bilateral ties

Modi's Balochistan reference, a tactical move and not a strategic shift

PTI8_15_2016_000011b Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing the nation during the 70th Independence Day function at the historic Red Fort in New Delhi on Monday | PTI Photo

Islamabad's tradition of meddling in Kashmir and fomenting terrorism has remained a sore point in the India-Pakistan relations since the partition in 1947 but Prime Minister Narendra Modi , speaking from the ramparts of Red Fort on August 15 changed this discourse. Digressing from New Delhi's traditional stand of demanding an end to cross-border terror in Kashmir, Modi chose to take the discourse forward to touch the Achilles Heel of Pakistan – Balochistan.

“The people of Balochistan, the people of Gilgit, the people of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir have thanked me in such a manner, from places that I have never been and never had a chance to meet, they have sent wishes to the people of India and thanked us,” thundered Modi. “I am grateful to them.”

This was the second time in a week that Modi brought up Balochistan. In the All Parties Meeting on Kashmir―Modi had ducked the issue at hand , of controlling the ongoing unrest in Kashmir, by raising the bogey.

“Pakistan forgets that it bombs its own citizens using fighter planes. The time has come when Pakistan shall have to answer to the world for the atrocities committed by it against people in Balochistan and PoK (Pakistan-occupied Kashmir).”

“It is a major policy shift in our relationship with Pakistan where so far we have been correct in not commenting on the internal affairs of Pakistan and accepting that Pakistan has a role in Kashmir, recognised in the Shimla agreement , and that is why we could talk Kashmir in our dialogue with Islamabad. But diplomatically, it is a bold move where we have given a message to Pakistan that it can be a game of ''reciprocity'' if you try to destabilise India. But it is my uneasy feeling, that it is just a tactical move and not a strategic shift ,” former foreign secretary Lalit Mansing told THE WEEK.

Call it a stick and carrot approach, a day later, New Delhi conveyed its willingness to engage Pakistan with foreign secretary S. Jaishankar accepting the invitation for FS level talks in Islamabad. At the Centre of this approach was a rider and a renewed attempt to de-link Pakistan's K-bogey from New Delhi's demand to reign in terror groups fomenting unrest in Kashmir. The message was clear, India was putting the ball in Pakistan's court.

“Since aspects related to cross-border terrorism are central to the current situation in J&K, we have proposed that discussions between the Foreign Secretaries be focused on them. We have also conveyed that the government rejects in their entirety the self-serving allegations regarding the situation in JK, which is an integral part of India where Pakistan has no locus standi,” said a foreign ministry source.

Those who are privy to the fast paced developments atop Raisina Hill, believe that the ''offensive strategy'' being played by India is a two pronged one to extend support to a domestically weakened Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who is looking to appoint a new army chief who could help settle the civil military tension in Pakistan. It is being speculated simultaneously that General Raheel Sharif may not get a second term but be elevated to the honorary position of a Field marshal.

“Sharif's weakened position is frustrating Mr Modi. Sharif is talking of Kashmir because of his weak position. At this juncture he needs New Delhi's support and by accepting the offer for talks, we have taken a step in the right direction,” A.S Dulat, former R&AW chief told THE WEEK.

That New Delhi is walking a tight rope is clear but the diplomatic card played by India could keep Pakistan off-balance for a while. It is unlikely that Pakistan will agree to restrict the dialogue to cross-border terror for the FS talks, says Mansingh.

If the dialogue breaks down or does not instil confidence, New Delhi has the option to ratchet up its offensive by taking up the Balochistan- Gilgit reference on the international forum- the United National General Assembly meet next month- highlighting the human rights violations by Pakistan in its southwestern province which was forcibly annexed by Pakistan a day after the partition of India.

“The passionate campaign that Sharif has been carrying out has resulted in hardening of position on both sides. Pakistan has been needlessly provocative in the way the Burhan Wani (Jaish militant) killing issue has been raised. Some capital that the Pakistani prime minister had built with Mr Modi , which accounted for the latter stopping by at Islamabad, has got depleted. If Islamabad makes a vicious speech at the UNGA mentioning Kashmir, then yes, India has the option of raising the atrocities in Balochistan,” former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal told THE WEEK.

History documents that fact that the British had annexed Balochistan to British India in 1884. The implications of an expanded Baloch insurgency that could spread to other provinces such as Sindh threatening Pakistan's territorial security is something Islamabad cannot afford today.

“Mr Modi's Balochistan- Gilgit reference may have a historical link but it's not about territorial claim. Geographically we are away from Balochistan but we have conveyed to Islamabad that if you cannot do justice to your own people who are suffering from the worst human right abuses, why are you talking about Kashmir,” Arun Choudhary, former Intelligence Bureau special director who handled Kashmir told THE WEEK.

Home Ministry officials pointed out that whenever Pakistani leaders visit India, they meet the separatists. The previous National Security Advisor level talks had to be called off because the Pakistani side wanted to meet Hurriyat leaders.

"We don't meet Baluch leaders when we go to Islamabad,” said a top official outlining New Delhi's approach towards Balochistan and Gilgit hinting towards what a strategic shift could mean for Pakistan

What India has done so far, which unsettles Islamabad, is ''remaining in touch'' with Baloch leaders , which is a legitimate part of diplomacy worldwide. Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) officers who have met Baloch leaders and others who led the Track II dialogue under the previous UPA government told THE WEEK that the Baloch boys are very critical of Pakistan and openly talk of disappearances.

