Days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his 2016 Independence Day speech, had made an outreach to the people of Balochistan, Baloch activist Karima Mehrab called the Indian PM her brother and urged him to be the voice of “Baloch genocide, war crimes and human rights violations at international forums”.
On Monday night, Mehrab — popularly known as Karima Baloch – was found dead in Toronto, Canada, where she had been living since 2015, seeking political asylum. The 32-year-old was last seen on December 20, the Toronto Police tweeted.
The first woman chairperson of the Baloch Students Organization (BSO-Azad), Karima was born in Balochistan’s Tump area to a politically active family that produced several prominent nationalist figures like Wahid Qambar and the late Khalid Baloch.
Although Pakistan has banned the BSO-Azad, Karima repeatedly rejected the notion that the organisation supported violence for the attainment of its political goals. She had often accused Pakistan of promoting radical Islamic elements in Baloch areas to counter the nationalist movement and to curb women’s rights.
According to a profile in the Baluch Hal, “her journey with the BSO began in 2006 when she was a student at Atta Shad Degree College in Turbat. It was a tumultuous year in Balochistan’s politics as the Musharraf government killed the prominent Baluch tribal chief Nawab Akbar Bugti in August that sparked province-wide protests across the province. Given her proactive participation in the BSO, she soon rose to prominence within the organization. In 2014, she made history after being elected as the first female chairperson of the BSO after Zahid Baluch, its former chairman, went missing. Her home and the family were also reportedly targeted due to her political activities”.
Karima was married to Hamal Haider, a senior Baloch National Movement leader who until recently served as the party’s international spokesperson.
She had been listed by the BBC in its prestigious 100 Most Inspirational and Influential Women of 2016. “A national liberation movement without the participation of women is incomplete,” she had told BBC.
In a 2016 interview, Karima said the political situation in Balochistan pushed her into politics.
“When I was growing up, I never thought of becoming a politician. I was more interested in arts and psychology. It is obvious that when you are living in a society whose sufferings you see all around you on a daily basis, then you begin to question why is this happening to me and my people?” she said.
“When you begin the search for answers to all these questions, the answers you find make you give up personal goals and focus on the greater national goal.”
Malik Siraj Akbar, a US-based Pakistani journalist and editor of Baluch Hal, told The Indian Express on Tuesday, “Karima stood out in Balochistan’s politics as the first female leader of the Baloch resistance movement. In Baloch society, not many women get out of their homes. Not only did she mobilize the women of her area but also led the men in the fight against Pakistan’s policies in Balochistan.”
“She was vocal, fearless, and consistent in her resistance despite facing severe opposition from the Pakistani military and its intelligence agencies. One of her uncles had previously been killed by the Pakistani security forces and the home was targeted but that did not deter her from her mission. She was deemed as a powerful Baloch voice even in exile,” Akbar said.
Akbar said he believed that with her death, the Baloch movement has got its biggest female icon yet. “She will be remembered and seen by many young Balochs — both boys, and girls — as a role model and a symbol of resistance even if they would not fully endorse her politics simply because there are not many women like her in Balochistan or Pakistan who would be willing to sacrifice everything for their political beliefs and call out the powerful Pakistani military in such an open way,” Akbar said.
Meanwhile, rights group Amnesty International tweeted, “The death of activist #KarimaBaloch in Toronto, Canada is deeply shocking and must be immediately and effectively investigated. The perpetrators must be brought to justice without recourse to the death penalty.”
Karima is the second high-profile Baloch activist living abroad to be killed this year. In March, Baloch refugee and journalist Sajid Hussain was found dead in the Fyris River near Uppsala, Sweden. He had been missing for days before his body was found.
Reporters without Borders (RSF), a Paris-based journalists’ organisation, alleged that Hussain’s mysterious disappearance and subsequent death could have been organised by the Pakistani intelligence agencies – ISI and MI – due to his work as a journalist.