The Balochistan Gambit
Modi and his hawkish stance on Balochistan could have a butterfly effect on the subcontinent
Sanjay Kapoor Delhi
India crossed the Rubicon when Defence Minister Manohar Parikkar signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) during his visit to Washington. In one fell stroke, India may have given up on its zealously held “strategic autonomy” and its commitment to non-alignment. The LEMOA, after all, negates the non-alignment movement’s core commitment to not align with any military bloc. It will allow US forces to use Indian military bases for operational purposes. Expectedly, the decision to sign the LEMOA is being described as a major gamechanger in the way we conduct our foreign policy. Unlike the consistently pacifist one that we practised in the past 70 years of our troubled existence as a secular democratic republic, the new one could be aggressive, intrusive and adventurous. The contours of this new arrangement were available when PM Narendra Modi delivered his Independence Day speech on August 15. The question is: Does India have the internal or external strength to give meaning to these policies?
Modi, reading out his Independence Day speech, seamlessly moved towards a hitherto taboo topic: the internal affairs of a neighbouring country. He said that he had got widespread appreciation from the people of Balochistan, Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), Baltistan and Gilgit for highlighting the atrocities and human rights violations committed in these regions by the Pakistani State. To provide some context, in recent years Pakistan has been repeatedly blaming New Delhi for stirring up trouble in Balochistan. This is an allegation that the powers that be in Delhi have furiously denied time and again.
Expectedly, many foreign policy commentators claimed that Modi’s speech was an attempt to draw moral equivalence between the State-orchestrated crackdown in Kashmir and atrocities in Pakistan’s largest state. His comments may have been made with the ostensible motive of reclaiming lost moral high ground but what he may not have realised is that they have far-reaching implications that threaten to disturb the tenuous peace in the sub-continent.
A few days before his Independence Day speech, Modi had addressed an all-party meeting called to find a solution to the violence that had gripped Kashmir after the death of ‘Facebook militant Burhan Wani’. The Valley had been under curfew for more than 40 days during which quotidian life had come to a screeching halt. During this period more than 60 people had been killed and thousands of civilians had been maimed by either pellet guns or stone pelting. Thousands of weddings had been postponed indefinitely, as evidenced by notices in newspapers. School examinations had been put on hold. Kashmiri society was frozen in violent turbulence. It was in these extenuating circumstances that Modi broke his stony silence on the contentious issue and reiterated the Indian resolve to reclaim Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).
It must be noted that Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, during his Independence Day speech, had expressed his government’s support for the struggle of Kashmiri people who were being “oppressed” by Indian occupation. Pakistanis love to label the Kashmir issue as an unfinished business of Partition, where a Muslim-majority state that should have merged with Pakistan chose to accede to India as it was ruled by a Hindu king. Since then Kashmir has continued to fester like the metaphorical open wound, despite three wars, thousands of bloody skirmishes and hopeful but failed attempts at bilateral negotiations. What has brought in greater edginess to this relationship is that both countries are armed with nuclear weapons and competing world views in a difficult neighbourhood.
Expectedly, Sharif’s speech on Kashmir was followed by Modi’s response which many Indian commentators consider as strategically astute. India believes that the latest round of instability in the Kashmir Valley has been fostered by active Pakistani involvement. Refusing to believe that spontaneous mass protests can take place on their own, the government has mobilised its National Investigating Agency (NIA) to gather evidence of alleged foreign funding to secessionist organisations and individuals. The agency has managed to discover some accounts with dubious sources of funding. The pertinent question that arises is: How will the agency link these few million dollars to large-scale demonstrations? That will surely need some creative explanation. Be that as it may, the Indian government is adamantly sticking to this narrative and has refused to accept Pakistan’s offer to hold talks on Kashmir. Instead, South Block wants to hold a discussion on cross-border terrorism. In other words, both countries want to talk with each other but on different issues altogether. It is unlikely that such a difference in priorities can be resolved easily as New Delhi has also included another demand on its list. Now it wants to discuss how Pakistan proposes to vacate the part of Kashmir under its control. Though these brave declamations are meant for the ruling party’s domestic constituency that is being fed a heavy dose of nationalism, just before the crucial elections to the state of Uttar Pradesh early next year, they have the potential to spin out of control as Modi’s remarks could be over-interpreted in Pakistan as well as in China.
Worryingly for China, by placing Balochistan, PoK and Baltistan bang at the centre of the dispute between the two warring neighbours, Modi has hurt them more. China is deeply invested in Pakistan and is building a $46 billion worth road corridor, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), that will not just help carry fuel from the port of Gwadar to Kashgar in Xinxiang province but also serve as a force multiplier for Pakistan’s economy. The CPEC route design is fraught with all kinds of problems. It begins at Gwadar port that is located in unstable Balochistan and then passes through the disputed part of Kashmir under Pakistan’s administration. Balochistan is roiling over being denied the spoils of the CPEC corridor. The area has, as a result, seen attacks on Chinese workers. The Pakistan Army has provided protection to the CPEC, but the threat to this giant project continues. India has objected to the presence of the project in the disputed parts of Kashmir. Recently, when the foreign minister of China came to Delhi, he was told by his Indian counterpart, Sushma Swaraj, that India found the CPEC disagreeable. India’s opposition to the corridor has sown doubts in Chinese minds. They realise that conflict around their expensive project can make it financially unviable. In order to pander to the Indian establishment, perhaps for the first time ever the Chinese are using the Indian nomenclature for Pakistan-administered Kashmir – “Pakistan-occupied Kashmir”. Informed sources claim that China is reconsidering its plan to invest in the manufacturing hub that it planned to create around the corridor. It just wants to limit the corridor’s function to transportation of fuel rather than helping Pakistan rejuvenate its economy and rile India.
China sees the signing of the LEMOA and the mention of Balochistan as a move that will bring “strategic troubles” to India. It finds the reorientation of Modi’s foreign policy provocative and has said that it will not just irritate Pakistan and Beijing, but also Russia. Expectedly, Russia will be distressed by this growing proximity between India and the US as it would also cause loss in defence purchases.
Pakistan’s troubles may grow with the decision of the US government to initiate a trilateral arrangement with Afghanistan and India. And, too, if indeed New Delhi plans to ratchet up tension around the Balochistan issue. In the past few weeks, India has got support on the Balochistan issue from Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Pakistan, which seeks greater sway on Afghanistan for reasons of strategic depth, has been hauled up by the Afghanistan president for the recent terror attack on the American University in Kabul. For the leadership in Islamabad, its worst nightmare of being sandwiched between a hostile India and a wary Afghanistan comes closer to fruition with Modi’s Independence Day speech. An old video of a speech delivered by India’s National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval, is doing the rounds in which he is seen saying that if Pakistan does not stop interfering in Kashmir then it will lose Balochistan and all its tactical nuclear weapons will not be able to stop such an event occurring. All these happenings have spawned an uncertainty in South Asia that has not been experienced since 1979, when Soviets troops entered Afghanistan.