Protesting for one’s rights is a risky endeavour at the best of times, and nowhere is this truer than in Balochistan, where the risk of a crackdown in the name of national security and law and order, is ever present. And when it comes to Gwadar, the once-to-be jewel in the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor crown, the chance of any such protest being written off as anti-state, or carried out at the behest of Pakistan’s many enemies, increases manifold.

In this context, the success of the recent protests in Gwadar is particularly noteworthy because in the countless speeches given during the 32 days of rallies and sit-ins, not even a 30-second clip could be found that could, with or without context, paint the protesters or their leader Maulana Hidayat-ur-Rehman in a negative light.

No doubt aware of this potential pitfall, the maulana kept a laser focus on the demands and avoided any language or innuendo that may have landed him in trouble or led to the accusation that some nefarious “agenda” (a word we are very fond of) was at play. It is a testament to his political acumen and self-control that, unlike similar protests in the past, not a single clip – however truncated – made the rounds in an attempt to paint him as “anti-national”.

That is quite an accomplishment given the dozens of speeches that were given in this period, and it also speaks to the discipline of the protesters that they did not ever give the slightest impression of turning violent and thus precipitate a crackdown.

Key issues

Initially, both the state and the media, the latter ever wary of crossing a sometimes self-imposed red line, largely ignored the protests in the hope that they would fizzle out. When it showed no sign of doing so, there came the usual lip service and empty assurances, something the locals are all too used to.

Finally, with Pakistan’s PM Imran Khan taking notice of the situation and dispatching two federal ministers, the Balochistan government redoubled its efforts and ended up promising to not just acknowledge, but also implement the measures the protesters had been demanding.

Top of the list of issues is the problem of illegal trawling in Balochistan’s coastal waters. While some point to the presence of foreign trawlers, both the maulana and the Balochistan government claim that the real issue is trawlers from Sindh which, they claim, often fish without permits and use nets that leave little or nothing for the local fishermen, whose boats and equipment are simply no match for the resources of the trawlers.

Those connected with the seafood export industry say that it is not as clear cut as that and that a long-term solution would have to have Sindh and Balochistan sit with the federal government and work out a solution that balances the needs of the industry with the needs of the locals, for whom this is literally a bread-and-butter issue.

Apart from fishing, the other main source of livelihood in the area is “trade” with Iran, which – to be honest – is often a byword for smuggling. Now, from the top-down state perspective, smuggling of course cannot be allowed. But on the ground, it, like fishing, remains one of the only sources of livelihood for the locals.

This is in itself an indictment of the development model favoured by our political and bureaucratic elite: one that showcases cricket stadiums, airports and housing societies as hallmarks of progress, but ignores the demands of the locals. Any such model is doomed to fail, while also engendering deep resentment which, in turn, promises that future “development” will be viewed with well-deserved cynicism. That resentment, if allowed to build, then plays directly to the benefit of forces that may have very different agendas.

Significant success

With that in mind, it is certainly a relief that wiser minds prevailed and that the protest has, for now, been called off with the promise that if the demands, which include the provision of drinking water and regular supply of electricity, are not fulfilled, then the protests will resume.

Nevertheless, the success is significant and does hold some lessons for those who are inclined to learn them. For one, the laser-like focus on the actual demands, without any hint of a maximalist agenda or “mission creep” kept the leadership centred. And because the demands were so fundamental to the well-being of the people, the crowds kept growing in size with time, as opposed to protests we have seen that peter out the longer they go on.

Also, despite the fact that Maulana Hidayat comes from the Jamaat-i-Islami, there was no overt presence of a single political party during the protests and, despite dark mutterings from local nationalists, no real hint of a Jamaat-i-Islami agenda. For all the parties currently trying and failing to mobilise the masses, the real lesson here is that if you cater to the people, and not your personal brand of politics, success is certainly easier to find.

This article first appeared in Dawn.