The references to Balochistan at the end of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speech — in the footnotes, as it were, of a less-than-riveting narration on energy-efficient lightbulbs and seed varieties — is likely to open an explosive debate on whether that’s a gamechanger in the shadow-boxing that has marked India-Pakistan ties.
For years now, Pakistan has complained that India is aiding Baloch insurgents — an allegation it sought to back with the arrest of alleged spy Kulbhushan Jadhav. The evidence Pakistan has produced, though, hasn’t persuaded the international community.
The PM’s words contain no apparent threats. So what is the fuss all about?
Pressing Pakistan’s faultlines
Like so much to do with geostrategy, the context to Modi’s words is everything. In a 2014 speech, made shortly before he took office, now National Security Advisor Ajit Doval had addressed the question of how to deal with Pakistan’s use of sub-conventional warfare. Doval argued that nuclear weapons would not help Islamabad against what he called “defensive-offence” by India, in other words, “working on Pakistan’s vulnerabilities”. 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 gained ground that India might use the ethnic-nationalist insurgency in Balochistan in a tit-for-tat campaign against Pakistan’s proxy war in Kashmir. No one outside a narrow circle in government knows if that’s actually the case, but the Independence Day speech marks a grim cul-de-sac in the Prime Minister’s thinking on Pakistan. Having travelled the distance from trading fire across the Line of Control to overtly mawkish gestures when he visited Lahore, he seems to have reverted, now, to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s dictum on Pakistan’s Generals: “you can’t shake hands with clenched fists”.
In 1947, the Khan of Kalat, the quasi-autonomous monarch who had ruled Balochistan under the umbrella of the British Empire, learned that lesson. He chose independence and when Pakistani troops moved into the region in March 1948, the Khan dragged his feet on signing the legally necessary Document of Accession until early in the next decade. Pakistan chose to settle the issue by despatching two newly acquired combat jets to strafe the Khan’s palace.
The issue blew up again in 1973. 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 used against the Baloch; tens of thousands of civilians, along with 5,300 insurgents and 3,300 troops, were killed.
The insurgency has periodically flared, fuelled by growing fears of Baloch tribes of economic marginalisation by settlers, as well as Islamists. After 2006, when Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti began the still-ongoing phase of insurgency in Balochistan, Pakistan began asserting that the rebels had Indian backing. In a 2006 interview to this correspondent, shortly before his killing, Bugti denied the allegation.
In the years since, though, Bugti’s grandson, and rebel leader Brahumdagh Bugti, escaped into Afghanistan, allegedly finding refuge with Indian assistance. Baloch insurgents have lobbied India for military assistance, but not found receptive ears.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government agreed, at the 2009 summit in Sharm-el-Sheikh, to discuss Pakistan’s allegations. The decision, though, provoked a furious backlash, with the opposition arguing the government had conceded parity between Pakistan’s allegations and India’s well-documented case on terror.
Modi’s references to Gilgit-Baltistan aren’t innocent of strategic import either. Gilgit-Baltistan isn’t part of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir — the province it calls Azad Kashmir — since it declared independence in a coup d’etat aided by a British officer prior to Indian Independence. However, Pakistan has long been hesitant to make that claim formally, since if it does so, this would mean the United Nations resolutions on Kashmir — the basis of Islamabad’s claims on the territory — are void. New Delhi was, until a few years ago, willing to do a deal on Gilgit-Baltistan as part of a Kashmir settlement, but now seems to be signalling that it’s willing to make a nuisance of itself by backing Shi’a separatists in the region.
The nuclear stakes
Though former NSA M K Narayanan had, after the 2008 attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul, called, publicly, for action, he never got the clearance he sought. His successor, Shivshankar Menon, ordered Indian intelligence not to proceed ahead with plans for offensive operations inside Pakistan.
The reason: In a region with two nuclear powers, the stakes are high, the risks higher. No victory is worthwhile at the cost of half-a-dozen cities. Though the hawks would cheer any idea of a payback in Balochistan, it is far from an attractive option for India. For one, the gains are far from clear. For example, Pakistan could respond to Indian aid to Baloch rebels by escalating its backing for Kashmir jihadists. India might indeed be able to plunge Balochistan into chaos, but get pain, not peace, in Kashmir.
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 Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh both shot down proposals to back covert war in Pakistan.
New Delhi has to contend with international consequences too. Iran fears Baloch nationalism — it backed Pakistan’s 1973 campaign — and would take a dim view of India supporting it. In a worst-case scenario, India’s case on terror might stand diminished, with the world seeing its actions as reprehensible.
The sound and fury might, of course, signify nothing. The Prime Minister might just be growling, without actually intending to bite, something which – as it became clear in the crisis of 2000-2001 – might serve to rein in Islamabad’s own cohort of hawkish Generals. Then again, his remarks might only be aimed at a domestic audience.