The Limits Of Modi’s Influence On Balochistan

Last week, I published two op-eds, one in the Indian Express and one in Pakistan’s Dawn about the recent statements of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi about Pakistan’s volatile Balochistan region. In combined, the two articles have offended supporters of the free Balochistan movement, the Pakistani nationalists and admirers of Mr. Modi. They insist that contents of my article published in both countries contradict each other and I have made a deliberate effort to simultaneously “please” the governments, or the opposition. I believe the conflict in Balochistan is complicated and looking at things as black and white is unhelpful. All doors of listening and understanding each other’s perspectives must remain open if stakeholders want to find a peaceful solution instead of treating addressing both sides as a contradiction. When politicians are not talking to each other, we as opinion makers must keep conversing. Some have called me ‘confused’. Well, confusion isn’t a bad thing. We get out of it only when we keep sharing our ideas until we refine and define issues and solutions. 

While it is true that I describe Modi’s remarks urging Islamabad to provide accountability for human rights violations in Balochistan a ‘game-changer’ both for the Baloch freedom movement and India-Pakistan relations because it is the first time that any Indian (or foreign) head of a government has raised voice for Balochistan, that is only to the extent of his ability to internationalize the Baloch issue. That, at the same time, does not waive Mr. Modi’s culpability in human rights abuses in the state of Gujarat, now in Kashmir and also for shrinking space for free speech inside India.

On these pages, I have criticized Modi again and again for his failure to protect free speech in India and increasing intolerance toward religious minorities, mainly the Muslims. In one piece, I asked if India, under his leadership, was becoming the new Pakistan while in a second article I wondered if Modi’s views contradicted the vision of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg on the issue of free speech.

Getting back to his comments on Balochistan, the Baloch leadership has welcomed and thanked Modi. I have, in my article in Dawn, described such inclination toward the Indian and American right-wing political forces as a strategic shift on the part of the Baloch who had historically found allies in left-wing politics.

At the moment, the Baloch nationalists are keeping Modi’s ideology and communal politics aside as they’ve found in him a messiah. Remember the your enemy is my friend adage? My concern is if a political movement does not draw boundaries between who can and cannot be an ally, it loses direction and purpose. What if Donald Trump speaks up in support of the Baloch? Of course his remarks will be a ‘game-changer’ too in terms of giving the Baloch recognition but that does not mean Trump is no longer a racist or a bigot. Political movements seek attention and most Balochs I have spoken to feel Modi’s remarks are helpful in bringing attention to their movement.

If the Indian government makes support for Balochistan a national policy backed by the secular Congress Party, it will focus the whole discussion on India versus Pakistan rather than centering it solely on the personality and politics of Modi. However, if Modi’s statements are only poly to embarrass Pakistan, we will once again get to the fundamental question whether or not it is ethical for the Baloch to accept support from a leader who shows no respect for human rights in his own country. In an article for Quint I wrote, that Indian intervention “may make or break the Baloch nationalist movement.”

There are worse possibilities if the Baloch accept right wing support if the goal is only to fight Islamabad.

While the Indian and American right wing is largely peaceful and unable to directly participate in the resistance in Balochistan, local Islamic extremist groups, such as the Taliban and anti-Iran Sunni extremist groups might find an opportunity to offer a hand to fight the Pakistani security forces because groups like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Jammat-ud-Dawa, and Jaish-e-Adal might offer some “brotherly assistance”. In the past, Islamabad had frequently mentioned a ‘nexus’ between the Baloch nationalists and the Taliban although evidence was never provided to substantiate such claims. 

On the other hand, in my Dawn article I addressed the Pakistani government, saying, “the Baloch have seen too much violence and we wish an end to it.” I also recalled my childhood days in Balochistan in 1990s when we lived in peace. Today, many young people of my generation have either been killed in the Balochistan conflict or have been compelled to live in exile. Millions remain stranded. 

Hardliners on both, the Pakistani and Baloch, side might wish a complete breakup of communication with the Pakistani government and the media, I think journalists, human rights activists and intellectuals must not fall in that trap and we must continue our work and keep listening to all perspectives in order to reach conflict resolution. Indigenous Baloch voices are hardly heard in the Pakistani media. Dawn is probably the only Pakistani newspaper left that still publishes commentary critical of the government’s Balochistan policy. 

Thus, in my article I reminded the Pakistani government that it should actually worry about its constant failure, instead of Modis’ statements, over not being able to find a solution in Balochistan. It makes no sense to hope that India has the ability to fix Balochistan and the government of Pakistan should not be reminded of its constitutional responsibilities.

I believe governments can solve a lot of problems if they commit to doing so. In Pakistan, there is a lack of will and much arrogance among the country’s political and military elite that does not feel the urgency or the need to talk to the Baloch. India can exert limited pressure on Pakistan but it certainly has no influence in terms of ending the military operations, releasing the disappeared Baloch persons. India can only educate the world about the ongoing situation in Balochistan.

On the Pakistani side, bringing up Kashmir and Modi’s human rights record has become a convenient tool to divert attention from the atrocities in Balochistan. Every time one brings up Modi’s statements on Balochistan, Pakistani officials and social media activists immediately suggest revisiting the Gujarat carnage of 2002 as if that makes it okay for the Pakistanis to carry out human rights abuses in Balochistan only because Modi did so during his stint as the Chief Minister of the state. Trouble in Balochistan began even before Modi was born and Pakistan must not avoid accepting its own blunders by redirecting us toward Modi’s history. Modi has somehow become a part of the Balochistan problem but he certainly is not the problem.  

Allowing hardliners on all sides to discourage meaningful dialogue and spreading confusion will perpetuate violence and bloodshed in Balochistan. It is imperative for all sides to work together to deescalate tensions, understand each other’s perspectives and move toward a peaceful solution. Whether in a free or in a Pakistan-controlled Balochistan, the ordinary people will always want peace, dignity and an opportunity to feed and educate their families. That’s what matters to them. Rest is all politics.

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