For these officers, spying and espionage is also an acknowledged part of states-craft globally but that's another story. Pakistan knows it better than us, they insist.

When Pakistani Brigadier Zahir ul Islam Abbasi, the military attache at the Pakistani embassy in New Delhi was caught spying 25 years ago, he was declared persona non-grata and sent back home. That was the most conspicuous case of a high profile Pakistani officer caught spying and declared persona non-grata. But with the arrest of Kulbhushan Jadhav, an alleged R&AW spy and naval officer from Balochistan early this year, Islamabad chose to use it as the biggest evidence so far of India's direct involvement in fueling unrest in Balochistan.

“Pakistan's claim has fallen flat. Till date, there are no international dossiers against any R&AW spies operating clandestinely in Balochistan or Gilgit nor has Pakistan been able to gather international support to its claim,” said another spy.

According to the Indian intelligence community, this is ample proof of what sets India and Pakistan apart on the international stage and the sole reason why India also stands tall as a ''responsible nation and a responsible neighbour''.

“When the 26/11 terror attack happened, there was a chance of a possible confrontation. The provocation was huge. In one month, heads of four countries United states, UK, Japan, France visited India and the whole counseling was to exercise restraint,” said a top security official. “We can once again use international leverage to reign in Pakistan but we cannot afford to play the role of an 'aggressor',” he said.

Modi's speech has been heard loud and clear by the intelligence agencies but they explain why such a move is far-off.

“Our agencies do not move a step forward without political approval. No one will take any step till there is political approval for it. But Pakistan must remember, that the ISI may have been trained by the CIA, the R&AW has trained itself,” a top intelligence official said appearing to soak in the aggression that emanated from the ramparts of the Red Fort as both India and Pakistan heard Modi speak.

Despite the adrenaline pumping aggressive stance, Indian agencies want to remain cautious. “As of now we should keep quiet. Our Achilles Heel is Kashmir and their's is Balochistan. If they target us in J&K, do we have the capacity to handle it? We must understand that their capacity to damage us in JK is much more,” cautions the officer recalling the 1999 Kargil withdrawal and the lessons learnt.

The past is littered with such lessons and chapters to be re-visited. There were times that the Indian government―sympathetic as it was―had failed the Baloch leadership.

In the 1970s―there might have been sections in the Indian government that wanted to toy with the idea, but Indira Gandhi stood firm. Baloch leaders were denied visas because the Indian government hoped that they would be able to strike a deal with Zia-ul-Haq. A prominent Baloch leader―who lives in London―still carries the hurt of rejection even 25 years later. He is believed to have remarked that little can be expected from a country that refuses to even grant medical visas for treatment. This summer Naela Qadri Baloch―a leader in exile―was granted an Indian visa for two weeks. Qadri―was in India in April―at the same time when Uyghur leader Dokul Isa had his visa revoked. She travelled across India to universities―including the ‘anti national’ JNU―to talk about the human rights violations in the hope that she could garner public support for her cause.

“Indian people have been supportive,’’ she said. “The government has been silent. They don’t hear us or see us....It is not a policy without political will.”

Sher Mohammad Bugti―Central Spokesperson of Baloch Republican Party―believes Modi's statement represents “a ray of hope.” In exile in Geneva, Bugti says: “It shouldn’t be seen as a reaction to Kashmir. We wanted to be rescued like the people in Bengal (Bangladesh). We are waiting in hope for that. India is a big democratic country and we hope that implement this and help us free us from the oppressive regime of Pakistan.” Like Qadri, Bugti denies any convert involvement of India in the movement.

“If India was to help, the whole map of Pakistan would be different,’’ he quips.

But lobbying for Balochistan--internationally--won't be easy. It will bring India in confrontation with Iran--that shares a border with the Balochistan--and Afghanistan. "The Iranians are allergic to the idea,'' says Sushant Sareen, strategic analyst. The port of Gwadar is in the heart of Balochistan. “It remains to be seen whether there has been a policy shift. It will unfold in the next week or days,’’ says Sushant Sareen, strategic affairs analyst. “What has Modi said? He has brought up human rights violations, like Pakistan has before like in Gujarat or post Babri Masjid. But will India speak on the behalf of Baloch people at international fora remains to be seen?’’

For Modi’s speech to be a warning shot fired―it will also take more than mentioning Balochistan. It would take―the P word that doesn’t always follow grand declarations―political will. It doesn’t help that the average Indian politician may be willing to jump on the bandwagon―especially when it comes as tit for tat with Pakistan upping the ante on Kashmir but the Baloch cause is only a blimp on their horizon. Unlike Bangladesh―pre 1971―the Baloch cause hasn’t caught the imagination of the Indian politician. An anecdote illustrates that. Post Sharmal Sheikh disaster―where then PM Manmohan Singh―agreed to bring up Balouchistan in the joint statement―for the first time, there was a debate in Parliament. Sharad Yadav made a passionate plea for Balochistan and then went on to speak about Khan Ghafar Khan―a very prominent leader and friend of Mahatma Gandhi―but with no relation to Balouchistan or the Baloch people.

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