I hardly know a Baloch who is not excited about and appreciative of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent statement on Balochistan. Many of them look at this as a breakthrough as Baloch political activists have been struggling for years and making direct appeals to the government of India to condemn Pakistan’s atrocities against the Baloch.
Modi’s statements are a gamechanger, not only in the context of India-Pakistan relations, but they will also internally divide Pakistani society. It is not as if the Baloch, who have thanked Modi for his statements, do not realise the consequences of India’s possible support for them.
However, they ask, what can Pakistan do to them that has not already been done should they receive Indian support? Will Pakistan increase military operations against the Baloch in the backdrop of these developments? It doesn’t matter because the Baloch have already been arrested, tortured and killed before Modi expressed his support for their struggle. Will the Baloch movement lose its credibility and be branded as a product of India’s interference? Well, when was the last time Pakistan did not question the origins of the movement? The Baloch have been at war, albeit at varying degrees, with the Pakistani state since 1948. Pakistan has billed them as Iraqi, Afghan, Soviet, and now Indian agents in order to discredit a home-grown rebellion. So, this is not the first time they have been labelled “foreign agents”. With all the things the Baloch have been called, they will probably not be seriously offended if they are described as Indian agents.
So, who are the Baloch and what do they want? Even most Pakistanis do not have a clear answer to this question due to a systematic blackout of news stories in the Pakistani media about Balochistan. The people in the rest of Pakistan get as much information about Balochistan as the military establishment decides to release. Heavily influenced by the official narrative, Pakistanis describe the people and the conflict in Balochistan in the same words as government officials. For instance, all that the Pakistanis know about Balochistan is a stereotypical image of a tribal region where a bunch of chiefs do not want to develop their people or that India and foreign countries are out there to break up Pakistan. They want the “Balochis” (sic) to be “given” their rights but under no circumstance would they allow the Baloch to seek a separate homeland. A Pakistani textbook recently described the Baloch as “uncivilised people”. The Pakistanis insist that the Baloch are incapable of running their own affairs. Therefore, they feel they have an obligation to “modernise”, “develop” and “civilise” the Baloch.
The absence of honest news reporting has kept most Pakistanis in the dark about the situation in Balochistan and the Baloch war of independence. The closest that Pakistanis come to acknowledging the movement for independence is admitting some “angry Balochi brothers” want more autonomy. On the contrary, as one Baloch leader said, “we are not angry. We are just fed up with you.” The army has chosen to “fix” Balochistan through the use of brute force. This approach has backfired, leading to an increase in the support for the pro-freedom camp.
A tiny section of Pakistani liberals has spoken up in support of Baloch rights although they do not endorse the idea of a free Balochistan. Their primary loyalties lie with Pakistan. When they see Modi speak in support of the Baloch, they immediately jump to their default positions as Pakistani patriots. In Pakistan, nothing ruins your personal and professional reputation more than being called an “Indian agent” or a “kafir” (infidel). Pakistan’s security establishment uses these labels very conveniently to isolate and silence its critics. Modi’s comments will give the army a perfect reason to censor news stories on Balochistan in the national media.
Pakistan controls Balochistan through senior army officers whose job is to monitor the state of affairs. The Commander of the Southern Command and the Inspector General of the Frontier Corps (FC), a federal paramilitary force, enjoy more authority than the province’s chief minister. The provincial government, micro-managed by Islamabad, is a mockery of democracy. For example, the last three chief ministers were elected (read selected) unopposed. The head of the regional government is chosen by Islamabad, instead of the people of Balochistan.
Baloch nationalists have always wished to be seen and treated as an entity separate from Pakistan. Modi’s statements have granted them that recognition. Given Balochistan’s geostrategic location and increasing Chinese involvement there, the Baloch will have no option but to search for allies in the region to protect their land and resources. India and Afghanistan are two possible allies. We don’t know to what extent India and Afghanistan are willing to support the Baloch, but what we do know is that Balochistan is ripe for Pakistan’s rivals, who want to embarrass or bleed Islamabad. Pakistan has lost so much support among ordinary Baloch people because of its repressive policies that any outside force is likely to be welcomed and assisted by segments of the Baloch nationalists.