By: Nava Thakuria

India is slowly but steadily pushing the thinly-populated but troubled Baloch region of Pakistan, the country’s biggest province by land area, to break away to become a sovereign nation, daring blowback from Islamabad that exacerbates the August 5 takeover of the disputed Jammu & Kashmir region.

The message from New Delhi supporting the freedom movement has grown stronger in the recent past, inspiring Baloch insurgents to push to deepen the Indo-Baloch relationship.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi provided the spark in his 2016 Independence Day speech from the courtyard of historic Red Fort in New Delhi. In that speech, Modi sent his greetings to “the people of Balochistan, Gilgit [and] Pakistan-occupied Kashmir,” a major shift in policy, which caused outrage in Islamabad, where the words were viewed as an infringement on Pakistani sovereignty. He has since followed that up with his removal of Kashmir’s special autonomous status and a lockdown of the province.

Although Balochis are mostly Muslim, as is the larger Islamic Republic of Pakistan, the insurgents refuse to accept Pakistani hegemony, arguing that the province was given independence by the dissolution of the British Indian Empire in August 1947, before India and Pakistan split into two nations with bloody consequences.

Balochistan remained a sovereign nation following independence until March 1948, when three of the four princely states agreed to join Pakistan. However, the fourth, led by the Khan of Kalat, Ahmed Yaar Khan, chose independence in accordance with one of the options given to the princely states at the time. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s first governor general, persuaded Yaar Khan to accept Pakistani rule after negotiations.

However, the Khan’s brother Prince Kareem Khan declared independence and fled to Afghanistan to seek aid and begin a failed armed struggle. Eventually, the whole province acceded to becoming a part of Pakistan, although for decades the struggle has continued.

“After enjoying nine months of independence, Balochistan was treacherously occupied by the Pakistani forces,” claimed Baloch nationalist leader Hyrbyair Marri, the president of the Free Balochistan Movement in an interview.

Ahmed Yaar Khan, Marri said, simply had no authority to decide on behalf of the entire region to join Pakistan. Islamabad, he said, had created a myth that Baloch wanted to join Pakistan, “which is a blatant falsehood.”

Whatever the case, Balochistan has been cited by Human Rights Watch and other rights organization as being the victims of violations of “epidemic proportions,” including torture, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and other abuses as Pakistan has sought to subdue the restive province. Brad Adams, the director of the Asia branch of Human Rights Watch, accused the Pakistani government of using Islamic militants to crush the separatists. Perhaps for that reason, the Baloch Muslims have never sought to join the militants in their struggle.

Marri accused the government of rampant exploitation of Balochistan’s resources including natural gas, coal, gold, copper and various minerals. The province’s 13 million people, Marri told Asia Sentinel, are deprived of regular electricity, safe drinking water, and other amenities. Its infant mortality rate is very high, he charged, and its literacy rate is too low. He accused Iran of being complicit in the oppression.

More than 20,000 Baloch men, women and children have disappeared in the last decade, Marri alleged, with more than 2,000 journalists, teachers, lawyers, and cultural personalities having been forcibly abducted, tortured and even killed.

A former member of the Balochistan provincial assembly and also a Baloch minister, Marri said patriots have fought for decades to free their country from Pakistan’s occupation, asking India to lend an active helping hand to their cause as a trusted ally.

How much of this might be wishful thinking on the part of the Baloch is a good question. Not only does the province boast an estimated US$1 trillion in natural resources, Balochistan is also the focus of China, the US and India as well. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is aimed at connecting China to the Indian Ocean through the port of Gwadar and forms a major link in Beijing’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road infrastructure goals, has spinoffs in Balochistan.

The Baloch, however, who have their own unique culture, language and religious practices — have largely been left out of the decision-making process about the region’s future. India has shown little enthusiasm for China’s plans.

“We need India’s friendship, support and help,” Marri said. “But rather than using the Balochistan independence struggle as a means to checkmate and counter Islamabad, New Delhi should look at Balochistan as an all-weather ally and India should see a post-independence secular and stable Balochistan which will be one of the factors in bringing tranquility in the region.”

More recently, a northeast-India based nationalists’ group urged the Union government in New Delhi to pursue with the Balochistan authority the revitalization of the Hinglaj Mata Mandir, a revered temple where thousands of Hindus gather to pray to the Goddess Shakti.

“We have appealed to PM Modi to take a personal interest to enhance diplomatic efforts to revive the Hinglaj temple and pave easier ways for Indian pilgrims to visit the shrine. As the Baloch nationals are legitimately secular, they should also be taken into confidence in fulfilling the mission,” said a PPFA statement.

Marri and other Baloch nationalists have sought to establish Indo-Baloch friendship platforms in different countries including in India even though it is a Hindu majority nation. On various social networking sites, the nationalists have begun appealing to the Indians as brothers and sisters, saying Balochis are thankful to India for its increasing solidarity and support. Indians are also being urged to be the voice for Baloch people in different forums including the United Nations.