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Was the PM’s decision to bring up this contentious issue a tactical move to counter Pakistan which has been stoking the flames in Kashmir? Will it change the rules of engagement?

By Seema Guha

Much is being made of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to publicly state India’s support for Baloch separatists fighting the Pakistani state. Many see this as a game-changer, an attempt by the Indian state to pay Pakistan back in its own coin. Whether this is a tactical move to take the focus from the uprising in Kashmir or a genuine change of stand only time will tell. But for now, the vociferous championing of human rights in Pakistan has brought another element into the already complex India-Pakistan equation. In future India-Pakistan talks, when Islamabad brings up Kashmir, India will bring Balochistan, Gilgit and Baltistan to the table. Will the rules of engagement between India and Pakistan change? The third angle is China because Balochistan and Gilgit also impinge on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

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It is ironical that India should be talking about human rights in the neighborhood at a time when pellets fired on youthful protesters in the Kashmir Valley have caused widespread outrage. Pakistan naturally has used this to up the ante against India.

Modi having first spoken about human rights in Pakistan at an all-party meet decided to make a splash of it on August 15 from the ramparts of Red Fort. He spoke not just about Balochistan, but brought in Gilgit and Baltistan in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir as well. A day earlier, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had “dedicated” his Independence Day message to the people of Kashmir. Was this Modi’s attempt at tit-for-tat? “I want to speak a bit about the people in Balochistan, Gilgit Baltistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir… The world is watching. People of Balochistan, Gilgit and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir have thanked me a lot in the past few days,” Modi said. “I am grateful to them.”

HAILED BY BALOCHS

As expected, Modi’s words were enthusiastically welcomed by Baloch leaders. Though their struggle has gone on for decades, somehow the international community had never focused on the issue. Unlike Kashmir, which has remained “disputed”, Balochistan despite its history, has always been regarded as part of Pakistan. India’s decision to speak of human rights abuses in Balochistan has been much appreciated and raised hopes of more focus by the international community.

Pro-azadi protests at Chattabal in Srinagar in the wake of Burhan Wani’s encounter death. Photo: UNI
Pro-azadi protests at Chattabal in Srinagar in the wake of Burhan Wani’s encounter death. Photo: UNI

But it is not just Baloch nationalists who are happy with Modi, but  people from Gilgit as well. Senge Hasnan Sering, director of the Gilgit-Baltistan National Congress, who works out of Washington, wrote in The Indian Express about the importance of Modi’s declaration. “The people of Gilgit-Baltistan must realize that Modi is ending the region’s long international isolation. The message by itself does not show a policy change but Modi’s message is clear: Gilgit-Baltistan, Jammu and Ladakh are equal stakeholders and the issue cannot be solved by focusing on Kashmir alone. It is a positive sign that India is advancing a policy to address the region’s constitutional question by bringing Gilgit-Baltistan on par with Kashmir at the negotiating table.’’

MARKED SHIFT

Like Sering, most Indians have welcomed what they perceive as a marked shift in government policy. Right-wing supporters are overjoyed as it is in keeping with the BJP’s ultra-nationalist ideas. They point out that unlike Congress governments, this PM is not ready to let Pakistan get away with fomenting terrorism not just in Kashmir but across the country. These elements says that the Pakistan military’s decade-old doctrine  of inflicting a thousand cuts on India has remained intact and successive Congress governments have suffered through this without a murmur.

Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif waves as he arrives in Downing Street to meet the then Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron in London. Photo: UNI
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif waves as he arrives in Downing Street to meet the then Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron in London. Photo: UNI

Many believe that Modi was forced to change track after his overtures to Pakistan was rejected by the military which dictates that country’s India policy. Modi himself had shifted positions several times on Pakistan. He began well by inviting Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif for his oath-taking in May 2014. This was followed by setting conditions for talks and red lines were drawn and as mysteriously, withdrawn. This was followed by the sudden meeting of the NSAs of both countries in Bangkok, euphoria over talks and Modi’s Christmas visit to Lahore. But the euphoria evaporated quickly as it was followed by the attack on India’s frontline airbase in Pathankot. All this led the government to believe that something needs to change and the only way forward is to let Pakistan realize that Delhi can as easily support the Baloch movement or raise Gilgit-Baltistan issues as Islamabad fans the flames in Kashmir.

As expected, Modi’s words were enthusiastically welcomed by Baloch leaders. Though their struggle has gone on for decades, somehow the international community had never focused on the issue. Unlike Kashmir, which has remained “disputed”, Balochistan despite its history, has always been regarded as part of Pakistan. India’s decision to speak of human rights abuses in Balochistan has been much appreciated and raised hopes of more focus by the international community.

