A university student in Pakistan aspired to join the country’s elite civil service after undergoing a competitive process that requires participants to prepare for years.
Instead, Shahdad Baloch, in his early 30s, was killed in a skirmish with Pakistani security forces in a remote region of the restive southwestern province of Balochsitan. The Balochistan Liberation Army, a banned separatist organization, claimed Shahdad and Ehsan Baloch, both students at a university in Islamabad, were killed in a clash with the military on May 1.
Their friends and former teachers are now asking what prompted Shahdad and Ehsan, both members of Pakistan’s ethnic Baluch minority, to take up guns against the state instead of pursuing their dreams of promising careers in the country of 210 million people. For some, the recent killings are a reminder that the insurgency in Balochistan is unlikely to disappear as long as grievances linger about the region’s plentiful natural resources and treatment of the Baluch minority.
Sadia Tasleem, a lecturer in the defense and strategic studies department at Qauid-e Azam University in Islamabad, remembers Shahdad as a compassionate graduate student who was deeply troubled by the situation in Balochistan. Thousands have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced in nearly two decades of unrest in Balochistan, characterized by attacks claimed by various Baluch separatist factions and a military crackdown defined by security sweeps and forced disappearances of suspected separatists.
Tasleem says Islamabad had failed to placate Baluch youth that they could live as dignified citizens.
“It has been long since the state has stopped caring for the tender-hearted, sensitive young boys and girls who – unfortunately – are not born under the right conditions,” she wrote on Facebook. “Instead of ameliorating their pain by making things right for them, the state chooses to look the other way,” she added. “When these people bang their heads against the wall to seek attention, the state takes it as an offense, and responds with all its might. This is already a lost cause.”
A university friend who requested anonymity because of security fears said he never imagined Shahdad joining the insurgency because the soft-spoken student was focused on preparing for the Central Superior Services exam and loved to debate Marxist theory, which was his passion.
“I know he was always deeply concerned about the perceived wrongdoing inflicted on the Baluch,” he recalled. “Sometimes he would say that ultimately the state doesn’t understand the language of peace,” he added. “But I never imagined him personally picking up a gun.”
Similarly, the gender studies department at Quaid-e Azam University, where Ehsan completed his master’s degree, remembered him.
“We knew him to be an intelligent, perceptive, passionate, honest, and courageous person who was unafraid of speaking the truth, even when the consequences of doing so were not going to be easy or favorable for him,” the department wrote in a in a statement on Facebook.
Columnist Mohammad Ali Talpur, a veteran of a previous Baluch nationalist insurrection in the 1970s, argues that addressing Baluch grievances is the ultimate solution. “The state has to give Baloch their rights because as long as injustices continue there will be those who will choose to fight,” he told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website.
Talpur says that for nearly two decades, the Baluch youth have endured injustices and humiliations.
“There are many who have lost their relatives to the vicious enforced disappearances and the vile ‘abduct, kill and dump’ actions of [the] state so some sensitive souls seek redress in revenge,” he said, explaining why educated Baluch youth and professionals have joined an array of armed groups and radical political factions campaigning for Balochistan’s separation from Pakistan.
Allah Nazar, a former physician and leader of the banned Baloch Liberation Front (BLF), is the most prominent professional joining the insurgency. Scores of other doctors, lawyers, teachers, and professionals have been killed in armed encounters with the security forces or remain missing. Students, mostly members of the various factions of the Baloch Students Organization, have been prominent in nationalist insurrections since the 1970s. Since the 1947 partition of South Asia, various Baluch nationalist leaders and factions have engaged in five armed uprisings against Pakistan.
Islamabad, however, denies committing abuses in Balochistan and sees the current unrest in the province as part of regional archrival India’s efforts to undermine its territorial integrity.
“We have repeatedly presented the evidence of Indian interference in Balochistan to the world,” Balochistan’s Interior Minister Mir Ziaullah Langu told journalists after a roadside bomb killed an army officer and five paramilitary troops on May 8. India denies supporting the Baluch separatists.
Jam Kamal Khan, the chief minister or the most senior elected official in Balochistan, says his administration is focused on helping youth. “Our government has been utilizing all resources for empowering the youth and providing them with employment opportunities,” he said in January.
While successive governments have claimed to prioritize Balochistan’s development, the strategic region containing a long coastline along the Arabian Sea and bordering Iran and Afghanistan remains Pakistan’s most underdeveloped province. Despite its huge hydrocarbon and mineral resources, Balochistan suffers from chronic poverty, high unemployment, and a lack of healthcare and quality education.
Still, senior Pakistani officials say developing the region remains a national priority. “Balochistan is the future of Pakistan, and it is our duty to fully assist its government and people toward a peaceful and prosperous Balochistan,” Pakistani army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa was quoted as saying by the military’s public relations wing on May 13.
Rashed Rahman, a former newspaper editor, however, says educated youth will continue to be attracted to militant organizations as long as Islamabad continues to be heavy-handed. “[This] is in direct proportion to the state’s longstanding misconceived notion of ‘conquering’ Balochistan to extract its resources and take advantage of its strategic location without a nod toward its people’s historical and current grievances and any notion of seeking a peaceful, political solution,” he noted.
Baluch activists say they have seen a renewed crackdown on educated youth following Shahdad and Ehsan’s killing. The Voice for Baloch Missing Persons, an organization run by families of the forcibly disappeared, says it has documented a dozen incidents of forced disappearances in Balochistan so far this month.
Baluch activists say victims include three students. One of them is identified as Sana Baloch, a postgraduate student at the Allama Iqbal Open University (AIOU) in Islamabad.
Kiyya Baloch, a freelance journalist, reports on the insurgency, politics, militancy, and sectarian violence in Balochistan.