In his Independence Day speech, Indian PM Narendra Modi accused Pakistan of sponsoring terrorism and committing rights abuses in its Balochistan province. Will his remarks help or sabotage the Baloch separatist movement?
While Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif held India responsible for the ongoing violence in Kashmir in his Independence Day speech on August 14, Indian Premier Narendra Modi retaliated by pointing out to Pakistani oppression in the western Balochistan province in his August 15 speech.
As the two countries continue to accuse each other of sponsoring terrorism, any hope for the rapprochement and peace between the South Asian neighbors seem like a distant dream.
Modi and Sharif had started off on a positive note two years ago. The two leaders have met on various occasions and emphasized the importance of trade and cordial bilateral ties between their countries. But the past few weeks have been turbulent for the two nations and also their leaders.
The violence in Kashmir flared up after the death of separatist leader Burhan Wani on July 8. The clashes between anti-India protesters and security forces have so far killed over 50 people in India-administered Kashmir.
Pakistani activists from Balochistan demand that Islamabad return hundreds of 'missing persons' allegedly abducted by security agents
Accusations and counter-accusations
The Kashmir conflict features so prominently in Pakistan's political discourse that Sharif dedicated his country's 70th Independence Day to the "freedom of Kashmir" from Indian rule.
"This Independence Day is memorable as the spirit of independence in occupied Kashmir is at its peak nowadays. The new generation of Kashmiris has raised the flag of freedom with a new vigor," the prime minister said.
But on Monday, August 15, PM Modi took a dig at Islamabad and reminded the Islamic Republic's leaders of their own rights violations in the Balochistan province and the Gilgit-Baltistan region in the country's north.
"What kind of life is this, inspired by terrorism? What kind of government setup is it that is inspired by terrorism?" said Modi, who delivered the open-air address in the Indian capital Delhi. "The world will know about it and that's sufficient for me."
"People of Balochistan, Gilgit and PoK (Pakistan-occupied Kashmir) have thanked me a lot in past few days, I am grateful to them," said Modi in his Monday address.
Just like New Delhi blames Islamabad of backing a protracted insurgent movement in its portion of Kashmir, Pakistani authorities claim Indian intelligence agency RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) is aiding the Baloch separatists.
A week ago, a Taliban faction killed over 80 people in a suicide attack in the western city of Quetta. The Pakistani government claimed that India was behind the bombing.
Last year, China and Pakistan signed deals related to energy and infrastructure projects worth $46 billion
Baloch activists 'welcome' Modi's comments
Unlike the Kashmir conflict, the Balochistan problem does not receive as much attention as it deserves, argue Baloch activists.
In recently-held rallies in several German cities, the Pakistani-German activists voiced concerns about the neglect and indifference the impoverished Balochistan province faces from the local and international media.
But the Indian PM's explicit mention of Balochistan in his Independence Day speech is likely to bring the international focus on the conflict.
Balochistan, which borders Iran and Afghanistan, remains Pakistan's poorest and least populous province despite a number of development projects Islamabad has initiated there in the past. Rebel groups have waged a separatist insurgency in the province for decades, complaining that the central government in Islamabad and the richer Punjab province unfairly exploit their resources. Islamabad reacted to the insurgency by launching a military operation in the province in 2005.
"We welcome Narendra Modi's statement on the Balochistan conflict," Mama Qadeer, a veteran Baloch activist in Pakistan, told DW. "Did Modi say anything wrong? Aren't Pakistani forces committing serious rights violations in Balochistan?" Qadeer questioned.
"India supports our cause and the Baloch people appreciate it. Islamabad takes it as Indian interference. They blamed India's RAW for the Quetta attack. They like to blame everything on RAW. The authorities even call me a RAW agent," Qadeer added.
Zeenia Shaukat, an activist working for a labor rights institution in Karachi, believes the "Indian agents" thinking is deeply entrenched not only in the mindset of Pakistan's policymakers, but also among the general public in her country. "Unfortunately, the media too promotes the 'foreign forces-did-it' narrative," Shaukat told DW.
Proof of Indian involvement?
Modi's Balochistan claims, however, have infuriated the Pakistani authorities.
"The Indian premier's speech is proof that his country is meddling in Balochistan. Indian and Afghan spy agencies are backing Baloch insurgents and working to destabilize Pakistan," Anwar-ul-Haq Kakar, a spokesman for the Balochistan's provincial government, told DW.
Kakar denied allegations that the Pakistani military was committing rights abuses in the restive province. "We are only targeting the terrorists who are attacking the government forces and civilians."
Pakistani PM's spokesman Musadiq Malik said Modi wanted to "divert the attention from Indian atrocities in Kashmir by bring up the Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan issues."
However, nationalist politician and Former Chief Minister of Balochistan Ataullah Mengal said the Baloch separatist movement was indigenous.
"These allegations are not new. India has no role to play in Balochistan. While the Pakistani government publicly declares all Kashmir as Pakistani territory, India has no such claims over Balochistan," Mengal told DW.
Two separate issues?
The Baloch activists argue that while most Pakistanis protest the killings in India-administered Kashmir, and several social media campaigns have been launched to highlight the violence in the valley, there is a "media blackout" for the "atrocities" in Balochistan.
"The Pakistani state continues to propagate narratives that suit its domestic and regional interests. Those who point out to the crimes committed by the Pakistani army are silenced by the state," Mustafa Baloch, a Hertfordshire-based university professor, told DW
However, Sarfaraz Bugti, Balochistan's interior minister, contradicts Baloch's claims. "Kashmir and Balochistan are two different issues. If the people want, we can hold a referendum in the province. But we don't see any political struggle in Balochistan. The members of the nationalist parties are in the provincial assembly. They don't demand freedom. They merely ask for greater control over provincial resources. We can work with them on this issue," the official told DW.
But Mustafa Baloch argues that the main issue is not about the fight over resources as claimed by Islamabad. He asserts that the people of the "neglected province" no longer trust Pakistani authorities because, he claims, the security forces are involved in kidnappings, torturing and killings in the province.
"More than 20,000 Baloch activists are missing, and we discover mutilated bodies almost every day," said Baloch, adding that the conflict would not be resolved until the Pakistani military and government changed their policies toward Balochistan.
Experts say that while Modi's Balochistan comments may highlight the much-neglected conflict, it could also sabotage the image of an indigenous movement, similar to what Pakistani involvement in Kashmir has done to the once-peaceful struggle.
Additional reporting by Sattar Khan, DW's Islamabad correspondent.