In Balochistan’s Chaman district, a sit-in protest has entered its 64th day, drawing attention to the government’s strict visa policy. Away from widespread media coverage, thousands have gathered to oppose new regulations limiting movement and trade across the Pak-Afghan border.
This demonstration, comprising various groups including Pashtun political parties, traders, and daily wage workers, demands a return to the previous system of travel across the border, which allowed unrestricted border crossings based on local identification, known as the “Easement Right.” Under this system, people from neighboring areas could freely engage in trade and travel without formal visas or documentation. Pakistani nationals with ID cards having the permanent address of Chaman could enter Afghanistan without any documentation, and Afghan nationals having Spin Boldak as their permanent address on their ID cards could enter Balochistan unrestricted.
The Chaman protest came on the back of Pakistan’s classification of 1.7 million refugees and migrants as “illegal,” resulting in their ordered expulsion. This led to the imposition of stringent passport and visa requirements at the border, aimed at curbing illegal activities like weapon flow, drug trafficking, terrorism, and smuggling. The decision to close down the border was taken by the National Apex Committee in October, while the border crossing policy was imposed on November 1.
The consequences of this decision have left thousands unemployed in Chaman, prompting a sustained protest. Despite differing political views, all parties unite in demanding a return to the previous border-crossing norms. Protesters emphasize the everyday realities of families and tribes divided by the border, necessitating frequent crossings that the new regulations obstruct. The border splits towns, tribes, and even families: If the community mosque and graveyard are located on the Afghan side of the border, then the school and hospital are located on the Balochistan side. As a result, people have to constantly travel back and forth through the border daily. The new system put in place restricts this free movement.
Chaman’s protest, though overlooked by mainstream media, has garnered support from Pashtun politicians, activists, and elders. Notably, rights activists like Manzoor Pashteen, leader of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), have advocated for reverting to the previous border travel rules. However, efforts to address the protest have faced hurdles, including Pashteen’s arrest while he was en route to Turbat after addressing the sit-in at Chaman. The police say he was arrested for allegedly firing at the Pakistani security forces at a routine checkpoint, a charge that his lawyer and the PTM leaders deny. Activists say that Pashteen was traveling to Turbat to participate in the “Long March Against Baloch Genocide”, which was then kick-starting in Turbat but has now reached Islamabad.
This dissent in Chaman has spurred solidarity protests across Balochistan. In Quetta, the Pashtoonkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkAMP) organized a protest on Wednesday to express solidarity with the protestors in Chaman. The party members gathered in front of the commissioners’ offices in Quetta to demand relaxation of the travel restrictions on the Afghan border.
Abdul Qahar Wadan, the PkMAP provincial president, led a protest at the main Bacha Khan Chowk in Quetta as part of a series of protests throughout the region. Wadan emphasized the need for uninterrupted trade and freedom of movement at the Pak-Afghan border in Chaman, citing the shared tribal ties between both sides spanning centuries.
Protest demonstrations were not confined to Quetta, as PkMAP workers also rallied in Chaman, Killa Abdullah, Pishin, Loralai, Zhob, and other Pashtun-majority areas of Balochistan. The demonstrators voiced support for the ongoing Chaman sit-in, condemning what they perceived as an anti-people decision by the federal government
Despite unsuccessful negotiations between government officials and protest leaders, demonstrators have intensified their stance, leading to the blockade of the Quetta-Chaman highway. Moreover, the people in Chaman have also boycotted an ongoing polio vaccination campaign in the region to exert pressure on the government to accept their demands.
On November 11, the mayor of Chaman city’s son was forcibly taken. Known for his political activism and opposition to the government’s imposed policies, he was released after a day, visibly shaken by the ordeal. Just before this incident, Hidayat-ur-Rehman from the Haq Dou Gwadar Movement and Mohsin Dawar from the National Democratic Front were barred from attending the protest. Rehman expressed to the media that this action was a result of authorities being apprehensive about the potential impact of their speeches, fearing it could escalate the movement to greater strength and influence.
As the sit-in protest endures, trade between Pakistan and Afghanistan via the authorized border crossing has halted. However, minimal mainstream media coverage exacerbates the complexities surrounding this escalating situation.