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On 26 April 2022, Shari Baloch, a 31-year-old teacher, mother of two children and a post-graduate philosophy student, blew herself up in front of a van carrying Chinese teachers near the Confucius Institute in the southern seaport city of Karachi. She carried the explosives in a handbag. The Majeed Brigade, a lethal guerrilla cell of the banned Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), claimed responsibility for the suicide attack that killed four in Karachi.
Two things are noteworthy. Firstly, the suicide bomber was a well-educated lady and a mother of two. The guess is that she hailed from an urbane segment of Baloch society. This means that the canard spread by Islamabad hawks that illiterate and uncouth Baloch are the rioters and hooligans indulging in acts of insurgency is falsified by the incident at hand. It proves that the urge for the liberation of Balochistan from the stranglehold of the Punjabi-controlled army is a desire burning in the hearts of Baloch of all strata of society. The oft-repeated narrative of the Islamabad hawks that India is involved in the ‘disturbance’ in Balochistan has no takers in most parts of the world. Moreover, the victory of the Taliban over the American and NATO forces in Afghanistan and their re-capture of political power have given a new dimension to the Balochistan Liberation Army’s ambitions and strategy. Belatedly, rabid anti-India segments in Pakistan society have begun to realize that the indigenous freedom movement in Balochistan is toxically impacting its foreign policy as well as its economic parameters.
Secondly, the suicide attack of 26th April was not essentially directed against either the army or the police and security personnel as is the case ordinarily. It was exclusively meant to attack and kill the Chinese functionaries/teachers who, of late, are seen in Sindh and southern Pakistan in ever-increasing numbers. Yes, some civilians also get killed in the process without being the targets.
The killing of four Chinese functionaries on the 26th of April is neither the first nor will it be the last. The Baloch nationalist elements including the BLA consider the Chinese as partners in the loot of their natural resources, undertaking perfidious acts with the connivance and collaboration of Punjabi dominated Pakistani army and civil administration. They jointly plan schemes to deprive the Baloch of their rights to the land and its resources. The Gwadar seaport, the CPEC, the B&R initiatives and Sui gas management etc. are interpreted in the Baloch nationalist circles as means to drain Balochistan of its huge natural resources and keep its people pegged to poverty, backwardness and deprivation.
Hours after the BLA operative detonated the explosive-laden bag in front of the approaching van carrying the Chinese the militant group told an international news channel that the female operative targeted the Confucius institute, which they believed was a “symbol of Chinese economic, cultural and political expansionism. It will give a clear message to China that its presence in Balochistan will not be tolerated.”
China’s Foreign Ministry strongly condemned and expressed “great indignation over this major terrorist attack” and called on Pakistani authorities to “resolutely crackdown on the terrorist organizations involved.” Quoting the Chinese Foreign Ministry, FM Shakil wrote in Asia Times on 2 May that “The blood of the Chinese people should not be shed in vain and those behind this incident will pay the price.”
Tracing the history of Baloch attacks on Chinese workers in Pakistan, Shakil informs us that the BLA has carried out at least eight attacks this year including two major gun-and-bomb suicide attacks on Frontier Corps camps in Panjgur and Nushki districts, killing at least 12 soldiers. In 2018, the BLA orchestrated a suicide attack on the Chinese consulate in the Pakistani port city of Karachi, killing at least four people. In 2020, the group targeted the Pakistan Stock Exchange building in Karachi. At least three security guards and a police sub-inspector were killed, while seven people were injured during the attack. Chinese companies have a major shareholding in the Karachi stock exchange.
A dispassionate analysis of BLA’s guerilla attacks gives a clear indication that the Baloch insurgency is becoming an escalating problem for the Pakistani state. Mansur Khan Mahsud, executive director of the Islamabad-based FATA Research Centre (FRC), an independent think tank, told Asia Times “It has changed from a low-level insurgency to a serious and bloody one. Baloch insurgency is now a highly charged insurgency equipped with a suicidal squad by the name of the Maji Brigade composed of men and women suicide bombers.” Mansur revealed that the Baloch insurgency is not confined to Balochistan but has spread to other provinces of Pakistan as well. During the past couple of years, three major attacks on Chinese nationals had been carried out in Sindh province alone. The recent incident may not be the last, Mansur added.
For decades, Islamabad is locked in a violent stalemate with the Baloch especially the nationalist tribes of Bugtis and Mengals and others whom Islamabad rulers have subjected to severe repression. ‘Disappearance’ of suspects has become the main weapon used by the Punjabi-ruled armed forces.
Pakistani observers say that the latest attack marks an intensification of the decades-old Baloch insurgency that is locked in a violent stalemate with Islamabad and, by association with Beijing as the financier of various China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) related infrastructure projects in Balochistan province. Mushahid Husain Sayed, a Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz senator and chairperson of the Senate Defense Committee, told Asia Times. “Running the province by remote control and constant power plays is a tried, tested and failed formula, as people feel alienated.”
There is another important dimension to the Baloch armed liberation movement. It is reported that no fewer than 200 items of weaponry left behind by the fleeing Americans in Afghanistan have fallen in the hands of BLA via their Taliban sympathizers. This will improve the firing and attacking capacity and strategy of the BLA. The growing differences between the Taliban of Afghanistan and the Pakistan Army on the issue of the Durand Line demarcation give the BLA better opportunities of cementing ties with supportive sections of the Taliban. At the same time, in all probability, strategic collaboration between the BLA and the TTP will also be one of the developments resulting from the conflicted situation in Pakistan. Senator Mushahid said that terror groups can strike at will in Karachi, Dasu, Gwadar and anywhere in the country because “security warnings often go unheeded, counterterrorism systems are outmoded and intelligence-sharing and coordination were abysmally weak, with the result that such incidents were not prevented.”
Senator Mushahid wants to say indirectly that law and order in the country are almost on the verge of a collapse. Pakistan’s army is in a political mess. Internal dissension at the organizational level makes it difficult for the army to devise any strategy that could provide a feasible solution to the Baloch ethnic uprising. Interestingly, many countries friendly to Pakistan, though wary of violence, are now paying more heed to the genuine grievances of the oppressed and terrorized Baloch population. The recent political turmoil in Pakistan has immensely strengthened the Baloch cause on the international scene.