Avoiding the ‘Copycat Trap’ on Balochistan

The similarity between Kashmir and Balochistan, tempting as it may seem, is a false equivalence

August 18, 2016 12:11 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:01 pm IST

Suhasini Haidar

Suhasini Haidar

One of the first things beginners in chess are told to avoid is the “Copycat Trap”. In copycat play, you ‘mirror’ each of your opponent’s moves, in the hope that it will eventually frustrate the opponent into defensive play or making a wrong move. With his gambit from the ramparts of Red Fort, Prime Minister >Narendra Modi seems to be trying to mirror Pakistan on Kashmir with his mention of Balochistan and the need for international intervention. He must step lightly now, if he is to avoid a similar trap in foreign policy strategy.

Diminishing returns To begin with, we must understand the reasons for the Prime Minister’s new strategy. As he himself indicated during his speech, two years after he first invited his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif and other SAARC leaders to his inauguration, Mr. Modi has made little headway with Islamabad. In these two years the government has tried everything, from offering talks, to withdrawing from talks, from doubling return fire for ceasefire violations, to inviting Pakistani terror investigators in after the >Pathankot attack .

Eight months after the Prime Minister took what was hailed as his biggest step, the touchdown in Lahore on Mr. Sharif’s birthday, he is yet to acknowledge in a public statement just where his strategy was meant to lead. The default position remains one of engagement, but no substantive talks took place when the Foreign Ministers or Foreign Secretaries met this year, or when Prime Minister Modi called Prime Minister Sharif to enquire about his health and wish him on Eid.

Clearly, none of this has worked. Pakistan has only upped the ante on Kashmir, and >infiltration by armed terrorists has increased, even as its political support to protesters in the Valley harks back to the 1990s. As a result, many argue that given Pakistan’s recalcitrance, India’s option is to “return in equal measure” in Balochistan, a long-standing freedom movement in a land both neglected and brutalised by Pakistan’s establishment. With growing numbers of those killed or gone “missing”, and frequent protests against the Pakistani army, not to mention the rising number of brutal terror attacks, Balochistan is an open wound for Pakistan. For those advocating this line, Balochistan is a “pressure point” India can use effectively to cause Pakistan the same pain it exerts on India each time anger in the Kashmir Valley boils over.

Disservice to Kashmir However, the similarity between Kashmir and Balochistan, as tempting as it may seem, is a false equivalence. While Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and Gilgit-Baltistan are claimed by India, there is no claim on Balochistan. Raising Balochistan, then, is more akin to Pakistan raising, say, government action in Maoist areas or in Nagaland or Manipur.

By mentioning the three — PoK, Gilgit-Baltistan and Balochistan — in the same breath, the Prime Minister also does a disservice to India’s own case for Kashmir, a case made stronger by the fact that India has preserved Kashmir’s demographics and landholding through >Article 370 . In contrast, Pakistan has not only repopulated many parts of PoK, it hived off Gilgit-Baltistan by giving it quasi-provincial and self-governance powers with an executive order in 2009.

Second, by making the case that India can raise the “B-word” in response to Pakistan’s provocations on the “K-word”, the government draws an unfortunate comparison to its actions in Kashmir even as it tries to reduce the killings by security forces and seeks options for dialogue to deal with the unrest.

Third, the Prime Minister’s reference to Balochistan is bound to set alarm bells ringing not just in Pakistan but beyond, in Iran, Afghanistan and China. While Iran and Afghanistan share borders with the troubled province, the $46-billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor depends on stability in this region, particularly with its naval and commercial plans for Gwadar port. It is for precisely this reason that Pakistan chose to play up the arrest of an alleged Indian spy, Kulbhushan Jadhav, who it said had been caught just across the border inside Balochistan’s Chaman. By playing into the Pakistani narrative by raising the issue on our Independence Day, Mr. Modi may have, however unwittingly, lent credence to concerns any of these countries may have had about a possible “Indian presence” in Balochistan.

Most importantly, the government must consider the benefits of raising human rights violations in Balochistan at the United Nations after consistently holding out against raising matters considered the “internal affairs” of another country. It was this principle that allowed India to take a line against intervention in Iraq, Libya and Syria at the UN in the recent past, a line that has enhanced its standing as a moral power with a serious case for a place in the reformed Security Council structure.

Contrast this with the fact that Pakistan enjoys none of the same goodwill. For the past two months, Pakistan has written reams of correspondence to various UN bodies about the violence in Kashmir without eliciting a shred of support. Such references from India would serve as little purpose as they have served Pakistan for seven decades now. Moreover, making a reference to Balochistan, as Minister of State for >External Affairs M.J. Akbar chose to do during Independence Day celebrations in New York, only takes away attention from India’s many achievements that he was attempting to showcase.

At best, the government’s new policy will serve to rile Pakistan, which is, on its own, a dubious goal. At worst, the Prime Minister may have brought an undesirable international spotlight onto the Kashmir dispute, one that India has attempted to avoid since Independence in favour of bilateral solutions.

In chess terms, the “copycat” tactic is believed to have some benefits: helping unnerve the opponent, and gaining time to think up moves. However, as any expert will testify, the benefits don’t work in the long run, and it is only a matter of a few moves when copying your rival could put your most important chess pieces in peril.


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