As Pakistan remains absorbed in post-Imran Khan politics, little thought is given to other critical developments. The mainstream media in the country seems to have underplayed the suicide attack by a 30-year-old Baloch woman at Karachi University that killed three Chinese language instructors and a Pakistani driver. Most of the discussion has so far been in the form of condemnation. The attack went beyond targeting innocent civilians — it killed Chinese language teachers who were contributing to building bilateral ties between the two societies and the States.
Besides the initial reports on the incident, the overall policy remains to brush the development under the carpet. My own effort to write an article — an academic discussion of the event — in a Pakistani newspaper was discouraged due to perceived nervousness regarding the topic. Those at the helm of affairs would rather silence the debate than talk about it. It is not as if terrorism or suicide bombing or deploying women in this role is new for Pakistan. Even religious-extremist militants deployed female bombers in three different incidents in 2010 and 2011. However, the use of suicide and woman attacker as a tool gives a fillip to Baloch insurgency, turning it into an issue that can no longer be ignored.
Not that the Baloch separatists, like other insurgents that use suicide as a weapon, will achieve their political objective or that these attacks would weaken the Pakistani State. But it is important to note that the Baloch insurgency can no longer be tucked away in Balochistan from where it was barely noticeable. The media gag in the southwestern province is meant to stop dissemination of information in the territory but also news about it in the rest of the country.
Shari Baloch’s death may be an act of terrorism but it rips through the silence that the State had enforced about the area. In April 2015, the Pakistan Army forced the Lahore University of Management Sciences to cancel a moot on Balochistan. Later that month, a Karachi-based activist Sabeen Mehmud was shot dead while returning home after hosting a discussion on Balochistan.
The shift in Baloch insurgency
There are three dimensions linked with the latest attack. First, Baloch Liberation Army’s Majeed Brigade, with whom the attacker Shari Baloch was linked, consciously shifted the fulcrum of its battle to urban Pakistan, and that too to a city where they would get the maximum splash. Indeed, this was not the first suicide mission by this group in Karachi, the country’s largest metropolis. The first mission in Karachi was carried out against the Chinese consulate in 2018 followed by another attack on the Pearl Continent hotel in 2019, and then another one on the stock exchange in 2020.
The group may find it harder to take the battle to cities in Punjab. However, the security agencies will find it difficult to secure the capital of Sindh because, unlike Lahore or cities in other parts of the country, Karachi is very much a Baloch city as well. Historically, the Talpur rulers of Sindh acquired the area, where the British later built the port city of Karachi, in 1795 from the Khanate of Kalat. Since the port city was integrated with the fishing economy of the Makran coast, the Baloch were among the earliest settlers in the city. Today, there is a sizeable number of Baloch living in Karachi, which is connected with Balochistan through almost over 130 big and small routes. This makes constant and complete monitoring a difficult task.
Second, the use of suicide as a method of choice is a turning point in terms of denoting a substantive escalation in anger of the insurgents and determination to attain a level of equality in an otherwise unequal politico-military contest. Unlike religious militants, for whom suicide is more an endpoint to seek gratification in life hereafter, political insurgents view it purely as a military option to maximise gains against an uncompromising State. In this context, introduction of suicide mission in an insurgency is equivalent to a ‘poor man’s choice’ to attain a perceived balance in an imbalanced political contestation versus superior State forces.
It also comes at the back of an understanding that the State has no sympathy for the political cause of the insurgents. From the assassination of Nawab Akbar Bugti by the Pervez Musharraf military government in 2006 to deaths and disappearance of thousands of Baloch, the patience seems to have run out. It is not likely that those who are invested in the idea of fighting will pay heed to Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari’s call to Baloch youth for peace. There is a huge trust deficit that is difficult to bridge until the State agrees to take 180-degree turn on its approach on both political demands of the Baloch and terrorism. Trust is difficult to build especially when the State has used dialogue as a tool to kidnap and harm people. I recall programmes run by some of the Army’s favourite private think tanks and the social science department of the National University of Science and Technology (NUST) encouraging Baloch youth to speak their hearts out. Such opportunities were used to conduct political mapping that also eventually led to more disappearances.
Given continued hybridity of Pakistan’s politics, it is not likely that politicians and government will be allowed a freehand in finding a political solution to the Balochistan problem. In any case, the Army with its corporate stakes is too entrenched in Balochistan to allow any genuine debate as it would naturally challenge their own economic stakes. So, while the Army chief General Qamar Jawed Bajwa’s message to Turbat University students was to trust the Army and join the military and other law enforcement agencies, Baloch youth continue to disappear and be harassed. As the Army continues to pursue the tactic of picking up young Baloch across the country, it seems no one in the military institution has calculated the high cost of this lopsided approach. Today, a young Baloch, who is keen not to pursue nationalist politics, is hard to find.
Not religious but political ideology
Third, the fact that Shari Baloch, a young female from a well-established family, carried out the attacks indicates a particular socio-political development that the State and many of the statist analysts will not see. They would be tempted to limit themselves to viewing the development purely from an American versus Chinese geo-political confrontation lens. Even if that is the case, it is still necessary to understand how a woman opted to turn her ‘revolutionary womb into a bomb’. According to Rohan Gunaratna, a political analyst currently based in Singapore, 30 per cent of suicide attacks in Sri Lanka were conducted by women. Many are driven by personal injury or are forced into the act. For example, Dhanu, the 17-year-old Sri Lankan Tamil who blew Rajiv Gandhi up along with herself, was angered by the death of her brother by the Indian security forces.
But in this case, Shari Baloch was not motivated by personal hurt. Mia Bloom, another expert on terrorism and women suicide attacks, argues that women do not have to be personally injured to volunteer for such ultimate act of violence. They can be well-educated and driven by political ideology as was the case with the Karachi attacker. Turbat, the area that Shari Baloch belonged to, is known for its popularity of Leftist ideology. Reportedly, in 2013, the Army shared with some journalists what they had captured during their raids — not weapons and bombs but mainly Leftist literature, biographies of internationally acclaimed leaders including M.K. Gandhi and Che Guevara, and publicity of State atrocities. According to Rafiullah Kakar, a Quetta-based development and political expert, the shift in leadership of Baloch insurgency from foreign-based tribal sardars to the more middle-class and locally based leadership has added to the temperature signified by Shari Baloch’s death.
Analysts are tempted to view the political conflict primarily from a development lens. But the decades of neglect and repression has ingrained suspicion of the Pakistani State and Punjab in the social DNA of Baloch, a problem that will not get resolved with economic sweeteners. As it happens in conflict zones around the world, the Pakistani State will vacillate between using local politicians to make more false promises of equitable distribution of resources and not interfering in politics, and repression which will add greater fuel to fire.
Balochistan is angry but not close to a situation where the insurgency could be compared with Vellupalai Prabhakaran’s military power against the Sri Lankan State. The LTTE had greater military muscle. Thus, with a solution not in sight, the security establishment of Pakistan will try to keep the conflict manageable even if it remains ugly.
Ayesha Siddiqa is senior fellow at Department of War Studies, King’s College, London. She tweets @iamthedrifter. Views are personal.