Behind PM Modi’s Balochistan gamble: Shift in India’s foreign policy?

ON 70TH Independence Day PM Narendra Modi after addressed the nation meeting the Children at Red Fort, Express photo by Renuka Puri

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech from the ramparts of the Red Fort, on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of Indian independence, has drawn wide attention for his comments on Pakistan although he made no direct reference to the country. He drew a contrast between India’s belief in human values, as illustrated in the widespread grief in India at the massacre of innocent schoolchildren in Peshawar, with the “other side which glorifies terrorists”. He invited India’s neighbours to jointly fight poverty and not “destroy ourselves” by fighting our own people.

Playing Balochistan gamble

Scaling great oratorical heights to the accompaniment of thunderous applause, he asked, “What kind of government set up is it that is inspired by terrorism?… The world will know about it and that’s sufficient for me”. He added, for good measure, that, in the last few days, “people of Baluchistan, Gilgit, POK have thanked me, it is the honour of 1.25 billion people of India. I thank those people from Baluchistan, Gilgit and POK.” The last sentence drew an immediate warning from former External Affairs Minister Salman Khursheed that his reference to Baluchistan and to Pakistan’s domestic affairs, in an official speech, creates a risk of inviting international attention to allegations of human rights violations in India itself whilst raising the issue of Pakistan-Occupied-Kashmir, on the other hand, spotlights India’s legal claim on the entire territory of Jammu & Kashmir. However, Mr Khurshid’s remarks were  immediately repudiated by the Congress Party’s official spokesman, recognizing the popular appeal of PM Modi’s speech.

PM Modi’s extraordinary references to Baluchistan and POK in his Red Fort speech represent a culmination of a series of tit-for-tat sharp exchanges between India and Pakistan in recent weeks; it is certainly a tense time for India. A few days earlier at an all-party meeting on Kashmir, he asserted, “We are committed to a permanent and peaceful solution to the issue of Jammu and Kashmir in accordance with the basic principles of the Constitution… World will never accept the false propaganda of Pakistan, even if it speaks hundred thousand lies. Pakistan forgets that it bombs its own citizens using fighter planes. The time has come when Pakistan shall have to answer to the world for the atrocities committed by it against people in Baluchistan and POK.” Equally unprecedented was his statement, at that meeting, that Ministry of External Affairs should make efforts to approach the people of POK residing in different parts the world and collect information about the miserable conditions in POK and bring them to the knowledge of the world community. These statements, at the highest political level, have been accompanied by extensive Indian media coverage of unrest in Gilgit-Balistan and Muzaffarabad and reactions from key Baloch pro-independence leaders.

baluRhetorical slugfest

The Pakistani rhetoric, triggering the Indian reactions, continued getting sharper simultaneously. Pakistan’s High Commissioner Abdul Basit, in his speech at an official reception in New Delhi on 14 August, 2016, stated that Pakistan will dedicate this year’s Independence Day to Kashmir – echoing the statement of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif – and its struggle for freedom. “The ongoing unrest should be ended. Pakistan will continue to extend its full diplomatic, political and moral support to the valiant people of Jammu and Kashmir till they get their right to self-determination.” Around the same time, Pakistan’s Foreign Office sent a letter to the Indian High Commission offering to send supplies to Kashmir. Not only that, during PM’s Red Fort speech,there was an attack on Indian security forces in Srinagar.

There has also been increased fighting across LOC from the Pakistani side. Recent incidents have shown attempts to create more tension on the border as well as to infiltrate from the Pakistani side. In recent times, two Pakistan-based LET terrorists have been captured alive and the confession of one of them has been broadcast on TV. India’s Home Minister Rannath Singh’s visit to Islamabad for the  SAARC interior ministers’ conference displayed Pakistani intention to wreck the event; questions arise, therefore, about Pakistani intention to leave a productive legacy as the current rotating presidency of the organisation is troubled already.

The India-Pakistan relations have hit a new low especially in the current disturbed conditions in the Valley. In Pakistan and POK, the  government has encouraged public protests with the involvement of known terrorist elements which have developed nexus on the Indian side. In J&K, public protests have been incited by extremist elements in the most devious manner by putting children and young people in the front line in confrontations with the law-and-order forces.

