In my family album I find a photograph of a nine-year-old boy trailing his father, a government employee in Gwadar from 1969 to 1972, on a sandy beach. The child is me. My father took me along with him to Gwadar while the rest of our family lived in South Punjab.
Then, Gwadar was a small strip of peninsula, an exotic locale for fishermen. The moonlit nights were full of wonder since much of the town was located on sand dunes. If my memory serves me right, when there was a full moon, the denizens held a festival of dancing and of performing magic. They were continuing the traditions of their ancestors from Africa. When the drums came to a crescendo, they could be heard from afar.
The frequent sumptuous feasts, thrown by different well-to-do families for government officials, are worth remembering. I cherish the memory of one dinner hosted at an Ismail’i Jamaat Khana. I polished off eight puddings that night.
Our little house was located a few leagues from the sea. Our evenings were spent in a local club, at the west beach, with a cemented tennis court. The sport was a regular feature of our lives there. The east beach also housed a cemented tennis court. Though this court was deserted. It was located near the wooden Victorian house of the Assistant Commissioner who was known as the Nazim there.
The club ran on an electric generator, and it was the only place for the elite to gather. I would play chess, with anyone who was available. This was usually accompanied with tea and delicious cake. My father chose to play bridge. In later days, an open air cinema was installed that played Pakistani movies, and this was a beloved attraction for me.
On Sundays the city hosted cricket matches on the same ground which now houses a stadium of international standards. It was here that I was introduced to the sport of cricket, that then became a passion of mine.
Koh-e-Batal was a picnic spot that sported shady trees around a pond. When sweet rainwater gathered in the pond, it was transported for drinking purposes since the groundwater was brackish.
I also remember the black flags some of the houses would hoist on 8th December each year. This was to register their protest of the date when Gwadar was annexed to Pakistan. Many there had dual nationalities of Pakistan and Oman – the majority there would work in Oman.
The ‘Development’ of Gwadar
In the early 2000s Gwadar garnered national and international attention. Billboards of real estate dealers and builders popped up in all big cities of Pakistan, offering good investment opportunities in Gwadar. Ostentatious malls were displayed on adverts around the country, they were meant to be built on the sands of the peninsula. After a firm from Singapore won the bid to construct a deep sea port in Gwadar, people from across the country thronged to the town to invest in real estate.
By the later 2000s, the deep sea port was handed to Chinese authorities and the town again became the subject of the colorful billboards. At every dinner in Punjab you would meet four to five people who had invested in land in Gwadar. At some parties the developer would spread the map of the housing societies on the dinner table to attract investors.
The Misery of Local People
On the other side, locals felt vulnerable. Adnan Aamir captured their feelings well when he said that locals in Gwadar felt that the “outsiders will dominate the economy and they will be marginalized completely.”
The outcry of the local people against this drive for ‘development’ was ignored. The locals feared the fate of all indigenous people after their land is ‘developed’. Resentments were simmering on the streets of Gwadar.
The late Sardar Ata Ullah Khan Mengal lamented in a TV interview that the people of the area were not consulted about the project and, unfortunately, the people of Gwadar would suffer because of this project.
Fisher folk comprise 70 per cent of the population of Gwadar. For centuries they have lived around and in Gwadar. But the Gwadar Development Authority’s (GDA) 2005 master plan devoured their old neighborhoods along the deep sea port.
Later, in 2014 , the same region was announced as the southern hub of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The fisher folk were forcibly relocated to Noken Mullah Band, eight kilometers away.
Half of the population remained around Gwadar, without water, a proper power supply, or a sewerage system. The fisher folk also demanded a breakwater, in order to safely berth their boats, and three underpass access points. The promises were made but never materialized.
Trawlers in the Deep Sea
On August 21, 2021 hundreds of people protested against illegal fishing trawlers. These were believed to be Chinese, and equipped with latest fishing techniques. The local fisher folk were protesting because they were left hungry, poor and weak against the powerful trawlers.
For months the fisher folk had failed to find fish to sell in the competing fish market. This poses a grave threat to the livelihood of the poor fishermen. Trawlers still remain in the deep sea and no efforts are being made to ameliorate the misery of 70 per cent of local residents who are meant to make ends meet through fishing.
The Rise of the Maulana
The Balochistan Nationalist political parties along with the Baloch Student Organization (BSO), actively participated in the protests. They showed solidarity with the local people. The BSO was revered in leftist political parties in the 1970s for its indomitable political struggle for Baloch rights.
As a result of this, locals began receiving threats from Baloch separatists, they were asked not to trust the nationalist parties. The nationalist parties believed that the solution lay in the democratic political process.
(JI had a foothold in the town when General Ziaul Haq announced non-party elections in 1985. Back then, the nationalist parties boycotted the election. They termed it as an undemocratic and anti-people move by the regime.)
Consequently, Maulana Fazal Haq, a respected local resident and staunch supporter of JI rose to the top. The Maulana was an uncontroversial political figure, despite being from JI. He had the wide support of local people. The Maulana was an Islamic scholar but not a demagogue. He had personal contacts with people from all walks of life. People regarded him as the wise old man of town.
As recently reported in Dawn “The locals were also disappointed by the government as well as political parties, including nationalist parties”. The report further illustrated that Maulana Hidayat-ur-Rehman enjoys the trust of the local people for they believe he speaks for them as ‘no one else has spoken’. The support of the separatists to the Maulana speaks of an interesting political development of Balochistan in the days to come.
However, some voices among the locals believe that the Maulana is loyal only to the Diesel mafia which is keen to open the Iran border. The Maulana’s demands to ban wine shops and open the Iran border were met, and as a result drug addicts are common in Gwadar. Unfortunately, there is no substantiated effort to curb the spread of drugs. Some locals also see the rise of Maulana as a ploy to increase anti-CPEC sentiments.