For nearly 15 years, members of the fragmented nationalist rebellion in Pakistan’s restive southwestern province of Balochistan clamored for international support.
But recent statements by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi about alleged Pakistani atrocities in Balochistan have some sympathizers worrying they might inadvertently provide Islamabad with an excuse to intensify its crackdown against Baluch nationalists.
In addition, they worry the development might further fragment a fight already weakened by years of Pakistani clampdowns and disagreements among leaders and factions.
“These statements were made just to spite Pakistan but without realizing the adverse consequences for Baluch,” said columnist Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur, veteran of a previous Baluch nationalist insurrection in the 1970s. “These are just empty words playing to their gallery.”
Talpur said he believes Modi’s statement will now give Islamabad justification to double-down on its persecution of Baluch nationalists.
Supporters of more than a dozen Baluch factions -- ranging from student unions to political parties and guerillas -- maintain that thousands of their members have been killed or tortured or are the victims of enforced disappearances as Islamabad suppresses their rebellion, going on 12 years, demanding the secession of the country’s biggest province.
Islamabad, too, has occasionally acknowledged the alienation and sense of deprivation faced by the Baluch, whose estimated 8 million to 10 million population is a marginalized minority among Pakistan’s 200 million. Their Balochistan homeland, bordering Afghanistan and Iran, is replete with mineral and hydrocarbon resources. Gwadar, a new port on the region’s nearly 800-kilometer Arabian Sea coastline, is slated to become a linchpin in a new Chinese-funded regional trade and transport network.
While some Indian officials have questioned Islamabad’s conduct in Balochistan, Modi recently accused Pakistan of committing large-scale atrocities in the region.
“Pakistan forgets that it bombs its own citizens with fighter planes in its own land,” Modi told a gathering of Indian political leaders on August 12. “Now the time has come that Pakistan shall have to answer to the world for the atrocities committed by it against the people in Balochistan.”
Modi again mentioned Balochistan during his Independence Day speech on August 15.
“The world is watching. People of Balochistan, Gilgit, and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir have thanked me a lot in the past few days,” he said, referring to his earlier comments. "It is a moment of pride that these people have looked out to India for support."
Islamabad jumped on Modi’s statement as confirmation of its allegations that New Delhi was fomenting the rebellion in Balochistan.
Tariq Fatemi, a special assistant to Pakistan’s premier on foreign affairs, accused New Delhi of crossing “a red line,” while pundits on nightly television talk shows and newspaper columns denounced alleged Indian interference. Balochistan’s administration backed demonstrations across the province to denounce Modi’s statements.
While most Baluch separatist leaders now living in exile in Europe welcomed Modi’s statement, their supporters inside Pakistan were more cautious.
Narges Baloch, editor of Daily Intekhab in Balochistan, believes the Indian leader’s comments strengthened Pakistan’s stance on New Delhi’s covert involvement in Balochistan.
“His pronouncements followed Pakistani efforts to raise the issue of alleged Indian interference in Balochistan,” she said. “Maybe this will awaken the authorities in Islamabad to Balochistan’s plight. They should know now that their neighbors are closely watching.”
Some hardliners, however, view the controversy as a breakthrough.
“India being the largest democracy and our neighbor should have raised this issue long before,” said Khalil Baloch, a leader of the separatist Balochistan National Movement.
He added he hopes that other countries will follow New Delhi’s lead.
“I am sure like India now many civilized countries in other parts of the world will come forward to speak for Baluch rights,” he said.
Kiyya Baloch is a freelance journalist who reports on the insurgency, militancy, and sectarian violence in Balochistan.