A Protest Movement in Gwadar Causes Concern for Pakistan-China Relations

A crackdown on the protests led to the arrest of over 100 people, along with tear gas canisters and rubber bullets used to disperse crowds

A Protest Movement in Gwadar Causes Concern for Pakistan-China Relations
Pakistani soldiers and Chinese staff pose for a photo at Gwadar port in 2016. (Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

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Days before the 2023 new year, hundreds of men, women and children of all ages gathered outside the Port of Gwadar — a key hub for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) — in southwest Pakistan to protest. Most of them belonged to the fishing communities in the most impoverished neighborhoods of town. After almost two months of sit-ins in various part of the town, as part of the “Gwadar Haq Do Tehreek” (Gwadar Rights Movement), a protest movement that began in November 2021, crowds gathered on Dec. 26 at the port’s entrance and the East Bay Expressway, a highway that leads to the port. By blocking both points, they halted the flow of supplies and movement between the port and the naval bases on Koh-e-Bateel, the southern hill of the town.

Days before, Maulana Hidayat-ur-Rehman, the leader of the movement, warned Chinese citizens working at the port to leave. There are about 500 Chinese citizens working on the port premises. China has already invested a chunk of the $50 billion that it pledged toward the port, a new airport in Gwadar and the expressway, as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is a 1,900-mile long sea and land corridor that is considered an integral part of the BRI. Gwadar has been touted as being the heart of this initiative.

Tensions between the protesters and government authorities escalated that night. A crackdown by the police led to the arrest of over 100 people, including several members and leaders of the movement, along with tear gas canisters and rubber bullets used to disperse the crowds. Dozens were injured and a young police constable died due to his injuries. Rehman fled the scene and remained underground for two weeks. In the following days, there were raids on the houses of people associated with the movement. Since then, the government  imposed Section 144 under the penal code of Pakistan to prohibit public gatherings and sit-ins in the city for one month. The crackdown was also followed by an internet blackout for two weeks, and phone networks were shut down for one week. The entire town remained silent, with markets and daily activities almost suspended for several days.

A centuries-old, remote fishing town with a relatively small population, until the early 2000s, was introduced to the world with the inception of the deep-sea port in 2007. Since then, Gwadar has been enjoying international attention. Several infrastructure projects — from the deep-sea port to hill top resorts, to power supply from Iran, a new university, beachside highways and increased connectivity to Pakistan’s metropolitan Karachi — have changed the outlook of the fishing town in the last two decades. 

However, along with the attention and transition, there have been challenges for both the citizens and the government. While new projects have introduced positive changes in the lives of the locals, several issues such as the local water crisis, lack of proper sewage and drainage system, illegal fish trawling by large vessels from outside Balochistan, and on-and-off issues with trade at the Iranian border remained unaddressed. 

Lives and livelihoods of the fishing communities in some of the oldest neighborhoods have been impacted the most. Sights of muddy streets, slum-like housing, overflowing drainage water and women having to carry buckets of water for their daily use are also a reality in Gwadar, in stark contrast to images of a developing port city.

The protesters have been demanding a reduction in security checkpoints, an end to deep-sea fish trawling, which they allege has depleted their catches, and an easing up on the curbs on informal border trading with Iran. 

However, more than anything else, the warning to Chinese nationals issued by a civilian leader has made the movement controversial in Pakistan. With China being a long-term investing partner for a cash-strapped Pakistan, this move could have a far-reaching impact on the two countries’ relationship. 

Over the years, local communities have experienced some of the worst economic crises. From 2002 to 2005, neighborhoods were relocated to make way for the port. Even though they received monetary compensation, they lost major fishing grounds in the process. Moreover, illegal bottom trawling has jeopardized the fishing economy. The local fishermen no longer make the same profits they used to. The last data available from the provincial fisheries ministry, in 2014, showed a decline of 7% in catches compared with the catches in 2013. Moreover, 70% of the town’s population is associated with the fishing industry in one form or another. 

For years, locals have supported various political parties and civil rights groups led by local fisheries businessmen. Because they occasionally condemned the development excesses, it seemed that they sympathized with the fishing communities. However, they also continued to reap benefits from the fishing vessels to keep their businesses afloat.

Fishing communities compose the majority of the town’s population. (Gwadar’s population is estimated at around 85,000 and is expected to grow to half a million in five years, according to the port authority.) Hence, the fishing community constitutes an important voting bloc, and major political parties and local businessmen cannot afford to lose their support. However, with the ongoing crisis, people began to doubt the politicians’ and businessmen’s intentions. This created an opportunity for a new platform and leader to emerge.

