It was a terse and brief statement of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Indian Independence Day, highlighting human rights violations by the Pakistani state in Balochistan, the Giligit-Baltistan region and Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir (PoK). The official response and the dominant media narrative from Pakistan, loud of tenor, was that of the breach of international norms by Modi and intrusion of India into Pakistan’s sovereignty.
What is missing in the discourse arranged around this series of exchanges — official or otherwise — between the two countries is the significance of Modi’s speech for the people of Balochistan, its possible consequences in that region, and that Modi, once the custodian of a state which witnessed the massacre of Muslims, and now PM of a nation killing people of that community in Kashmir, wants a moral standpoint to denounce Pakistan’s treatment of a minority group in that country.
Modi’s speech has evoked a response both of exuberance and dismay in Balochistan, and it will only serve to sharpen existing fault lines within the region, and incite ethnic tensions across provinces in Pakistan.
Baloch separatists and their supporters within and outside the country have joyfully expressed gratitude to Modi. They believe that highlighting the Baloch issue will help the ethnic group gain international attention, including that of the United Nations, they have long vied for their voice to be heard. In fact, if Modi consistently pursues this strategy internationally it could be of great help for Baloch rights activists to put a check on the Pakistani state’s oppression in the region. However, pro-military politicians in the province repeated the official narrative and discredited the separatists as "Indian agents" creating chaos. The chasm between separatists and pro-military Baloch has only become deeper within the Baloch ethnic group following Modi’s speech.
Consequently, ethnic tension within the country has intensified, and this anxiety is manifested in the language of the citizenry. We, Baloch have always remained suspected citizens in the country; our loyalty is believed to be in the service of India and Afghanistan. Indeed, Pakistan Foreign Office has already declared the Indian PM’s speech as tantamount to India’s support for Baloch insurgency – Pakistan has always blamed India for this but never presented credible evidence. The Pakistani state and its numerically major and dominant ethnic group, the Punjabis, therefore now see themselves as ‘vindicated’ in a decade long suppression of the Baloch.
It is likely that the Pakistani military will now draw justification from Modi’s statement for its brutal treatment, of those native to the province, to supress both militant struggle for freedom and the democratic political forces within the region bidding for greater provincial autonomy and increased participation in power structure of the country. This will be backed by the hegemonic Punjabi discourse which frames Baloch subjects as citizens corrupted by India’s influence, and who can only be fixed by brute force.
The Baloch separatists, on the other hand, belittle the magnitude of the imminent crackdown, arguing that that torture, mass graves, mutilated bodies, and disappearance is the new normal for them and it could not get worse than this. However, the everyday persecution is only likely to increase manifold: the ordinary citizen will be viewed with suspicion, the number of military checkposts will increase, as will the frequency of forced interrogation.
Modi’s speech will also impact the struggle in which the country’s civil society is engaged — it has recently displayed courage in questioning gross human rights violations in the province. Baloch rights activists and the provincial political leadership were at the forefront of this movement, discrediting the military operation and pushing for a political solution to the crisis in Balochistan.
Their voices became marginalised after the apprehension of Indian spy Kulbhushan Yadav in the province a few months ago – it appears he has admitted to his guilt – which has provided Pakistan with sufficient means to blame India for every imaginable thing; and aspects with which India does not concern itself. Modi’s mentioning of Balochistan in his speech has also made it increasingly difficult for civil society in the province to talk, in democratic language, to the extremely jingoistic masses (particularly of Punjab province).
This isn’t to take away what the PM’s speech has achieved in focusing attention on the excesses committed within Balochistan. But it is critical that Modi, the BJP, and Congress leadership shed realpolitik and narrow political agendas when they choose to highlight atrocities perpetrated by Pakistan against its own population. India should also be concerned about the rapid mushrooming of Jamat-ud Dawah, a UN sanctioned organisation headed by internationally declared terrorist Hafiz Saeed. Lately, the Pakistani state has given free hand to the Jamat to cultivate anti-India sentiment to turn the Baloch youth away from waging a secular war for their rights, to a religious war against Hindus (read India). The unprecedented but a few and small scale state-sponsored rallies against India and in praise of the militant Burhan Wani this summer on Kashmir Day is indicative of the Jammat’s success in this regard in a province historically indifferent to the Kashmir issue.
At present Modi seems to be using the Balochistan issue as a countervailing tactic to divert gaze of the international community from India’s violence in Kashmir, and garnering domestic support for 2017 Uttar Pradesh election by employing anti-Pakistan rhetoric. While Pakistan has brought in the trope of sovereignty to undercut solidarity with the Baloch, and therefore perpetuate repression in its own territory in the name of autonomy. In all this cacophony, it is vital that democratic voices within the troubled province of Balochistan, and Kashmir, which should stand a chance at being heard.
The author is a social anthropologist from Central European University, Hungary, now based in Balochistan