Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speech is likely to be remembered for its footnotes. The strategic portents of the Prime Minister’s concluding remarks on Pakistan in which he contrasted how Indians mourned for Pakistan’s terror victims while “the other side, which glorifies terrorists”, are certain to be debated for months, and perhaps years, to come.
Two elements of the speech are key: the almost toss-away reference to Balochistan, the first ever in an Indian Prime Minister’s Independence Day speech, and another to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), and the regions of Gilgit and Baltistan.
Prime Minister Modi’s language marks a grim cul-de-sac in his thinking, which has traversed the distance from a hawkish polemic before he took office to mawkish Bollywood band-baaja-baraat when he visited Lahore last December.
Ever since the 1998 nuclear-weapons tests, India’s grand-strategy has had one simple objective: regional stability. With that in mind, India has consistently avoided backing small wars and insurgencies in Pakistan. It avoided crossing the Line of Control (LoC) during the Kargil war in 1999 to make just that point; it chose not to attack Pakistan in 2001-2002 to avoid the risk of setting off events that could not be controlled; the same factors weighed with decision-makers in New Delhi after 26/11.
For one simple reason: the costs that can be inflicted by nuclear weapons are so high as to render traditional ideas of victory meaningless. No victory is worthwhile at the cost of half-a-dozen cities.
Now, Prime Minister Modi seems—and seems is the operative word here —that he might be willing to take his chances.
In geo-strategic terms, the context of the Prime Minister’s words is everything. In a 2014 speech, made shortly before Modi became PM, Ajit Doval who is now National Security Advisor, had addressed the question of how to deal with Pakistan’s use of sub-conventional warfare against India, given that its nuclear weapons deterred India from going to war. Doval argued that nuclear weapons would not help Islamabad against what he called “defensive-offence” by India—in other words, “working on the vulnerabilities of Pakistan”.
Doval spelled out no specifics but had this pithy one-liner: “You can do one Mumbai, you may lose Balochistan.”
Ever since that speech, the idea that India might use the ethnic-nationalist insurgency in Balochistan in a tit-for-tat campaign against Pakistan’s proxy war in Kashmir has been a distinct possibility.
The parallels are interesting. In 1947, the Khan of Kalat, the quasi-autonomous monarch who had ruled Balochistan under the umbrella of the British Empire, chose independence. While Pakistani troops moved into the region in March 1948, the Khan of Kalat dragged his feet on signing the legally necessary Document of Accession until early in the next decade.
Across the border, in India, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel had wheedled and coerced reticent monarchs to sign away their independence; Pakistan chose to settle the issue by despatching two newly acquired combat jets to strafe the Khan’s palace.
In March 1973, matters came to a head between Pakistan’s state and Balochistan’s tribal élites. Led by the Marxist Balochi People’s Liberation Front and Balochi Students’ Organisation, some 10,000 guerillas took on six divisions of the Pakistan Army. Napalm was liberally used against the Baloch’s homes and livestock. Tens of thousands of civilians, along with 5,300 insurgents and 3,300 troops, were killed.
The insurgency has periodically flared up thereafter—the latest phase being a decade old, fuelled by the growing fears of Baloch tribes of being economic marginalised by settlers, as well as Islamists. Baloch nationalists have been in touch with India’s covert services as well as those of Afghanistan but have been denied the arms they desperately seek.
Although the idea of payback in Balochistan sounds attractive, it isn’t quite as neat a deal as Indian hawks might imagine. For one, the gains are very far from clear. For example, Pakistan could respond to Indian aid for Baloch rebels by escalating its backing for Kashmir jihadists. Escalation in Kashmir would be more damaging to India domestically and internationally than the pain inflicted in Balochistan, an economically important but politically marginal region. Iran, moreover, fears Baloch nationalism so support for it could end up alienating an important Indian ally.
Put another way, India might indeed be able to plunge Balochistan into chaos—something Pakistan’s intelligence services have long feared and which Afghanistan has been encouraging as retaliation against Islamabad’s jihadist proxies.
In the longer run, this could lead both countries to hostilities, something India, as the richer, more economically vibrant power, has a greater interest in avoiding. This is precisely why Prime Ministers Atal Behari Vajpayee, and Manmohan Singh shot down proposals to back covert war in Pakistan.
There are, of course, other possibilities. The Prime Minister might just be growling without actually intending to bite — in the crisis of 2000-2001, strong words did serve to rein in Islamabad’s hawkish army generals. Then again, his remarks might be aimed only at a domestic audience and meant to recapture voters disillusioned by the twists and turns in his Pakistan policy.
It’s hard to believe, though, that the Prime Minister’s reactions and words have been properly thought through. The sweeping lurches in his Pakistan policy over the last two years suggest there is too little space between impulse and action, too little time for reflection.
This is of a piece with much else in the speech. The Prime Minister spoke of “unity in diversity”, but gave no broad sense of the direction he intended to take to address the ugly communal strains erupting across the country. He gave recognition to Adivasi freedom fighters but no sense of what the government meant to do to punish perpetrators of anti-Dalit violence. Even though he spoke of rapid electrification, there was no sense of his agenda on India’s energy challenges.
Fighting words are no use without a clear, thought-through battle plan.