With the Mumbai terror attack and the Pathankot strike in mind, most Indians have welcomed the perceived change, believing that Islamabad must know that it has to pay a price for its transgressions. And it is not just Pakistan; China has also been told in no uncertain terms that Delhi has not taken kindly to its role in stopping India’s entry to the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Previous governments had taken care not to take on the Chinese dragon publicly. So the chorus of Modi supporters is all excited by what they see as a shift to a new assertive Indian foreign policy under Modi.

MOVE WELCOMED

Retired diplomats have welcomed the move. Former high commissioner to Pakistan Vivek Katju is enthusiastic. “For too long we have taken everything that Pakistan has thrown at us without a murmur. The PM has rightly focused on human rights abuse in Balochistan. Pakistan has no right to talk about India’s human rights record without looking at itself… their record in Balochistan and Bangladesh tells its own story. Are we so supine that we must never react?’’

An Indian army officer asks media crew to move aside inside the Indian Air Force (IAF) base at Pathankot in Punjab, India on January 3, 2016. Photo: UNI
An Indian army officer asks media crew to move aside inside the Indian Air Force (IAF) base at Pathankot in Punjab, India on January 3, 2016. Photo: UNI

Katju points out that the prime minister had merely raised the Baloch question; he has not said that India is going to put boots on the ground and fight for its liberation as it did in Bangladesh. “Pakistan keeps talking of political and moral support for Kashmir, we can do the same  and support restive movements in their country,’’ Katju said.

Former foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh has also welcomed Modi stirring the pot on Balochistan but is not certain if it is a strategic shift yet. “If this is a tactical shift to diffuse the Kashmir focus to counter Pakistan’s strategy at the UN in September, then it is not a good idea. It shows a defensive mindset. There is a downside to this kind of cynicism. I am skeptical of the move. But if this is a departure from the past and a genuine strategic policy change, I welcome it. It is time we take a strong stand and have a bold policy. We have allowed Pakistan to continue its destructive role in Kashmir for decades, it is time to change.” Ambas­sador Mansing’s point is that Pakistan should realize India can also hurt and two can play the same game. Pakistan has constantly tried to talk of plebiscite, call in the international community, send interrorists and what not. It should know India can do the same if it wants and hurt Pakistan’s interests.” The former foreign secretary is echoing the feelings of many in the establishment.

Modi began well by inviting Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif for his oath-taking in May 2014.  But the euphoria evaporated quickly as it was followed by the attack on India’s frontline airbase in Pathankot. All this led the government to believe that something needs to change and the only way forward is to let Pakistan realize that Delhi can as easily support the Baloch movement or raise Gilgit-Baltistan issues as Islamabad fans the flames in Kashmir.

Mansingh also said that India now was making no bones about its unhappiness with China’s constant support of Pakistan. In fact, Modi has taken on both Pakistan and China in his Independence Day speech. By highlighting Balochistan, Gilgit and Baltistan, Modi is calling into question China’s huge $46 billion investment for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which was announced during President Xi Jinping’s visit to Pakistan in 2014. India has been protesting China’s infrastructure moves in PoK as it considers the entire area a part of its territory.

CHINESE ANGLE

The China-Pakistan corridor will pass through Balochistan and its terminus will be the Chinese-built port of Gwadar in Balochistan coast. As is well-known, the One Belt, One Road project is President Xi’s pet scheme, and the Chinese have invested both money and energy on it. If India is seriously considering a strategic shift in policy towards both China and Pakistan, it will have to bear the consequences. Is Prime Minister Modi ready to take on full responsibility for it? Only time will tell.

Taking on close allies, Pakistan and China, will mean changing the rules of engagement. There are obvious risks involved, exposing India to attacks on two fronts. But some analysts argue that China has always sided with Pakistan and is likely to do so in future too. With the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor lending more weight to the partnership, India has no choice but to take on both. The question is, can India afford to do so right now? The simple answer is no. India needs time to catch up with China both economically and militarily before flexing its muscles.

It is unlikely that the Modi government will embark on a dangerous adventurist move without covering its flanks. Memories of the 1962 border war with China where the People’s Liberation Army dealt a crushing blow to an unprepared Indian army are still fresh. No Indian PM will take on China without being fully prepared. For that, more time is required.

It is fair to assume that Modi, on the back foot on Kashmir, is being defensive. Nobody expects any major change on the ground for now.  Lise Curtis of American think tank, Heritage Foundation, says that Modi was laying down a marker—that  his government will be less patient than its predecessor when it comes to Pakistani terrorist provocations. “Still, it’s unlikely that the Balochistan reference heralds any significant new actions on the ground by India.”

Lead picture:  (L-R)  Modi speaks at Red Fort on Independence Day; securitymen gather at the site of a bomb explosion in Quetta in August that left 74 dead. Photo: UNI

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