Balochistan: Changing the Rules of Engagement
Vol 10 Issue 4 Sep - Oct 2016
Prime Minister Modi’s mention of Balochistan from the ramparts of Red Fort changed the entire gamut of the geo-politics of South Asia as indeed of the Asian Region
Monday, October 3, 2016
On India’s 70th Independence Day, when Prime Minister Modi addressed the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort, he did something no Indian Prime Minister has done before. He reached out to the people of Balochistan, Gilgit-Baltistan and Pak Occupied Kashmir when he said, “I want to express my thanks to the people of Balochistan, Gilgit-Baltistan, POK who have expressed good wishes for me ---“, an innocuous line in itself, but what it signals could be the start of an aggressive offensive-defense strategy to counter Pakistan’s growing interference in Kashmir.
The reference to Balochistan is a game-changer in itself, indicating a willingness to take the fight in to the enemy camp – something most Indian leaders have been loath to do. Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest and most impoverished province has been in the throes of an insurgency since the forcible annexation of the State of Kalat (former day Balochistan) by Pakistan. The demand of the Baloch people for independence and greater autonomy sparked off a decade of insurgency in the 50s and then again in the mid-70s when F-86 Sabers and Mirage III fighters were used to strafe and bomb entire villages. The recent phase of unrest has been raging since 2006 with the killing of the Baloch patriarch Nawab Akbar Ali Bugti and smolders on amidst wide-spread excesses by Pakistani troops. Baloch leaders and students are routinely picked up by security forces and their bullet-riddled, tortured bodies discovered weeks later. According to “The Voice of the Missing Baloch” over 9000 Balochis have simply disappeared over the past five years or so, and thousands more imprisoned, often on mere suspicion.
India has long been accused by Pakistan of fomenting and aiding the insurgency, a charge that has been consistently levelled but never proved. India’s hands-off approach to Balochistan has been one of the planks of our policy in dealing with Pakistan. Back in 2009, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signed the Sharm-el-Shiekh joint statement, with a mere reference to Balochistan, it produced a violent backlash in both nations. In view of India’s open refusal to mention Balochistan, Modi’s statement was a clear indicator that India is now changing the rules of engagement.
Implications of Change of Stance
What exactly does this change in stance imply? The very fact that it was raised by the Prime Minister at the Red Fort and not a spokesperson of the Foreign Ministry at a routine briefing gives a greater import. Is it just a tactical ploy to counter Pakistan’s increasing involvement in Kashmir or does it signal a strategic shift in our approach to Pakistan. Does it really imply Indian support for the Baloch cause? If so, will it erode our long –held moral stance to justify Pakistan’s own actions in Kashmir? For too long Pakistan has palmed off the Balochistan problem as a handiwork of Indian intelligence agencies without any proof. (In fact just days before the statement they arrested an Indian Kulbhushan Jadhav in Balochistan on the charges of being an Indian spy.) They could merely use this statement to tom-tom it. Also what will be its impact on China, which is directly involved in both Balochistan and Gilgit–Baltistan.
China has now become a major stake player with a $46 Billion investment in the China – Pakistan Economic corridor which runs from Kashgar in China, through Gilgit –Baltistan in POK and down to Gwadar in Balochistan. Indian protests that the corridor runs through its own territory in POK has predictably fallen on deaf ears. China is concerned with the security of the corridor, especially during its run through Balochistan. (reportedly, it went ahead with the project only after General Raheel Sharif flew to Beijing and guaranteed army protection for the entire project.) A section of the Chinese media has expressed concern about Indian influence in Balochistan and a leading Chinese think tank warned, “If this causes any damage to CPEC, China will have to get involved.” China may be tempted to up the ante to safeguard what it feels are its strategic interests. Its actions in the past – such as the move to block India’s membership of NSG and the blocking of a United Nations resolution to impose sanctions on the JeM chief Masood Azhar – have been more overtly pro-Pak than usual. A diplomatic offensive by China to support Pakistan’s position on the Kashmir issue may well be on the cards.
In Pakistan, too, the statement drew attention to its most prominent fault-line. The Baloch Liberation Movement received a fillip which allowed them to internationalize the issue. A spate of demonstrations by exiled Balochis across the world was testimony to the awakening awareness of the cause. That in a way helped put paid to Pakistan’s plans of sending envoys to 22 different nations to draw attention to the Kashmir issue. Pakistani media has gone ballistic over the issue with the Dawn asserting that India was ‘Trying a Bangladesh’ once again. That parallel may be far-fetched, (though there are many similarities between Pak atrocities in Bangladesh and Balochistan. Also, right through the 50s and 60s ,the Naga and Mizo rebels received arms training and sanctuaries in erstwhile East Pakistan to foment insurgency in the North East - a factor which contributed to India’s support of the Mukti Bahini and then the creation of Bangladesh). The realities of geography, the logistics and the international climate just do not support a repeat of Bangladesh.
At best, what Prime Minister Modi’s statement implies is that India is willing to go on the offensive after years of merely reacting to Pak shenanigans in Kashmir. As an initial gambit, it is to counter the vociferous Pak propaganda in Kashmir, by drawing attention to Pakistan’s own fault lines. But it is unlikely to be more than a tactical move – a warning to Pakistan that its involvement in Kashmir could have repercussions on its own soil. Pakistan is already isolated in the world as a sponsor of global terrorism and an Indian diplomatic offensive on Balochistan could raise some troubling questions for it. Also, with moral support, should Balochistan spiral out of control as it did in the 70s, it can create a situation which Pakistan- already plagued by internal terrorism and sectarian strife- will not be able to absorb. Pakistan has already seen the consequences of courting and supporting the Islamist fundamentalists which they now battle. The disastrous consequences of their Kashmir policy too, may strike back at them through Balochistan. Prime Minister Modi’s words were just a reminder of that.