OFFENSIVE DEFENCE

Balochistan is now officially an arrow in India’s quiver against Pakistan

Quartz india
Quartz india

There are four ways of dealing with a recalcitrant rival, according to Chanakya, the ancient Indian political philosopher and economist. They are saam, daan, bhed, and dand, roughly translating into talks, material offers, division, and punishment.

After decades of trying the first, talks, India seems to have decidedly opted for the third strategy, bhed, with regards to Pakistan over its inclination to nose around in Kashmir. The entity India has chosen to focus on is Balochistan, a particularly restive, mineral-rich region that is also the neighbour’s largest province.

“This is a country (Pakistan), which has systematically abused and violated the human rights of its own citizens, including in Balochistan,” Ajit Kumar, India’s ambassador and permanent representative to the United Nations (UN), said on Sept. 14.

With this statement, India has for the first time ever raised the Balochistan issue at the UN—officially including it in the country’s foreign policy armoury.

Pakistan has a brutal human rights history in that province, which borders Afghanistan and Iran. Balochis have been demanding independence for decades and so far thousands have gone missing, mostly following Pakistan’s military interventions.

India, from now on, will talk for the Balochis.

Indications of this shift in approach came a few days before India’s 70th Independence Day, when prime minister Narendra Modi referred to Balochistan. Then, during his annual Independence Day speech on Aug. 15, Modi again mentioned the love and admiration he received from Balochis.

But back then, these references appeared to be a tit-for-tat for Pakistan’s stand on Jammu and Kashmir, which had been on the boil for two months by then following the killing of Burhan Wani, a terrorist. New Delhi believes Pakistan is directly involved in inciting anti-India uprisings in the state. By invoking Balochistan, experts believed Modi was reminding Pakistan of its own internal troubles.

Two months later, India has made its intentions loud and clear. “New Delhi appears to have decided that the only way to deal with Islamabad is to play offence, not defence,” Sadanand Dhume, a resident fellow at the Washington DC-based American Enterprise Institute (AEI), said. “By raising the Balochistan question, India is signalling that it no longer believes that talks with Pakistan can be productive at this point.”

India’s concern for Balochistan

New Delhi’s interest in Balochistan may not be entirely new.

For decades, Pakistan has accused India of meddling in the region and its separatist insurgency. In fact, in February 2014, just three months before he was appointed India’s national security advisor, Ajit Doval tacitly acknowledged this. “You do one more Mumbai, you lose Balochistan,” he said. Doval was referring to Pakistan’s involvement in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which killed over 172 people and injured over 300.

“My sense is that India wants to push back against this narrative of Indian meddling by centering attention on what the Pakistanis themselves have done there (Balochistan),” Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for south and southeast Asia at the Washington DC-based Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, said.

In any case, the Balochistan issue may not really need an Indian role to simmer. Pakistan has done enough to earn the wrath of generations of Balochis.

Since British India’s partition in 1947, there have been five uprisings in Balochistan against the state of Pakistan. They began right after the Pakistani army moved in to enforce Balochistan’s accession in 1948. The region had wanted to remain independent and Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, even promised this to the monarch of Balochistan, Mir Sir Ahmad Yar Khan Ahmedzai. Jinnah, however, backed out and asked his army to annexe the province.

Ever since, the Pakistani state has brutally suppressed the political aspirations of the Balochis.

“Thousands are disappearing due to Pakistan’s use of the military against its own people. The fact is, Balochistan is destabilising the region and this instability is spreading across borders. Hence, India needs to act in the larger interest of the region,” G Parthasarathy, a former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan, said.

Chinese checkers and isolation

In August, after Modi first mentioned Balochistan, UK-based Baloch activists came out in his support. They had finally got some international attention.

Through frequent mentions of human rights violations in Balochistan, India will now look to isolate Pakistan globally. “The current diplomatic offensive signals a change towards a more cost-effective strategy, directed at isolating Pakistan internationally instead of becoming entangled in another proxy conflict,” Constantino Xavier, an associate at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace India, said. “Especially in the US, as Obama prepares to leave, the growing sense is that Pakistan has become more of an obstacle than a facilitator to find a settlement in Afghanistan.”

Then there is the China factor, too.

The Balochi activists hailing Modi’s statement in August were seen protesting outside the embassy of China, Pakistan’s all-weather friend, in the UK. They were marking their opposition to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a collection of projects funded by China to improve infrastructure in Pakistan. The CPEC passes through Balochistan.

“At a strategic level, India also recognises that by internationalising the Balochistan issue it is increasing the costs for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor,” said Xavier. Beijing is currently in the midst of pouring a staggering $46 billion into the CPEC.

One of the biggest such projects in Balochistan is the Gwadar port. China is building this to connect its mainland to the Indian Ocean through the Karakoram range so that it can reduce its dependence on the Malacca Straits, a region where it faces rising hostility.

So, will India go the whole hog at some point of time in future and seek Balochistan’s independence? The jury is out, but as of now, this seems unlikely.

For all of Pakistan’s brutality there, the US has made it clear that it doesn’t support Balochistan’s independence.

More importantly, even Iran, which shares the border with Balochistan, isn’t likely back the idea, because that would mean unrest within Iran which has a sizeable ethnic Baloch population.

What happens to relations now?

Although Pakistan hasn’t responded to India’s fresh salvos, it isn’t difficult to imagine what line it could take.

“It (Pakistan) will deny the allegations and lay the blame on India for Balochistan’s problems. Denying guilt and externalising blame is something Pakistan often does, and we’ll see more of it here,” said Kugelman.

India, though, may not have much to lose in the medium term.

For one, the relationship between the two countries has deteriorated since early this year. And India may not be keen on reviving talks at the moment.

“Without any mention of Balochistan for more than 60 years, talks between India and Pakistan have gone nowhere,” Madhav Nalapat, the UNESCO Peace Chair at the department of geopolitics and international relations at Manipal University, said. “Modi has made it clear that no country whose government is hostile to India can enjoy India’s indulgence.”

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