The negative image for the government, resulting from media reports of injuries to children and young people, is playing into the hands of Pakistan besides giving a new life to the Hurriyat. Whilst there is overall recognition about the necessity of an efficacious political approach to handle the ongoing public disturbances in the valley, there is, unfortunately, a disconnect between the local leadership and the residents of localities where these disturbances have taken place. There is also distrust between the coalition partners in the Jammu and Kashmir government as reflected in the speech of the Chief Minister blaming the national government for the state’s problems.

Shift in Pakistan policy

In analysing the thrust of the new Indian approach to Pakistan in the broader regional context, it could be stated that Pakistan seems unable to overcome its political structural weaknesses where the Pakistan Army in determining critical foreign policy and security approaches both with regard to India as well as Afghanistan. Pakistan’s relations with Afghanistan have rapidly deteriorated despite the promising opening with the election of the new Afghan President. There are serious border tensions and both Afghanistan and Pakistan are accusing each other of harbouring their respective hostile elements. It is, quite clearly, a two-front situation for Pakistan today even as it is battling terrorist groups in all parts of the country which have developed ISIS links and have havens in eastern Afghanistan due to deep distrust between the two governments as well as and Pakistan Army’s extremely shortsighted policy, despite deep domestic concerns, of trying to control the situation on both its borders by nurturing “good” terrorists.

In foreign policy terms, PM Modi’s singling out of Baluchistan issue, at an official political platform, is unprecedented but will, definitely, be seen by Pakistan leadership as a counter-pressure in response to its stirring the pot in J&K; the situation in that strategically important province is dire with massive public unrest and terrorist activities for which India is, without proof, blamed to build a narrative to counter India’s charges of cross-border terrorism. The growing unrest in POK is also worrisome to Pakistan’s leaders given its strategic importance for them and China. Although the Pakistani leadership and media are interpreting PM’s announcements as signaling possible supply of weapons and money to the groups opposing Pakistan in these two places, PM’s statement is nothing more than a suggestion to highlight, using Indian resources, the human rights’ violations there. In the Pakistani media, a threat is being held out that it could foment trouble in India’s northeastern region which seems highly unrealistic given the changed strategy circumstances there.

Two Narratives

Since Pakistan would be expected to aggravate the situation in J&K as it offers the country’s intelligence agencies and political leaders the only handle vis-a-vis India to pursue their agenda, it is necessary that the government should give a lead to the Indian media not to fall prey to the cynical exploitation of children and the youth which needs to be combined also, for media projection purposes, with live evidence – by publicly presenting captured Pak-based terrorists – of Pakistani complicity in cross-border terrorism; this approach will be viable within the region, including with the Pakistani media, as well as in the wider world. Getting people from POK to narrate the conditions there as well as their heavy-handed suppression by the Pakistani forces and extremist political elements would effectively counter the Pakistani and extremist narrative on the current goings on in Kashmir.

As Pakistan is accusing India of fomenting trouble in Baluchistan and POK, it is quite conceivable that it would apply its full template for raising military tension on the border and intensify cross-border terrorism in J&K; we hardly need reminding ourselves that this template, backed by nuclear weapons capability, constitutes Pakistan’s grand strategy towards India. One can envisage greater Pakistan-inspired terrorism in other parts of the country. Pakistan may even aim to escalate the border tension, involving the two armed forces, with the objective of drawing in great power intercession as it had tried during the Kargil conflict. The new Indian strategy assumes a certain risk but aims to apply calibrated pressure on Pakistani policy-makers and making them realise the adverse strategic situation they are in.

Both the national as well as the state leaders would need to work together, along with all other political parties, to help manage the de-escalation of the tense situation in J&K. PM has appealed for all-party efforts to do so in larger national interest because, as long as the situation remains tense, Pakistan is unlikely let off the pressure. Calming the situation there would deprive Pakistan of its leverage whilst India’s position vis-a-vis its estranged neighbour would become stronger and, hopefully, make it see the reason in its international outlook.

(Yogendra Kumar is a former Ambassador of India to the Philippines, whose book on India’s maritime challenges has just been published. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the author)   

 

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