Reading Modi’s mind: What the ‘B’ word is all about
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain | September 6, 2016
Prime minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day address to the nation with references to Balochistan, Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (PoK) set the cat among the pigeons. Ever since, there are as many opinions as the number of reviews, analyses and articles on the issue. It helps prove just how little the strategic community of India and the world had earlier focused on these contentious issues, especially Balochistan. It has created a strategic turbulence of sorts in Pakistan itself, has got exiled Baloch people in the US and elsewhere gingered up, and produced strategic literature in reams. An issue so volatile has been smartly and adroitly been kept under wraps by Pakistan away from international focus. Even India, fully aware of this Achilles heel of Pakistan, has desisted from raising the issue to embarrass Pakistan despite all the intimidation the latter has done in and on Jammu and Kashmir.
Balochistan is a complex issue with an emotive, political and strategic connection. It has rarely been discussed in India or elsewhere, and knowledge on it is largely deficient even among those who regularly comment on strategic issues. The remarks have got Pakistan so riled that it has booked a couple of Baloch leaders for having supported the Indian PM’s remarks. Former Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai has come out in support of human rights in Balochistan. Bangladesh, which has an awkward connect to the issue, too has supported the call for greater human rights for the Baloch people. However, in India there has been divided opinion with the political opposition questioning the need for raising the issue when India does not even enjoy the benefit of a common boundary with Balochistan. Others objected to the raising of the issue when India itself had an ongoing internal problem with the turbulence in Kashmir. The Balochistan issue has also become important because of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in which Beijing is investing $46 billion. A major part of this corridor lies in Balochistan as does the port of Gwadar which connects the corridor to the sea. The entire issue needs analysis to arrive at any conclusion about the intent of PM Modi in including Balochistan in his speech.
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The PoK and Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) issues are well known because India has claims over those territories. The 1994 Joint Resolution of the two houses of parliament was the strong reiteration of India’s claims over the entire territory of J&K, partially under occupation of Pakistan and China. The construction of infrastructure through the disputed territories by a third party, China, has been objected by India but no change of status on that is likely. The state of human rights in GB and PoK will always be of a lower order, affording us opportunities.
India has no claim over the territory of Balochistan and does not contest Pakistan’s rights over it. So what is Balochistan all about and how does it enter into the India-Pakistan equation? Without entering into too much detail, it perhaps suffices to know that much like Hyderabad and Junagadh’s integration with India, Balochistan also did not have a smooth integration with Pakistan in 1947. There have been a series of uprisings at intervals of a few years. The Baloch people want greater autonomy, increased royalties from provincial revenue and natural resources which are in abundance in their region, and an independent nation-state status. It is Pakistan’s largest state (47 percent of the land mass) but also its poorest, with a population of 13 million. The Baloch people exist in a region which is spread across three countries – Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. The problem is almost akin to former East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) except that East Pakistan was physically far away from West Pakistan. The alienation that exists among the people is almost akin to that which existed in East Pakistan, a result of ham-handed domination of the Pakistan narrative by the West Punjabis.
Balochistan has the disadvantage of direct and physical connect but large parts of the province are not under full Pakistani control. Hussain Haqqani, the well-known Pakistani diplomat, sums this up by saying, “Some Baloch leaders say Balochistan’s integration into Pakistan was done forcefully. But more important than that is the neglect. This is a resource-rich province, and instead of the people benefitting from those resources, they end up in other parts of Pakistan.” The one event in recent history which probably raises the Baloch sensitivity by many notches was the killing of Nawab Akbar Bugti by the Pakistan army on direct orders of Pervez Musharraf.
For all these years Balochistan has never had any nation taking up cudgels on its behalf and human rights concern for its people has never emerged primarily because of Pakistan’s geo-strategic importance to nations that matter. It has been a frontline state for the US through much of its history and for China it remains a strategic asset. India’s relationship with Pakistan, though thorny, has also been about non-interference in its internal affairs. This was especially since the period of prime minister Inder Kumar Gujral (1997-98) whose doctrine was all about a benign policy towards the neighbours.
