When Prime Minister Narendra Modi acknowledged the gratitude of the people of Balochistan and Gilgit, and nodded at their struggles in his Independence Day speech on Monday, he ended a long period of shadow-boxing in India-Pakistan ties.
This is a game-changer, but its consequences are not clear just yet.
Modi’s reference to Gilgit is significant but can be understood. There is an Indian parliamentary resolution that all of Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of India. It is, as the strategic analyst Manoj Joshi noted, based on a simple principle - ‘In a dispute, express your maximal position, rather than the one you will compromise on.’ India has, in the past, responded to reports of the presence of Chinese soldiers and workers in the region. National security adviser Ajit Doval, in 2015, spoke of India’s 106-km long border with Afghanistan - which was a reference to Gilgit-Baltistan border.
The real shift is Balochistan.
To understand the leap, let us go back to Sharm-el-Sheikh in 2009. After a meeting between the Indian and Pakistani PMs, a joint statement said that Pakistan has ‘some information on threats in Balochistan and other areas’.
Note the context. Pakistan has repeatedly accused India of supporting insurgents in Balochistan, where it has been facing a long separatist struggle. Islamabad has specifically claimed that Indian diplomats and spies in Afghanistan keep in touch and finance these militants. For Pakistan, it served three ends - it was able to pass off an internal domestic issue into an externally-backed conspiracy; it lobbied with the West to keep India out of the Afghanistan equation with this accusation; and when India pointed to its role in Kashmir, it had a ready-made response on how India is intervening in its internal affairs.
Delhi has always refuted and rubbished the allegations, and asked for proof, which Islamabad was unable to offer convincingly.
It was for this reason that the 2009 statement provoked a huge domestic backlash in India. The opposition, as well as sections of the ruling Congress, saw Sharm-el-Sheikh as a sellout. India was viewed as almost admitting that it has a role in Balochistan. Parliament erupted, and questions were asked why a reference to Balochistan was included in a joint statement. This eroded India’s moral high ground. The government back-tracked and Manmohan Singh’s negotiating hand with Pakistan weakened, almost irreversibly, to the extent that he could not even visit the country despite his deep desire to do so.
Now, look at what Modi has done.
He has, in some senses, embraced the perception pushed by Pakistan, converted it from an accusation to a possible lever, and claimed a role for India in Balochistan.
The thinking is clear - if Pakistan can use internal Indian vulnerabilities (read Kashmir), India can use internal Pakistani vulnerabilities. If Pakistan can internationalise what India considers its problem, India can internationalise what Pakistan thinks falls solely within in its remit. If Pakistan can build a domestic political opinion on human rights excesses in Kashmir, India can build a domestic political opinion on human rights excesses in Balochistan. If Pakistan can cultivate a Kashmiri separatist constituency within India, India can cultivate a separatist Baloch constituency in Pakistan.
There is a big difference so far.
Pakistan has offered tangible financial, moral, political support to Kashmiri separatists. It has, as India says, ‘exported terror’. Whether Indian support will remain confined to a few utterances, or whether it will grow to more tangible forms, is to be seen. What these forms take will be as crucial to India’s reputation. This will also be a test of Indian commitment and give us a sense of whether Modi’s statement is merely rhetorical or there is more to it.
Needless to say, the form of Indian support will determine the Pakistani reaction and the subsequent geopolitical games. There is an additional subtext to it. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor will pass through both Balochistan and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Modi’s statement is meant as much for Beijing as for Islamabad. It will not remain quiet as India ups its game in Balochistan.
What’s, as significant as the statement, is the occasion on which it was made. If it was merely a tactical manoeuvre, India could have left it to a mid-level diplomat, or an official foreign ministry statement or even a pronouncement by a cabinet minister. The fact that India’s Prime Minister has spoken of Balochistan - and from the ramparts of the Red Fort - signifies a level of political sanction and commitment that has not been seen so far on the issue. It also means that once Delhi has taken the plunge, it cannot hop out at will.
A new game is about to commence.