It’s official: India is turning the Balochistan lever against Pakistan. After decades of keeping itself at arms’ length from the issue, it is now changing tack. “They [Pakistan] are trying to give us lectures about Kashmir, that’s why we have told them what is happening in Balochistan, Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Gilgit,” Union Minister Venkaiah Naidu explained. Since Indian security forces killed Hizbul Mujahideen operative Burhan Wani last month, there have been large-scale protests in Kashmir Valley, which according to New Delhi have been engineered by Pakistan. Pakistan has retorted that the protests are a popular uprising against an occupying force.
Without diminishing the fact that there is at least some genuine discontent and disillusionment in the Valley, it is also hard to ignore that the unrest in Kashmir comes at a time when Pakistan has been effectively isolated on the international stage. Pakistan has played up Burhan Wani’s death, ostensibly hoping to distract attention from its own problems at home and abroad. But the fact of the matter is that what was once Pakistan’s most potent weapon to flog India on the global stage has now been blunted.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi fired the first salvo from an all-party meeting convened to discuss the Kashmir issue. Then, from the ramparts of the iconic Red Fort on Independence Day, with a billion eyes and ears trained on his every word and gesture, he said the unexpected. “For the past few days, the people of Balochistan, people of Gilgit, people of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir… have heartily thanked me.” He didn’t go into detail but the reference to Pakistani atrocities in these regions was obvious. And then, with just about every foreign diplomat that India hosts in the audience, Modi warned that “the world is watching.”
Experts have dubbed this as a game-changer in the India-Pakistan relationship. That will be true if India keeps up the pressure. But for now, what we have is a change in tone and tenor. “Pakistan-occupied Kashmir” has always been part of India’s official narrative, though Modi has brought it center stage and put the spotlight on Pakistani excesses in the region. Balochistan, though, is a new ball game altogether. Because Balochistan is not disputed territory that India claims as its own. India recognizes Balochistan as Pakistani territory and, therefore, it could be argued that bringing up the issue violates India’s principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation. But while such principles make for good speeches and even academic discourse, the demands of realpolitik require crafting a different approach. Simply put, this was why India went into East Pakistan and midwifed Bangladesh.
This is not to suggest that the Modi Government is planning a similar operation in Balochistan. It is only to underline the fact that if in 1971, India, still a poor country that was struggling to stand on its own two feet, could carry out a foreign military intervention on humanitarian grounds, there is no reason the India of 2016, an economic powerhouse that seeks a seat at the global high table, cannot at least draw the attention of the world to the situation in Balochistan. There is a strong moral case for India to speak, and firmly so, about Balochistan.
Perhaps, the question to be asked is: Why is India bringing up the issue now? The easy answer is Modi and his confident, self-assured approach to diplomacy. But it’s more than that—apart from changes in regional alignments (think Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq), there is the China factor that India must grapple with. In this context, it is no coincidence that Beijing’s much-touted China Pakistan Economic Corridor which cuts through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, also traverses through Balochistan and includes the strategic Gwadar Port (notably, India has also upped its game in Chabahar, which is to serve as a foil to Gwadar).
Some concerns have been raised that doing so would push India off the moral high ground it has held vis-à-vis Pakistan, that it would add credence to Pakistani claims that India has been fueling the insurgency in Balochistan, and that in turn would dilute India’s cross-border terrorism case against Pakistan in Kashmir. One can argue endlessly on these issues, but the fact of the matter is that these are essentially perception battles that have limited impact on the ground and are ultimately decided by hard power. Look at, for example, how China is rarely censured for its oppressive policies in Tibet or against the Uighurs.
The more important question here is: Will India take the Balochistan issue (which Pakistan has also sought to exploit India for) and effectively use it as a lever against Pakistan? Like in Bangladesh, Pakistan’s own excesses in Balochistan make India’s job easy. But it is still to be seen if India will keep up the pressure, particularly if a different dispensation comes to power in New Delhi in 2019.
Image: The India Today Group, Getty