Students at the University of Balochistan in the Pakistani city of Quetta have been staging a sit-in, resulting in all academic activities being halted, for almost three weeks. Protests started on November 7 after the enforced disappearance of two students of the university, who were allegedly abducted from the campus.
Faseeh Baloch and Sohail Baloch went missing on November 1. Since then, their fellow students have been protesting, day and night in the biting cold outside the university. The demonstrators say they won’t stop unless the missing students are released.
Negotiations between the students and the university administration took place on November 9 but failed to reach a solution. Afterwards, students from the Baloch Student Organization (BSO) locked the gates of the university and announced that all academic activities, including the semester examinations, would be halted until the missing students were recovered.
Later, on November 11, a committee formed by the government met with the students with similarly inconclusive results.
“We have had two meetings with the representatives of the government,” Zubair Baloch, chairman of BSO Pajjar, a faction of the BSO, told The Diplomat. “In the first sitting, they assured us that the missing students would be recovered by 16 November. We paused our demonstration on 13 November, but in the second meeting, they had no information whatsoever about the whereabouts of the missing students.
“Hence we have now resumed our protests, which will only end after the missing students are recovered.”
The issue of the disappearances of the students was also raised in the Balochistan Assembly.
This isn’t the first time that Baloch students have been abducted; however, the enforced disappearances of Faseeh and Sohail came as a shock as the students went missing from within the university campus, which has a heavy deployment of security forces, including housing a base of the Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force.
Balochistan, Pakistan’s geographically largest but poorest province, has been wracked by an insurgent movement for the last two decades. Paramilitary forces are a common sight throughout Balochistan; even educational institutions are not free from the militarization.
Enforced disappearances are widely believed to be a part of the state’s counterinsurgency operations. Victims of enforced disappearances range from insurgents and family members of insurgents to political workers and even students. Anyone who is merely suspected of sympathizing with insurgents is at risk of being whisked away.
In a recent report titled “Living Ghosts,” the human rights group Amnesty International documented the practice of enforced disappearances in Pakistan and urged Pakistani authorities to end its use as a tool of state policy. The report consists of interviews with 10 family members of victims of enforced disappearances who are still missing to date. The report discusses at length the difficulties faced by the family members in using the legal system to locate their loved ones, the intimidation and threats they faced for their activism against the practice, and the impact of the issue on their mental well-being.
As the insurgency has gained momentum over the past few years, there has been an increase in cases of enforced disappearances. Pakistan’s military, however, denies any involvement. In 2019, the director general of Inter-Services Public Relations, the publicity arm of the Pakistani military, tweeted, “Our hearts beat with families of every missing person. We share their pain and we are with them in the process of tracing them.”
On November 26, the office of the registrar of University of Balochistan released a notification announcing the closure of the university until the recovery of the two missing students. “All academic and administrative functions will remain suspended,” the notification said, adding that students must vacate all hostels within three days.
Baloch Student Activism
The missing students are members of the BSO, a student organization that was founded to campaign for the rights of Baloch students in 1967. The BSO has been responsible for birthing many prominent Baloch politicians. Student leaders of the BSO have later gone on to participate in the politics of the country, many being elected to the National Assembly or becoming the chief minister of the province. Dr. Abdul Malik Baloch, the chief minister of Balochistan from June 2013 to December 2015, is a prominent example.
Senator Muhammad Akram Dashti, who served as the speaker of the Balochistan Assembly, was also actively involved in student politics. He has raised the issue of the abduction of Baloch students in the Pakistani Senate.
He told The Diplomat, “The abduction of Baloch youth, this counterinsurgency tactic, will yield dire negative consequences. Student politics has played a vital role in the politics of Balochistan and has always remained a secular, progressive, and nationalist practice. Balochistan is already a neglected province, this crackdown against the student activists will only further embolden the feelings of alienation and neglect.”
“The security establishment hasn’t till date understood how to deal with the issues of Balochistan and how to address the grievances of the province,” Dashti added. “The security establishment often claims that no one is missing or the Baloch students abducted have links with the insurgency movement, but even if that’s the case, enforced disappearances isn’t the answer. If the state has any allegations against any of the students or anyone, they should take the legal procedure against them and present them in front of the courts”
Students of Balochistan have been on the forefront of protests in major events in the past few years, on many occasions leading to fruitful results. In 2019, widespread protests by students against a sexual harassment scandal at the University of Balochistan resulted in the resignation of the university’s vice chancellor. The killing of a Baloch student, Hayat Baloch, by FC personnel; the murder of Malik Naz Baloch at the hands of a member of a “death squad”; and the issues with online classes during the pandemic in Balochistan, which lacks internet facilities – these are few examples that led students to mobilize and stage protests for their rights.
