The westernmost province of Pakistan, Balochistan, shares its border with Iran, Afghanistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and the Arabian Sea.
The Balochs, who form approximately 85 per cent of the total population of Balochistan, entered the region in 14th century CE.
Balochistan, which is volatile and rife with historical tensions, has witnessed regular insurgencies since Pakistan annexed the autonomous Baloch state of Kalat in 1948.
Balochs complain about the lack of autonomy and long-standing social and economic neglect in addition to a deteriorating human rights scenario in the country.
They have faced extreme deprivation and marginalisation from both Pakistan and Iran that has resulted in a strong desire for liberation among them.
Balochistan is Pakistan’s largest and poorest province despite being rich in natural resources.
Resentment has been fuelled by billions of dollars of Chinese money flowing into the region through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a key part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, which locals say gave them little benefit as most new jobs went to outsiders.
The Balochistan conflict has a long, complex history, but since that time the stakes have risen as Balochistan’s wealth of copper, gold, gas and coal deposits caught China’s eye.
The prospects of Pakistan’s most reliable ally pouring in money excited successive governments while fuelling Baloch resentment over how little would come their way.
Separatist militants have frequently targeted Chinese construction in Gwadar, a port on the Balochistan coast, near the entrance to the strategically-important Gulf.
And in 2018, the Balochistan Liberation Army launched an assault on the Chinese consulate in the southern port city of Karachi, killing four Pakistani police and civilians.
In his first video interview in five years, Allah Nazar Baloch, head of the ethnic Baluch group Baluchistan Liberation Front (BLF), also vowed further attacks on a Chinese economic corridor, parts of which run through the resource-rich province.
The planned $46 billion trade route is expected to link western China with Pakistan’s Arabian Sea via a network of roads, railways and energy pipelines.
Balochistan, where separatist militants have waged an insurgency against the state that has grown in profile as ally China develops mining there, has long been plagued by enforced disappearances. Families say men are picked up by the Pakistani security forces, disappear often for years, and are sometimes found dead, with no official explanation.
The 2006 arrest of Akhtar Mengal, the Chief Minister of Balochistan, is a glaring example. He was arrested and denied basic rights of medical treatment or bedding while being imprisoned. Adding insult to injury, he was also kept in a cage during subsequent court proceedings.
A federal commission set up nine years ago listed 6,506 cases of enforced disappearances nationwide by the end of 2019. Most came from the northwestern province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
Karima Mehrab, a refugee from the Balochistan region of western Pakistan who was also known as Karima Baloch, went missing in Toronto’s downtown waterfront area. Police found her dead body later.
Mehrab was a prominent student organizer who campaigned for Balochistan’s separation from Pakistan, and later fled to Canada amid threats. She was named one of the BBC’s 100 inspirational and influential women of 2016.
Previously, Sajid Hussain, a Balochistan journalist and activist living in exile in Sweden, was found drowned there, according to media reports.
In 2020, the Balochistan National Party (BNP) quit Prime Minister Imran Khan’s parliamentary bloc, frustrated by unfulfilled promises to address Baloch grievances including the festering issue of the disappeared.
Though residing in the same region, the ethnic identity of the Baloch has remained in sharp contrast to the ultranationalism that defines the Pakistani state. Therefore, the Pakistani security forces, who see many of the Baloch nationalist groups as terrorists, have crushed any opposition or demand for reform.
Using the military to quell any Baloch uprising into submission has become a norm, and any attempts at protest have been reduced to naught.
While gas was discovered in the province in the 1950s, it was largely used to supply Karachi and Punjab, with Quetta, the capital of Balochistan only receiving access to these local resources in the 1980s.
Since then, Islamabad has provided this natural gas only to supply the army cantonments in Balochistan, and as of 2014, 59 percent of the urban population of Balochistan did not have access to the resource.
As of January 2020, the Sui Southern Gas Company, which supplies gas to Sindh and Balochistan, reported the shortfall of gas at nearly 40 percent.
Such deprivation, combined with the repression and blatant disregard for the Baloch people, is held as justification for their increasing resentment and larger aspirations for freedom.