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Why young, educated Baloch are joining separatist groups?

SAMAA | - Posted: Jul 4, 2020 | Last Updated: 1 month ago
Posted: Jul 4, 2020 | Last Updated: 1 month ago
Why young, educated Baloch are joining separatist groups?

Policemen guard a car used by alleged gunmen outside the Pakistan Stock Exchange building in Karachi on June 29, 2020. (AFP)

Four men tried to storm the Pakistan Stock Exchange, the hub of economic activities of the country, on June 29. At least three people, including two security guards and a policeman, were killed in the incident. The attack, claimed by the outlawed Balochistan Liberation Army, was thwarted by the Karachi police.

The BLA has been active in various parts of Balochistan since early 2000s. It has targeted the security forces and non-Baloch individuals in remote areas of the province, but the recent attack on the PSX in Karachi shows that they have attained the capability to operate and target outside the province.

This is the second attack by the separatist group in Karachi. On November 23, 2018, the group targeted the Chinese consulate, killing four people, including two police guards.

But what is more worrying for the law enforcement agencies is the fact that more and more educated youth are joining banned separatist groups.

The investigation agencies have identified the four attackers who carried out the June 29 attack on PSX. Salman Hammal was one of them. In his late 20s, he was “reasonably educated,” says the head of Counter-Terrorism Department in Sindh.

“Salman was educated,” Sindh CTD head Dr Jamil Ahmed told SAMAA Digital. “He must be an intermediate-pass if not a graduate.”

His observation was corroborated by an intelligence official. “A look at his social media account will tell you that he was an educated man,” the official said requesting anonymity. “He had interest in poetry.”

The officials described the involvement of educated young men in militancy as “alarming and dangerous”.

Security personnel gather at the main entrance of the Pakistan Stock Exchange building in Karachi on June 29, 2020. (AFP)

One of the three militants who attacked the Chinese consulate in November was also an educated man. “It is a disturbing trend,” the intelligence official said, admitting that the separatists’ narrative is spreading among the youth. However, he didn’t elaborate on the reason behind it.

These are not the only cases where young, educated Baloch men were involved. In May, the BLA said that two of its men, Shahdad Baloch and Ehsan Baloch, had died in a clash with security forces. Both of them were the students of Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad.

Shahdad, according to a QAU student, was doing MPhil from the varsity’s National Institute of Pakistan Studies.

“We were in the same department,” the student told SAMAA Digital. He requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter. “I always had a very non-serious impression of him,” he said, describing Shahdad as an “average student, but active reader”.

Like everyone else, he did not know what prompted Shahdad to join the BLA. “He also had problems with authority whether it was university administration or someone else.”

Soon after the killing of Shahdad and Ehsan, an old video clip of Hamid Mir’s Capital Talk show from 2016 went viral on the social media. The programme was shot in an auditorium of Quaid-e-Azam University and the then federal minister for planning and development Ahsan Iqbal was the guest.

The video shows Shahdad questioning Iqbal about the CPEC projects in Balochistan.

“We had Reko Diq, Saindak and Sui Gas [but] all these projects couldn’t change the fate of Balochistan and its people, how can the CPEC change the fate of Balochistan,” he asked the minister. “Every government comes and takes something in the name of giving, so my question is would we get anything from the CPEC or not?”

One assumption that anyone can draw from the video is that Shahdad wasn’t really happy with the state of his province.

The separatist elements oppose Chinese investment projects in Balochistan and see China as an “occupying power”.

“Stock exchange of any country holds a national significance,” the head of Sindh CTD said. “People from all over the world invest in the Pakistan Stock Exchange and Chinese have also invested there.”

Dr Ahmed said the country’s economy was the real target of the BLA attack. “If the market had crashed after the attack, the people would have stopped investments and the economy would have been harmed.”

However, the authorities look reluctant to even comment on the role of educated youth in militancy despite admitting that it is a “big problem”.

“You have to visit Balochistan to see the ground realities and study why the educated boys are getting involved in it,” the Sindh CTD chief said. “I can’t tell you the exact situation because I haven’t served there.

“It’s not a good sign. The educated youth should not become a part of extremist and militant organizations,” Dr Ahmed said. “They should play their role in the country’s development.”

Crew members of a Chinese ship take pictures with Pakistani security officials in Gwadar. (File photo: AFP)

Not by choice

Baloch students say that they don’t want to get involved in militancy, but many of them are compelled to do so.

“The separatists’ narrative is not very popular among the students,” a Baloch student from Turbat told SAMAA Digital. “But we are compelled to think in that direction.”

Students are demanding access to internet in Quetta. (File photo: SAMAA TV)

People are getting abducted and tortured in Balochistan, said the student, who is currently studying in Karachi. However, she stopped short of naming the abductors. Her fiancé, she said, had disappeared for a month in 2018 after he participated in a protest for the missing persons.

For the 27-year-old, it is the “deprivation” that is compelling people to desire for ‘freedom’. “There is no electricity in various areas of Balochistan till today,” she said. “I can’t speak to my family back home there because they have to climb up the mountains to get mobile network signals.

“We still use gas cylinders despite having gas field in the province,” the student said.

Enforced disappearances and the need for mainstreaming

Analysts say enforced disappearances in the province are a major factor that is pushing students to join militant groups.

“They use missing persons, disparity and deprivation as an argument to recruit young men and justify their actions,” Amir Rana, a security and political analyst, told SAMAA Digital.

Akhtar Mengal’s Balochistan National Party parted ways with the PTI-led government last month and one of its reasons was the missing persons. “I think his demands were legitimate… he demanded recovery of missing persons and Balochistan’s due share in the CPEC,” Rana said.

Mengal, the former chief minister of Balochistan, had told BBC Urdu in an interview that at least 1,500 people have disappeared in the two years of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government, while only 418 people returned to their homes.

Rana believes that the state needs to start a reconciliation process in Balochistan to stop the recruitment of young men by militant groups.

“They should first reconcile with the political parties and then with reconcilable militants,” the analyst said. “Mainstreaming is necessary.”

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Balochistan, Pakistan, militants, Pakistan Stock Exchange, PSX, BLA, militance, enforced disappearances, students
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