Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remarks on Balochistan may have achieved little on the ground but Baloch activists and independent analysts say they have brought the unrest in Pakistan’s largest province into focus once again.
But the Pakistani media has, by and large, stayed away from discussing the human rights situation in Balochistan, including the issues of thousands of “missing persons” or victims of enforced disappearances.
Modi stirred up a storm when he said at an all-party meeting on August 12 that Pakistan would have to answer for “atrocities” in Balochistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Three days later, Modi said during his Independence Day speech that people from Balochistan and PoK had thanked him for raising the issue.
M Ali Talpur, who has chronicled the kidnapping and killing of people from Balochistan following an army operation, said the Pakistani media has at least started mentioning Balochistan. “This is good, irrespective of what they are saying,” he said.
For Talpur and many other activists, the most frustrating aspect is that the “mainstream media would not talk about the kidnappings and killings of innocent people in Balochistan for fear of reprisals by the army”. But after the references by Modi, “people have once again started talking about the issue”, he added.
Mama Qadeer, who also highlights the cause of Baloch “missing persons”, said Modi’s speech “helped draw international attention to the plight of the Baloch people at a time when there are so many such tragedies taking place in different parts of the world”.
Pakistan has said Modi crossed a “red line” by talking about Balochistan. It also accused him of raising the issue to divert attention from the unrest in Kashmir that has claimed more than 60 lives.
Balochistan chief minister Sanaullah Zehri dismissed Modi’s remarks and there were protests in the province against his speech.
While all of this has been covered by the Pakistani media, it has refrained from focussing on the rights situation in Balochistan. Media analyst Abid Husayn said: “It has focused on how Balochistan and Kashmir do not equate to the same thing.”
Husayn added the situation in Balochistan is not covered in the mainstream media the way it should. “There is pressure from the army not to talk about Balochistan at all.”
The broadcast media regulator, PEMRA, has issued notices to TV channels that took up the topic in their programmes. Though there has been some change, Balochistan does not affect the state’s push to highlight the Kashmir issue, Husayn said.
“There has been a deliberate attempt to keep the two issues separate,” he said. “One is seen as a humanitarian crisis while the other is our internal matter that is being blown up by India to embarrass us.”
News directors privately said they were repeatedly reminded not to tone down the coverage of Kashmir. Clips and reports from ISI-funded entities such as the Kashmir Media Service are given to news channels to run.
“We are not expected to give any version of the story except what is given to us,” complained a news director.
At the same time, there has been a push by the military’s public relations wing, the ISPR, to portray a more positive image of Balochistan . Journalists are being flown to the provincial capital, Quetta, and shown how the situation is improving.
There is even talk of ISPR funding a movie on Balochistan to show how India’s RAW spy agency has “funded the insurgency there”, sources said.
“All this can be seen as a response to the Indian PM’s speech,” said another news director who asked not to be named. “It has brought the army on the defensive,” he added.