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How India can play the Balochistan card against Pakistan

There is a Baloch card to play. But it is not just about a fistful of rupees and a thousand rifles as it once was in the past

analysis Updated: Oct 07, 2016 19:47 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Baloch

New Delhi, India - Aug. 17, 2016:Hindu Sena members show support to Balochistan, at Jantar-Mantar, New Delhi, India, August 17, 2016. (Ravi Choudhary/HT)

With plans to provide an Indian home for Baloch nationalist leader Brahamdagh Bugti in an advanced stage, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is coming through on his public talk of playing this ethnic card against Pakistan. But providing Bugti a place to set up a “government-in-exile” or its equivalent is the easy part.

The mixed history of India’s involvement with Balochistan is a reminder that this is an extremely difficult ploy to use successfully. The record, however, does seem to indicate that civil society gambits like Bugti as opposed to supplying weapons to insurgents may be the most effective means to put this thorn back into Pakistan’s side.

The many insurgencies

Balochistan is in the throes of its fifth insurgency since being taken over by Pakistan. Most have lasted only one or two years. When they have been longer it is often because they secured external backing. Russian and Iraqi support ensured the 1973 insurgency lasted four years. The last round began in 2004 and went on until 2012. Pakistani military sources, speaking privately, name the Hamid Karzai government in Kabul and, through him, New Delhi as the foreign hands of this period.

Read | Arrangements made for Baloch leader Brahamdagh Bugti’s stay in India

Since 2014 the Baloch insurgency has become a low key affair. “The Pakistani security forces have gotten on top of the Baloch who are now low on funds, arms and facing extreme repression,” says Rana Banerji, former number two of the R&AW, and fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.

Supporting factors

Direct Indian support to the Baloch insurgents would not be impossible and revive a relationship wound down or redirected through third governments after the 1980s.

But there are a number of things to keep in mind.

One, it will be more difficult for India to make Balochistan a matter of international concern for Pakistan than it will be for Islamabad to do the same with Kashmir for New Delhi. Baloch insurgencies never achieved the sort of scale the Kashmiri ones have. Because Balochistan does not lie along a disputed border between two hostile countries, it attracts minimal international interest. Human rights groups do criticise Islamabad, but they tend to give New Delhi more grief over Kashmir and the Northeast. At a time when Kashmir is in ferment again, it will be difficult for India to make a moral case over Balochistan.

Read | After Modi’s remarks, Pak media has started mentioning Balochistan: Analysts

Two, the Baloch insurgency is highly fragmented. India, notes Banerji, has traditionally had a closer relationship with the Mendal and Marri tribal sardars, the Bugtis have been more willing to play footsie with Islamabad in the past. The Mendals formed the core of the Balochistan Liberation Army but this group has splintered and its leadership dispersed.

A new Baloch resistance has arisen in the southern parts of the province and includes middle class professionals rather than just tribal fighters. They would be more comfortable with urban sabotage than old-style rural ambushes. India would need to develop stronger ties with this new movement – though some of them express wariness about the Hindu nationalist tones of the Modi government. While not an insurmountable problem, it is an outreach that will take time.

Involving a third party nation

Three, putting a light to Balochistan would be much easier for India if it could get a third party to become involved. At present, it is unclear there is such a candidate. The new Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, has soured of Pakistan recently but not enough to consider taking up cause of the Baloch people. However, say Indian officials familiar with previous cases of India-Afghan cooperation, Kabul may be prepared to turn a blind eye to India using their country as a logistics base to help the insurgent. Iran has its own Baloch problems, though their insurgents are extremist Sunnis and distinct from the secular nationalist groups India is looking to assist in Pakistan.

Read | ‘Declare Pak state sponsor of terror’ becomes most popular US petition ever

Alex Vatanka of the Middle East Forum and author of a recent book on Pakistan-Iran relations, says, “Iran will be able to live with rhetorical Indian support, but it will be something else if India pushes ahead with a new policy towards the question of the Baloch people. Anything that threatens Iran’s boundaries will, as history has shown, be met by stiff force and impact ties with New Delhi.” In other words, India’s third country policy could be just as much about holding reassuring conversations with Iran as looking for logistics support for Baloch insurgents.

The low cost option

Four, the fastest option would be to encourage the Baloch émigré groups in the West to harass Pakistan in the halls of the US Congress or the European Parliament. They have been the first to respond to Modi’s Balochistan speeches. But they are as fragmented as their cohorts inside Balochistan. Previous engagements with them have been a difficult experience for New Delhi. But Banerji says they would constitute a “low cost option” that could generate media play and keep Islamabad busy putting out diplomatic firefights around the world.

Read | Pak envoys get an earful from their expats in US

Usefully, Pakistan’s standing in Europe and its strategic utility to Washington has both bottomed. Many of these governments would not seek to put on a lid on Pakistan-bashing on their soil. Says Shaun Gregory, a specialist in the Pakistan army at Durham University, “The efforts the Pakistan Army/Inter-Services Intelligence have made to clamp down on militancy in Balochistan have gone along with attempts to keep the media out and away from their use repression and violence in the province.” Getting that Baloch story out in the open again would be no small accomplishment all on its own.

Exaggerations and shadows

The ace in India’s hand is Pakistan’s exaggerated view of what New Delhi has and can do in Balochistan. It helps even more that some of this paranoia has rubbed off on China.

As a WikiLeaks document revealed, ISI chief, Ahmed Shuja Nawaz Pasha, once blamed the United Arab Emirates and India of together sabotaging the building of the Balochistan port of Gwadar. Indian and western diplomats scoff at this given the UAE’s long history of being in Pakistan’s corner. But it tells how Islamabad sees shadows and spooks in Balochistan even when India is not doing anything there.

Read | Pakistan ‘shocked’ by India’s new Baloch policy, says columnist Tarek Fatah

Says Gregory, “I think Pakistan would reject the idea that India has stopped its agitation in Balochistan and thus that there is a policy change to resurrect.” In theory, Islamabad should be doubly nervous if New Delhi begins talks like it is doing something on the dark side.

Gasfields and China’s interests

China, which is nervous about attacks or worse on the $46 billion economic corridor it plans to construct from Balochistan to Kashmir, is already alarmed at how rising India-Pakistani tensions are boosting security costs for the corridor. There is evidence Beijing is applying pressure on Islamabad and, more importantly, Rawalpindi to moderate its stance regarding India.

Read | ‘We are no longer alone’: Rebel Baloch leader thanks India for support

Sound and fury signifying not very much can have surprising consequences. One example: Pakistan’s economy has been largely powered by ageing gasfields in Balochistan and today it has begun importing natural gas because even the low-level Baloch insurgency of the past decade has stalled attempts to explore for new gasfields. The economic corridor could become at least financially wounded if India plays it cards with care.

There is a Baloch card to play. But it is not just about a fistful of rupees and a thousand rifles as it once was in the past. There are a number of different cards, all of varying effectiveness and largely dependent on how India plays and prepares the larger game board.

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