“If anyone is doing politics that has some impact in Balochistan, then that’s the Baloch students, but they face a lot of issues: There’s [the] academic burden, [and a] lack of facilities,” said Dr. Sabiha Baloch, chairperson of the Baloch Student Action Committee (BSAC). Students undertake political activism to defend their rights, but in doing so, they face a great deal of pressure. “All the students protesting in UoB are threatened, calls are made to their parents with threats,” she said.
Baloch Women and Student Politics
Balochistan is a highly conservative, tribal, and patriarchal region, where women have restricted rights. However with the recent rise in enforced disappearances of Baloch men, it is the Baloch women who are filling the void created in the province’s political scene, including leading protests against enforced disappearances. Today, Baloch women have a far greater presence in the politics of the province, and much of it comes in the form of activism by Baloch women students.
Last month, two young children were allegedly killed in a mortar attack by the Pakistan security forces, which led to protests by the family in Turbat and later on in Quetta, where they staged their protest with the dead bodies. Women were once again at the forefront of these protests: they shouldered the dead bodies of the children when they were finally laid down to rest. In a region where women are confined to their homes, such an act is nothing less than a rebellion. When Karima Baloch, the first women chairperson of the BSO, mysteriously died last year in Canada, Baloch women walked dozens of kilometers to take part in her last rites.
Sabiha Baloch is the first female chairperson of the BSAC; however she has had to endure a lot of pressure ever since taking the responsibility.
“I belong to a tribal region, and I had to keep my activism a secret for a very long time,” she said. “To date my family is pressurized with constant taunts hurled at my father in our tribe. Everyone says to him ‘your daughter is doing politics.’ They see my activism as a crime because I am a woman.”
Baloch women student activists thus bear the brunt of a dual oppression.
Student activists, especially women, fear not only for their own safety but also for the safety of their loved ones.
Sabiha’s 19-year-old brother, Shahmir Baloch, a student of Balochistan University of Engineering and Technology Khuzdhar, was abducted from the university premises along with some other students who were later released.
“The day my brother was abducted, I had talked to him on call in the morning. He told me he had received a call threatening him that they’ll abduct me and telling him that ‘your sister is a terrorist,’” she recounted. “I asked him not to worry about me. We consoled each other but I had no idea they would abduct my brother – he has never been involved in student politics.”
After the abduction of her brother, Sabiha was under a lot of pressure from her family to resign from her position. She said she decided to halt her activism and even offer her resignation if that would mean the safe release of her brother.
Despite her efforts, the release of her brother was delayed time and again. Three months later, her cousin, Murtaza Baloch, was abducted too. Murtaza was released last week, but Shahmir is still missing.
“When a female student leaves her home, she rebels against the norms of the tribal and patriarchal society,” said Sadia Baloch, a student activist from Balochistan (no relation to Sabiha). “She faces hostile behavior from administration and after all this, when she emerges as a student activist figure, there is oppression from the state and a collective punishment is given.”
“Sabiha Baloch’s brother and cousin were abducted solely because she is a student activist. This is to send across a silent message to anyone resisting,” said Sadia.
“If silencing myself would bring back my brother I am ready for that, but I know it wouldn’t because this is just a tactic – a collective punishment and a strategy to silence us from speaking for our rights,” Sabiha said. “They are abducting students from areas where they want to develop pressure. Zehri, Khuzdhar, Kharan, Nushki, Panjgur – every day you will receive news of enforced disappearances from these areas.
“The cases that are reported on social media are just the tip of the iceberg, the majority of the cases are not even reported.”
Back to the Past – or a New Future?
Many Baloch student activists express concern on the mass abduction of students, fearing that security forces are looking to undo the progress the movement has made over the last few years.
“Once again an atmosphere of fear is being built in Balochistan, much like 2009 times when one would think twice before calling themselves a Baloch out of fear of abduction,” Sabiha said. “From 2018-2021, the progress that was made via the movement to break free from the shackles of fear, whereby we had the hope that our protests would bear fruit in case someone is abducted or for any other issue – those chains of fear are once again being tied.”
Still, the official announcement of the closure of the university until the missing students are recovered is a silent acknowledgment from the administration of the resilience of the Baloch students, who remain unshakable, unmovable, and undefeatable.
Balochistan has seen a recent wave of protests from Gwadar to Quetta for the rights of the people and against enforced disappearances. Yet the protests and rallies in Balochistan don’t get any coverage in the mainstream media and Pakistani politicians avoid the issues troubling the country’s largest province.
In his latest article, “History and Truth,” author Aasim Sajjad Akthar writes, “it may have been said many times but it must be said again: Balochistan continues to be treated little better than a colony in contemporary Pakistan.”
In the words of Senator Dashti, “The state must not repeat the mistakes of the past. Instead of a crackdown against student activists, the state must engage with the youth of Balochistan and address their grievances. Balochistan should not be treated as a colony. That’s the only solution to the mistakes of the past – by safeguarding the rights of the future.”