How does one assess the joint statement issued after the meeting of the Indian and Pakistani prime ministers in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm-el-Sheikh? Faced with an intractable problem, senior diplomats argue, countries sometimes agree to a suitably ambiguous draft that allows both sides to walk away with individual interpretations and live to fight (or talk) another day.
On some subjects — esoteric details of the India-United States nuclear deal; the delineation of remote areas that constitute the disputed India-China border — this is fairly easily achieved. In the case of Pakistan, it is difficult to do. The issues are straightforward and the public has a strong emotional investment.
On this crucial test the Indian government’s case for the Sharm-el-Sheikh communiqué has faltered. The statement de-links (“should not be bracketed”) Pakistan’s “action on terrorism” from the bilateral “composite dialogue”. India says this means Pakistan has to act on terror, without any quid pro quo. Pakistan says this means the dialogue on other issues is insulated from acts of terrorism.
Reading the text of the statement, the Pakistani version would seem more persuasive. Further, even if the Indian interpretation is valid, it makes three assumptions. One: enough people in Islamabad-Rawalpindi now believe jihadist terror groups are a problem for that country itself, and not a strategic auxiliary. Two: the Pakistani establishment has the capacity — military or otherwise — to ‘turn off the tap’, to scale-down terrorism. Three: Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani believes in assumption one and has the authority to deliver on assumption two.
This is a massive gamble by the Indian PM and not entirely desirable. Even so, it’s not an irrevocable surrender either. Textual interpretation is a dynamic process. Phrases of the joint statement can yet be twisted to India’s advantage. India could contend that Pakistan has now accepted that action on terrorism is unrelated to “a settlement on Kashmir”. Judiciously emphasised that could take care of factional pressure from Washington. That aside, New Delhi has clarified it is not about to restart the composite dialogue and that it is anyway pointless to negotiate trade and water with an administration in Islamabad that is engaged in a life-and-death struggle with Islamist rebels.
What is, however, more curious and has potentially greater implications is the joint statement’s reference to Balochistan: “Prime Minister Gilani mentioned that Pakistan has some information on threats in Balochistan and other areas.” For six decades Balochistan has been Pakistan’s most troubled province, an internal colony the natural resources of which are exploited by outsider Punjabis. There is a history to this.
The principal Baloch kingdom, Kalat, was not an Indian princely state. Balochis traditionally owed suzerainty to Kabul and Muscat (Oman). As such, Kalat was recognised as different from the 550-odd kingdoms that merged into either India or Pakistan in 1947. At one stage, it was discussed as the equivalent of Nepal — sovereign but dependent on its big neighbour.
In March 1948, “acting in his private capacity”, the Khan of Kalat signed the Instrument of Accession under persuasion of M.A. Jinnah, then the governor general of Pakistan. Crucially, the Khan had not consulted the parliament of Baloch chiefs. His brother escaped to Afghanistan and launched the first anti-Pakistan Baloch insurgency.
Over the years, Baloch nationalists have received support from Afghanistan, which sees Balochistan as within its area of influence. In the 1980s, the Soviet-backed regime in Kabul sought to arm Baloch militia.
Post-9/11, intelligence sources say, sections close to President Hamid Karzai have helped finance Baloch insurgents, deploying the surplus from the opium trade in which the Afghan leader’s brother is supposed to play a role. This is a response to Islamabad’s sponsorship of anti-Karzai Taliban forces.
It is a fascinating cat-and-mouse game in a wild, rugged terrain at the edge of South Asia. India’s role, however, is peripheral. New Delhi did try and get involved in Baloch politics in the 1970s, in the aftermath of the Bangladesh war. Indian intelligence still has a network among senior Baloch leaders and, for example, an acquaintance with the erstwhile Kalat royals now in Afghanistan. However, in the absence of political direction, it has never undertaken any serious strategic mission to activate these assets and cripple Pakistan.
Why then is there a reference to Balochistan in the joint statement? True, there is a perception in Pakistan that India is arming the Balochis. Much of it is uninformed, as bizarre as the claim on a news channel in Pakistan this past week that the Swat militants were actually Indian Army Gurkhas in disguise.
So perhaps India is now willing to listen to Pakistan’s ‘evidence’ on Balochistan and establish once and for all that it is exaggerated. On the other hand, is the Indian leadership also being extraordinarily generous and ruling out — to its own intelligence community — the likelihood of it ever approving covert operations, tactical or strategic, in Pakistan?
If that is so, it amounts to a greater concern than the debate over terrorism and the composite dialogue. At some point, in some manner, the government will need to clarify.
Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based writer.
The views expressed by the author are personal.