Rehman and the Gwadar Haq Do Tehreek (HDT) — a movement that Rehman claims is for the rights of the local people — rose to prominence in November 2021. Hailing from the fishing village of Surbandar to the north of Gwadar, Rehman has been a fixture at many protests and local conferences, beginning as a local leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan (JI). No one had expected his rise as a leader with thousands of followers. But today, he has become a well-known figure in Pakistan. 

“He mobilized the people in a way no one could ever do before; his approach is a collective one,” Nasir Rahim Sohrabi, president of the Rural Community Development Council of Gwadar, told New Lines, comparing Rehman’s approach to those of other political parties in Gwadar. “No one has been as persistent and vocal with their demands for the local communities before. I think that makes a difference. One of his major demands from the earliest days of the movement has been decreasing the number of security check posts, and he accomplished that. This success and a very strong and organized social media presence also played a crucial role in his popularity,” he added. 

With over 120,000 followers on Facebook and more than 47,000 followers on Twitter, Rehman has one of the largest social media followings in Balochistan and enjoys more popularity than Gwadar’s elected member of the provincial assembly and chief minister. Many believe that the JI has been supporting him from day one, an allegation Rehman initially denied. This often happens with protest movements in South Asia. Linking them to political parties is a way to discredit their grassroots connection.

But the JI’s chief, Siraj ul Haq, is often seen talking and tweeting in support of Rehman. He recently condemned his arrest too. “Movements cannot end with imprisonments. Instead of arresting the people of Gwadar, they should be provided with basic needs: education, health, water and employment,” Haq tweeted.  

Last week, on Jan. 13, a photograph of Rehman flashing a victory sign while getting into a police van surrounded by crowds went viral on social media. Earlier that day, he entered the Court of Session in Gwadar to surrender and appear before a judge for a pre-arrest bail hearing. However, he was arrested over charges of provoking protesters to violence, pelting stones at government vehicles, murder of the police constable and several others. On Jan. 2, a First Information Report (FIR) was filed against Rehman and other HDT leaders Hussain Wadila, Yaqoob Joski and Sharif Miadad, who had been arrested earlier. 

In Balochistan and in Pakistan at large, politics has remained a familial affair, passed down from one generation to the next. Till now, political power in Gwadar has been shared between two families, Mir Hammal Kalmati, the current member of the provincial assembly from Gwadar, and Mir Ashraf Hussain. It is unusual for someone who belongs to a fishing village to garner such a huge following. Rehman’s rise as a local leader cannot be ignored. 

Nazia Baloch, a school teacher whose name has been changed on request, is among the thousands of women who have been attending the rallies of the HDT. “Women in most of these rallies are from the fishing communities, but you would also find a large number of women from the JI. Many of them have led individual campaigns in community gatherings and educational institutes. Their affiliation with the party has trained them in effective campaigning, and they have been successful in getting women to participate in the movement and join the rallies.”

However, for the marginalized communities, HDT is a movement for justice and equality, irrespective of the political backing. There are also rumors that Rehman is preparing for the provincial elections. Last year, he prepared a group of candidates for the local government and won a majority of the seats. 

Before these events unfolded, Mir Zia Langove, adviser to the Chief Minister for Internal Affairs, visited Gwadar to meet members of the movement. He reassured them that their demands would be accepted and asked them to end the protests. But the leadership of the movement refused to end the protest before the demands were implemented. This back and forth continued until the authorities used force to disperse the crowd, make arrests and initiate an internet shutdown, which hit the movement hard. 

To ease tensions with the locals, there were two important developments announced by the state government earlier this week. The Government of Balochistan declared fishermen to be laborers, something the fishermen had been fighting for even before the port’s development. It was also one of HDT’s demands. Their status as laborers under Pakistani law and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) charter would ensure the protection of their rights. A fishing boat under the law is declared a “commercial establishment” just like other registered industries in the country. Fishermen will also be entitled to an employment card, occupational safety, annual leaves and minimum wages fixed by the government, among other protective measures. The law will also ensure that the ‘‘commercial establishment’s” owners do not violate the rights of the fishermen working for them. 

The government also announced a residential area of 200 acres of land as a “fishermen’s colony” for “low income” fishermen’s families, which will be equipped with power, water supply and a proper drainage system, among other facilities. However, who will qualify as a “low income fisherman” and when the project will be initiated or completed have not yet been decided. “Although these have been fishermen’s demands from a long time, far before the HDT, yet we cannot deny that HDT has been a pressure group for the government to take local issues more seriously,” comments Bahram Baloch, a local journalist. 

But some believe the movement has ended. “Though the Maulana (the title for a Muslim religious leader in South Asia) fleeing the scene when the movement’s members were getting arrested and appearing in the court two weeks later has affected his reputation, he still has support. For now, there are still fears as the things are still not stable but it is unlikely that the movement will end here,” Baloch predicts.

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