the missing persons may have joined ‘rebel groups’ waging war on the Pakistani state. 

It may be true, yet it does not justify illegal actions against them. There have been many chilling stories about fathers, brothers and sons who have vanished without a trace over the years. For the past many years, families have been protesting and have gone to courts to find their missing relatives to no avail. 

In 2019, the Ministry of Human Rights drafted a bill to criminalize enforced disappearances, raising hopes that this unlawful practice would end. The draft however, has since disappeared and there is no likelihood of the proposed law being enacted any time soon.

A crowd outside the Karachi Press Club protesting for the recovery of two Baloch Students on last Sunday.

For long, the Baloch people have had very genuine grievances, but instead of these being addressed, force has been deployed to suppress their protests. The general approach adopted by the Pakistani state toward any dissent in the region has been that of force, often disproportionate to the threat.

It is in these circumstances that many among the Baloch, who lost hope in the political struggle, made the decision to join armed groups. Most Baloch nationalists in fact, had rejected the idea of secession and struggled for autonomy within the constitutional framework of the federation. However, state repression had the effect of pushing many moderates towards radical elements, as a result of which the province now stands dangerously polarized. Extrajudicial killings and the illegal detention of political activists have further fueled alienation.

What is most alarming, is the number of young recruits being drawn into militancy. A large number of them come from educated backgrounds; they feel politically alienated and see little hope for their future. The latest surge in terrorist attacks in the country is ominous. 

The use of kinetic power may contain the insurgency but will do little to win the trust of an alienated population or effectively establish the state’s authority, making it a conducive ground for militants. Winning the confidence of the people is the only way to defeat militancy in Balochistan.

(Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson Centre and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with Militant Islam and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan. Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ. His latest book ‘No-Win War’ was published this year. Twitter: @hidhussain)