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Change in policy on I-Day

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day address made repeated references to the role played by the NDA government in achieving India’s development goals. However, the real highlight came towards the end when Modi referred to Balochistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. 

“Today from the ramparts of Red Fort, I want to greet and express my thanks to some people. In the last few days, people of Balochistan, Gilgit, Pakistan-occupied Kashmir have thanked me, have expressed gratitude, and expressed good wishes for me. The people who are living far away, whom I have never seen, never met – such people have expressed appreciation for Prime Minister of India, for 125 crore countrymen,” he said. 

These remarks come after the Prime Minister vowed to take up atrocities by the Pakistani government in these areas on international forums at an all all-party meet on the current unrest in Indian-administered Kashmir last Friday. Since then Indian dailies have reported that Modi received numerous messages across social media forums from Baloch groups and Kashmiris around the world and in Pakistan thanking him for his words of support.  

Along expected lines, Modi maintained his line of attack against Pakistan on its support for terror groups in the Kashmir Valley. He accused the Pakistani government of glorifying terrorists. “On the other side, terrorism is being glorified. When innocent people are killed in terrorist attacks, there are celebrations. How governments are formed through the inspiration of terrorism. The world will understand this difference clearly,” he said. Quite naturally, Islamabad expressed its annoyance at Modi’s Independence Day address and accused Indian intelligence agencies of supporting the insurgency in Balochistan.

Modi’s decision to raise Balochistan was “unprecedented” according to foreign policy mandarins in the national capital. In the past, India has rarely referred to the long-standing freedom movement in the state. Moreover, New Delhi has consistently denied any assistance to Baloch rebels as alleged by Islamabad. Past governments have usually steered clear of referring to Pakistan’s domestic concerns, while India claims Gilgit-Baltistan and PoK as its territory. But this is not the first time that the Indian government has raised Balochistan. 

In December 2005, New Delhi expressed concern at the Pakistani government’s cruel and incessant bombing of its civilians in Balochistan. In the following year, India criticised the Pakistani government for killing noted Baloch leader Nawab Akbar Shahbaz Khan Bugti in an airstrike. But Prime Minister Modi’s explicit reference to Balochistan in his annual Independence Day address from the ramparts of the Red Fort is significant not only for New Delhi’s definitive shift in policy but also the occasion and stage. Foreign policy mandarins in India have long advocated a harder line on using Balochistan as a “pressure point” on Pakistan.

In a recent column for a news website, former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran advocates a similar approach: “We have several pressure points which we have been loathe to use despite there being no corresponding Pakistani restraint. We have a formal claim on Gilgit Baltistan but since the Simla Agreement we have rarely articulated it, let alone pressed it determinedly. We have been reluctant to receive people from Gilgit Baltistan or raise our voice when their rights are violated. Our silence on the horrific human rights violations in Balochistan is misplaced. Thanks to its harboring of Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Omar, Pakistan has earned its reputation of being an ‘epicentre of terror’. We could be much more active internationally to exploit that negative image.” In the face of Pakistan’s diplomatic activism in Indian-administered Kashmir, Pakistan will now have to face Indian activism on Balochistan.  

The aggressive posture taken by the Modi government on issues pertaining to PoK and Balochistan is a well-calibrated attempt to corner Pakistan on their domestic concerns. Although this could force Pakistan to answer some uncomfortable questions about their domestic insurgencies on international forums, it does not change the situation in Indian-administered Kashmir. Moreover, no attempt to corner Pakistan on international forums could come to fruition unless New Delhi can devise a strategy to either co-opt or nullify Beijing’s influence in the region. China has decided to use Pakistan to not only further their economic interests in the region but also as a buffer against potential security threats. However, the construction of the Gwadar port, a major part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project, has angered the Baloch. They believe that the project would only benefit China and Pakistan’s Punjabi traders, leaving the Baloch empty-handed and alienated from their own land.  

  Some among the Indian intelligentsia have voiced their concern over New Delhi’s new strategy. Those who live in glass houses don’t throw stones at others, they say. In Pakistan, the Baloch is often heard questioning the Pakistani government’s hypocrisy in suppressing Baloch rebels while supporting insurgents in Kashmir. The Baloch unequivocally desire azaadi (freedom) from Pakistan. The same is heard in Indian-administered Kashmi. On Tuesday, five people were killed in clashes with security forces in Kashmir’s Budgam district, taking the toll in the state to 65. Isn’t this hypocrisy on India’s part? Depending on which side of the fence one stands, valid arguments can be presented. 

 Without losing its line of communication with Islamabad, New Delhi seeks to use Balochistan as a bargaining chip. And it shifts focus away from the actual troubles in Indian-administered Kashmir. But does it resolve anything? No, it does not. The stalemate between both sides remains. Also, Pakistan actually supports militancy in Kashmir. India, meanwhile, has committed very little to support Baloch rebels on the ground. If the Modi government is serious about supporting Baloch rebels, it should be backed by real action on the ground. But this strategy could also allow Pakistan to undermine the Baloch insurgency and blame it entirely on India. It is now up to the Modi government to decide on the next course of action. 

 Both Pakistani Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif are playing to the gallery. Modi’s comments on PoK and Balochistan come soon after Sharif made provocative statements on the ongoing unrest in the Valley. Sharif referred to slain Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani as a martyr and also made repeated calls for a plebiscite in the region. 

Reports indicate that Pakistan plans to invite for a dialogue on Kashmir, just days after New Delhi insisted that it would discuss only PoK with Pakistan. This sort of approach from both sides cannot work. The Kashmir issue must be discussed by both sides in its entirety, including PoK. In these discussions, Balochistan must also feature and both sides must clear the air and discuss a way to resolve the ongoing insurgency. Sensible diplomacy is the only way out of this quagmire at home and abroad for both India and Pakistan.
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