Karima Baloch’s journey

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‘It is mine, the decision to go back to Balochistan any time I want is mine. I won’t let Pakistan make that decision for me.’ These were Karima Baloch’s words to the BBC in 2016. Even in exile, Karima insisted she had never left her homeland, and despite all the threats and harassment from Pakistan’s security forces, she never deterred from her activism or speaking up for the rights of her Baloch brethren back home. Needless to say, she never let Pakistan make any decision for her.

Karima first appeared on the scene in her youth when she stood at the front of a missing persons’ rally in Turbat, clutching the photos of one of her relatives, who had been ‘picked up’ by Pakistani forces. Within a few years, she would rise in the ranks of the Baloch Student Organisation (BSO) and would be the first ever woman to lead them, even after it was outlawed by the Pakistan government in 2013.

Karima was a path breaker. In a society where women were not allowed to unveil or take part in public protests, Karima normalised the participation of women in Balochistan’s turbulent politics and brought women to the forefront. She knew that the Baloch needed unity and equality among themselves first and foremost before demanding the same from the Pakistani state. She wanted to dismantle the patriarchal structure of Baloch society so that women too could play their part in the Baloch struggle.

As expected, it wasn’t long before she made it to the radar of Pakistan’s security establishment that has ruled Balochistan by proxy for decades and whose paramilitary outfits have been trying to quell the latest iteration of the insurgency for a decade and a half. She was charged in relation to her activism for the missing Baloch, and continuously harassed and threatened. Security forces raided her house repeatedly to arrest her, and it was also once the target of a mortar attack. As the situation escalated, Karima had to opt for self-imposed exile to Canada in 2015. “I knew that what happened to my colleagues back home could have happened to me as well,” she told the BBC at the time.

Yet she continued with her activism undeterred. The threats also never stopped. Her brother, Sameer Mehrab, also in Canada, thinks they were often being watched, owing to the vivid detail the caller would sometimes describe her daily activities in. An ordinary person would have been afraid, Karima wasn’t. As she neared gaining refugee status in Canada, her uncle was abducted in Balochistan, and she was ordered to give up her life in exile and return to Pakistan, or her uncle would be killed. His dead body was dumped on the day Karima was to appear before a judge for her asylum case.

Just before her death, she had received more cryptic threats, according to a friend and fellow activist. An anonymous phone call had threatened that someone would send her ‘a Christmas gift’ and ‘teach her a lesson’. Her body was discovered in Toronto’s Lake Ontario on 21st of December. The police ruled out foul play, but her family has urged them to reconsider, owing to Karima’s history and the nature of these threats.

The manner in which her body was confiscated at Karachi airport and taken to her hometown of Tump in district Kech under tight security and buried under strict curfew is just another sad episode in the disgraceful manner in which the Pakistani security forces have managed to suppress Baloch dissent. It also raises more questions than it answers. Needless to say, these shenanigans will only add fuel to a fire that threatens to burn out of control. While the official narrative is that ‘all is well’ in Balochistan, the truth is that such measures only expose the façade for what it is and betray the paranoia with which the Pakistani state views the Baloch struggle.

It seems futile to go into detail of why the Baloch continue to resist. Their struggle, like most indigenous struggles, is rooted in the dispossession, displacement and exploitation of the locals by an overbearing state apparatus. The Baloch want ownership of their land, control over their affairs and a fair and equitable share in the resources of the province, or at least to reap some of the benefits from their utilization. Yet even that seems too much to ask from the Pakistani state. Forever obsessed with preserving Pakistan’s borders, it paradoxically continues to contribute to everything that destabilises it.

Bullet-riddled bodies are dumped on the roadsides, young men are rounded up and ‘disappeared’ merely on suspicion during ‘search operations’, never to be seen again, and the Baloch are kept under panoptic surveillance by the Pakistani security apparatus. Apparently, a close watch was kept on Karima, even in exile. Chinese hegemonic designs have only added to the toxic brew, with measures being taken to ensure security such as fences being erected in Gwadar, making the Baloch prisoners or outcasts in their own province. District Kech is one of the hotbeds of the insurgency, and nearly every family has lost a member to it. Many still await the fate of their loved ones. State-sponsored death squads run amok in the province, and paramilitaries operate with little oversight and similar impunity.

Like East Pakistan before this, it appears the Pakistani security establishment knows only the ‘hammer and tongs’ approach to a problem that is essentially political in nature. A bigger pity is that this time also, there seems to be no one in Pakistan’s political sphere urging restraint, which tells you all you need to know about how far removed from Baloch realities Pakistan’s mainstream politics are, and the total control which the security establishment enjoys over the internal and external affairs of the country. We all watch as silent spectators as Balochistan, and in turn Pakistan, hurtles towards the abyss.

Karima Baloch’s death has immortalised her as a symbol of resistance for the Baloch struggle. She has paved the way for a new consciousness in the Baloch; a young, educated and articulate dissident whose ideology is rooted in logic, reason and an unwavering dedication to the cause despite all the threats and intimidation. Moreover, this political consciousness is inextricably tied to the soil. Karima was right; she had never left her homeland. As she did in exile, she will continue to haunt the Pakistani state in death.