In response to the diplomatic, conventional, and unconventional hostilities faced from Pakistan over the Kashmir issue since independence, New Delhi recently adopted a new strategy: highlighting the Baloch cause for self-determination.
This “policy shift” marked its official beginning with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speech this year. Hinting of the ongoing separatist movements inside Pakistan, Modi stated: “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, [and] Pakistan-occupied Kashmir have thanked me, have expressed gratitude, and expressed good wishes for me.” Islamabad responded in no time, stating that this speech confirmed India’s involvement in the Baloch insurgency.
While the disputed regions of Pakistan’s Azad Jammu & Kashmir (AJK) and Gilgit-Baltistan remain free from any major internal instability at the moment, recurring unrest in Balochistan has been a concern for Pakistan as the region is stated to become the lynchpin of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) through the Gwadar port. Since March 27, 1948, when the state of Kalat was coerced into acceding to Pakistan, Balochistan has faced five waves of insurgency, with the fifth wave ongoing.
Until recently, India’s only official engagement with the Baloch issue was a short wave radio service run by the External Services Division of All India Radio since 1974. The service was also made available through a website and a mobile application as of this September, a move aimed at increasing outreach to the Baloch diaspora settled across the world. Simultaneously, Baloch leaders and activists exiled from Pakistan have begun visiting India specifically to take part in news debates and to address foreign policy think tanks, apprising Indian strategic circles of the bleak human rights situation in Pakistan’s largest province. Policy research institutions affiliated with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have been hosting Baloch activists who openly urge India to play an active role in liberating Balochistan.
Brahamdagh Bugti, the exiled leader of Baloch Republican Party and the grandson of Nawab Akbar Bugti (killed in 2006 in an army operation) even filed an application for asylum in India, which is being examined at the moment. Another Canada-based Baloch activist duo, Professor Naela Baloch and her son Mazdak Dilshad Baloch, regularly visit India to garner support for the movement.
However, New Delhi remain ambiguous as to whether or not there is a structural framework on which its Baloch policy would be based. As of now, there has been no official word regarding India’s future course of action; the present state of affairs, at best, points to mere rhetoric limiting itself to Baloch leaders trickling into India to participate in think tank-driven discussions. As expectations abound that New Delhi is considering setting up a Baloch government-in-exile, some key questions still remain unaddressed. Besides this, there is also a need to exercise great caution in operationalizing the Baloch policy.
A Cautious Approach Needed
In light of the ongoing insurgency in the region, it is imperative for New Delhi to clarify the extent to which it supports the Baloch cause. While Islamabad already accuses New Delhi of involvement in arming the Baloch rebels, India needs to tread a cautious path by outlining the contours of its engagement with the issue.
Besides the insurgency, Balochistan has also become a hotbed of sectarian violence, with targeted attacks by sectarian extremist groups registering a rise. A few days ago, more than 60 policemen were killed in a suicide attack carried out on Quetta Police Training College by members of the al-Alami faction of the Sunni extremist organization Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, the roots of whose creation lie in sectarian policies enacted under General Zia-ul-Haq’s regime. Even the instances of such sectarian attacks in the region have never prompted Islamabad to rule out India’s role.
Accommodating with Beijing
While exhorting Balochistan’s separatist leadership to highlight the Baloch cause globally, New Delhi has continued to defy Chinese apprehensions, especially at a time when CPEC-driven investments are coming up in the region. The CPEC is envisioned as an infrastructural ecosystem spanning all the way from Gwadar port to Xinjiang’s Kashgar, granting China’s landlocked western region a southward path to the warm waters of the Arabian Sea.
The blame for any sabotage of the ongoing projects will fall on New Delhi, pitting it directly against Beijing. Already, China’s growing hostility toward India has taken an institutional dimension, manifesting in India’s failed bid to acquire membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Chinese veto of an Indian request for the UN to designate Masood Azhar as an international terrorist. By encouraging the Chinese to invest in Balochistan, Pakistan has ensured that any response to future instabilities in the region shall automatically involve Beijing. A plan has just been announced to set up a joint counterterrorism army command comprising of the militaries of China and Pakistan.
This is not to say that there is a need to accommodate all of Beijing’s concerns as a rule, but adjusting to the discomfort of the Sino-Pakistan nexus is a bitter pill New Delhi will have to settle with for the time being.
A Divided Leadership?
The last issue deals with the Baloch leaders themselves (specifically the ones visiting India), as they squabble with each other over the authenticity of representation and the future course of action. While Naela Baloch called for setting up a Baloch government-in-exile in India, Brahmadagh Bugti dismissed this demand and responded by emphasizing the need for consensus among the exiled members of the Baloch community before taking any decision. Not only did Bugti question Professor Naela’s credentials as a genuine representative of the Baloch movement, he also accused her of damaging the Baloch cause. Again, in this regard, there has been no official word from New Delhi regarding the composition of leadership it is set to endorse.
Given these issues, there are some serious obstacles ahead. However easy it might have seemed to announce this policy shift, the road ahead is indeed precarious if India’s new Baloch policy is to be executed with sincerity.
Prateek Joshi is a postgraduate in International Relations from South Asian University (a SAARC nations Project), New Delhi and a researcher on South Asia’s strategic issues.