Thus, despite Pakistan’s active support for the Punjab separatists and terrorists through the 1980s and the switch to even more active interference amounting to a proxy war in J&K since 1989, India considered two things as anathema. First was the issue of water; never did it consider using threats relating to the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960 even when it was subjected to heinous terrorist attacks such as 13/12 and 26/11. Second, it never mentioned a word about Balochistan even though the potential for exploitation always existed. This strategy placed India on a high horse of morality which has assisted it in attaining much respect in the international community. It is this moral ascendancy which is being referred to by many analysts with the deduction that a carefully crafted international image may receive a hit due to Modi’s sudden turnaround in mentioning the ‘B’ word.
There are other objections from the analyst community which perceives that Iran may be unhappy with India supporting the human rights cause in Balochistan. Such support is many times taken as backing for separatism and separatist tendencies of Pakistan’s Baloch province will have its spinoff effects on Iran’s people of the same ethnicity. Then there is Kashmir; there is this thought that by raking up Balochistan we in India were making ourselves vulnerable to international inquisitiveness about our human rights record too.
For many years and more emphatically now, Pakistan has been using every possible propaganda tool to colour India black with accusations of our interference in its internal affairs. The home-grown terror campaign by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the high-intensity contestation of the Pakistan security forces by smaller groups is once again placed at the doorstep of India in the blame game. So with the demonisation of India at every stage it had become almost routine, a virtual force of habit, to castigate India for imaginary intervention in Pakistan’s affairs. Nawaz Sharif’s recent remarks immediately after the suicide attack on the Quetta lawyers and follow-up on Pakistan’s Independence Day did not hold back anything.
So, if Modi decides to mention Balochistan and focus on the human rights situation there, how should this be taken by his domestic constituency? The first thought; it is testing the waters, getting the feel by forcing the adversary to respond, bring irrationality in his utterances and just unnerve him and the entire security establishment. Very used to the customary transactional responses from India, this one which is slightly below the belt nevertheless gets a standing count. It riles the Pakistani psyche which for many years has got used to India’s defensive stance.
Those who perceive that when Kashmir is unstable this wasn’t the time to play quid pro quo also say that our moral standing has taken a beating. They need to consider whether one should instigate the adversary when one’s house is stable or when the adversary is pressurising you. You actually have to do it to force the adversary to pull back from his intent.
India’s routine response to Pakistan’s diatribes against it has been denial. It obtains no advantage. However, when a single word is spoken at the right time its effect is electric. Pakistan is already worried about India’s second coming in Afghanistan after Ashraf Ghani’s turnaround. The signing of the Trilateral Chabahar Agreement opens another avenue for strengthening India-Afghanistan relations. It is from that direction that Pakistan fears India’s interference since no physical boundary between Balochistan and India exists. The mention of the ‘B’ word would have created devils of imagination in the minds of the Pakistani establishment; the more the better for India. It is not helpful towards building future India-Pakistan relations but the probable intent of Modi was only to signal that two can play this game and that in future India would meet Pakistan’s attempts at interference in Kashmir.
In India’s security domain one of its weakest links is information warfare; the ability to play mind games, keeping the adversary on tenterhooks about the next move and taking the battle into the domain of smart warfare. Since for the umpteenth time Pakistan could raise the temperatures in Kashmir, after the recent killing of Burhan Wani, perhaps a little experiment is what the Modi mind is attempting. Remember Pakistan’s chaotic internal security situation and obsession with seeking its space in Afghanistan leaves it little time for Kashmir. Cornering it by imposing caution and giving enough signals about the future intent being in the same domain as that of Pakistan in Kashmir could force a rethink. However, a one-off smart move which has had strategic overtones needs sustenance for continuing effectiveness. We will have to wait and watch how Modi takes this game forward.
Lt General Ata Hasnain (veteran) is a former general officer commanding of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps, which fought the 1965 war in J&K. He retired as the military secretary of the Indian army. Currently, he is associated with the Vivekananda International Foundation and Delhi Policy Group.
(The column appears in the September 1-15, 2016 issue of Governance Now)
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