She was also very vocal about her support for
the Baloch nationalist movement, which seeks a separate homeland for Pakistan’s ethnic Baloch minority. She blamed the Pakistani army for the widespread human rights violations in Balochistan, including killing one of her uncles. In response to her and
other activists, Islamabad vehemently denies these charges and blames India
for fueling the insurgency in the province via Afghanistan.
Pakistan found the peaceful democratic resistance more difficult to control than
the ongoing armed one, mainly because many women — whose sons, brothers and husbands had been subjected to enforced disappearances by the Pakistani security forces — began to relate to Ms. Baloch’s voice. They found hope and a mission in
her message as she gave them a reason to unite and mobilize for justice. She also inspired and mentored a new generation of young female activists in the conservative Baloch society that had no precedence of women coming out of their homes or participating
in politics, let alone resisting the ruling elite. Many of the activists she prepared have now transitioned from their roles as activists to leaders, campaigners, and community mobilizers, such as Dr Mahrang Baloch, a fearless campaigner for
the rights of women, students, and fellow citizens who has also drawn praise for her activism.
THE “MISGUIDED” BALOCH YOUTH?
To discredit activists like Ms. Baloch, Islamabad, and sections of the right-wing media, label them “misguided youth” that is allegedly funded
by India. Despite having no concrete evidence of Indian funding, these official narratives encourage security forces to unleash and then justify extrajudicial methods to break the Baloch rebellion. But the more forcefully Pakistan tried to defeat the Baloch
resistance, the more young people joined the movement and denounced Pakistani security forces in Balochistan.
Amid the crisis and her own activism,
Ms. Baloch found a leadership opportunity. She became the head of the Baloch Students Organization (BSO), becoming the first
woman to lead the student organization in its 70-year history. Pakistan, however, banned the BSO,
accusing it of supporting the Baloch separatist movement. In 2016, the BBC listed Ms. Baloch in its coveted list of 100 inspirational
and influential women of the year because she “campaigns for independence for Balochistan from Pakistan.”
Even in exile, Ms. Baloch continued her criticism of the Pakistani military through public speeches, interviews, and social media. While
Canada had provided her shelter from Pakistan since 2015, according to her family, threats continued to come. So when she died, her supporters raised fingers toward Pakistan because this was the second incident in a single year when an exiled Baloch activist/journalist
was found dead in a river, the other being journalist Sajid Baloch in
Sweden in March 2020. In both cases, local police ruled out any criminal activity, but distrust between the Baloch and Islamabad remains so deep that the Baloch opposition blames Pakistan for both deaths.
PRIORITIZING POLITICAL DIALOGUE OVER FORCE
Ms. Baloch’s supporters were enraged and disappointed when Pakistani authorities refused to give them the dead body for the planned funeral. Instead, armed security forces drove her body to her hometown, seemingly to prevent her supporters from attending
the funeral. The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan termed the government’s handling of Ms. Baloch’s funeral as “disgraceful,” mirroring “the [Pakistani] state’s attitude towards Balochistan and its people.” Even though
Pakistan has been hard hit by
the global pandemic, authorities did not use coronavirus as a reason to stop the funeral. Her brother said the
body was “illegally and forcefully” escorted by the Pakistani security forces, proving that “a mighty nuclear Pakistan’s Islamic state is shaken by a dead body of a Baloch woman.”
After Ms. Baloch’s supporters were prevented from having a large funeral for her, Balochistan’s Finance Minister, Zahoor Ahmed Buledai blamed the opposition for “playing politics” and politicizing her burial. The mishandling of Ms. Baloch’s body has triggered widespread criticism from Pakistan’s
opposition leaders, including moderates who do not necessarily endorse Ms. Baloch’s separatist politics. For example, Sardar Akhtar Mengal, a former chief minister of Balochistan and a member of Pakistan’s parliament and overall moderate, reacted: “This is Balochistan; there are restrictions in my motherland, restrictions on my thoughts, my tongue, on my
coffin, and my grave.”
In the absence of actual political dialogue between the two sides, social media — especially Twitter —
has become a meeting point for trading allegations, presenting narratives and counter-narratives, and calling each other “foreign agents.” But most Pakistanis don’t know much about these ongoing tensions and the violence in Balochistan
because of a near blackout of the events in the mainstream national media. While some of
the world’s top media outlets, such as The Guardian, BBC, Voice of America, CNN, Al Jazeera, reported Ms. Baloch’s death, most of Pakistan’s mainstream newspapers
and news channels did not report it either due to the fear of reprisal from the military or a lack of interest in stories related to Balochistan. Likewise, despite international coverage of Ms. Baloch’s killing, only some local officials in the Balochistan
government acknowledged the death but Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan
has not issued a statement, indicating the matter’s insignificance for Islamabad.
Ms. Baloch’s death will likely deepen the Balochistan
crisis and widen the gap between the province and Islamabad. Pakistan has squandered repeated opportunities to initiate dialogue with the Baloch nationalists and take confidence-building measures to address the Baloch grievances. The more Islamabad delays
a broad-based dialogue, the more it will push the younger generation of the Baloch into the separatist camp because not only is Pakistan too late in starting negotiations, but it is persistently reliant on a military solution toward an issue that can best
be addressed through political dialogue.
02 Feb 21/ Tuesday