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The neighbour’s concern

Illustration: Deepak Harichandan  

“I wouldn’t recognise the Balochistan problem if it hit me in the face.” These were words spoken by Henry Kissinger during a mission to Pakistan on behalf of the Kennedy Administration in 1962. The words seem oddly out of place today, for suddenly Balochistan is the subject of protracted debate in the Indian and Pakistani media, following the references made in >Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speech from the ramparts of the Red Fort in Delhi.

A new Great Game

Do the Prime Minister’s words portend a New Age in India’s foreign and security policy? Are they moves on some grand chessboard? The days of that “period piece” as some have called it, the Great Game, may be behind us, but as a metaphor there is still a frisson that the term evokes. In what Kipling called the grand Asiatic disorder of our region, India is still the strategic centre, and our policies and actions will determine the future course of stability in South Asia.

There has long been the view that we as Indians should avoid introversion when it comes to dealing with the world and the problems that challenge us. K.M. Panikkar, one of our earliest modern strategic thinkers, was dismissive about pacifism in Indian thought, saying that while Ahimsa was a great creed, the “Hindu theory at all times” was one of active assertion of the right, if necessary through the force of arms. “Wake, be thyself, scourge thy foes” was the teaching of Krishna in the Gita. Indian freedom, in his words, could be “achieved and upheld only by firmly deciding to shoulder our share at all costs in the active defence of the areas necessary for our security”.

It can be construed that the Prime Minister’s words on Independence Day were very much in the tradition of the assertiveness defined by Panikkar. They seemed to leaven awareness of our strategic vulnerabilities with a good dose of nuanced boldness and cunning, and a determination to articulate a plan of active offence-defence in addressing the challenge thrown by an importunate and unrelentingly adversarial neighbour. The centrality of a stable, secure India and the ability to tenaciously safeguard the national interest was implied. Nationalistic opinion, in particular, would see it as a significant and calculated move on the grand chessboard.

The Prime Minister’s words were carefully articulated. This was no one-off impulse. New Delhi offers a vantage position for a high-resolution view of the lamentable state of affairs in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and in the province of Balochistan. The world must wake to the realisation that even as Pakistan knocks on international portals to complain about the human rights of Indian citizens in the Kashmir Valley, it seeks to avoid focus on, and camouflages, the erasing of the identities and the gross violations of human rights of the inhabitants of Gilgit and Baltistan, and of the Baloch people.

Cross-currents on an altered map

Gilgit-Baltistan offers a classic example of a region, part of Jammu and Kashmir, now torn away from its mother node, whose disenfranchised people are essentially prevented from expressing their Kashmiriyat and live in a cul-de-sac determined by Islamabad, prevented from any contact with fellow Kashmiris across the Line of Control. Family and trade links with Jammu and Kashmir, including Ladakh, have been severed completely, thanks to actions of the Pakistani state. Terrorist attacks on top of sectarian clashes have affected the area in recent years. An economic crisis has compounded problems in the region. Residents have no bargaining power or wherewithal to generate their own resources. Many reports state that the improvement of the Gilgit-Baltistan section of the Karakoram Highway linking Chinese Xinjiang with PoK has been entrusted to Chinese defence and security personnel.

It is largely lost in the stalemated discourse on Kashmir that the Constitution of India recognises the people of Gilgit-Baltistan as its citizens. In the words of Senge Hasnan Sering, who campaigns in exile for the rights of the residents of Gilgit-Baltistan, the statement by the Prime Minister on Independence Day, sends a clear message: “Gilgit-Baltistan, Jammu, Ladakh and Kashmir are all equal stakeholders and the issue cannot be solved by focusing on Kashmir alone. It is a positive sign that India is advancing a policy to address the region’s constitutional question by bringing Gilgit-Baltistan on par with Kashmir at the negotiating table.” ( The Indian Express, August 24, 2016)

And then, there is the case of Balochistan, one India has largely shied away from mentioning previously in its diplomatic forays about the state of India-Pakistan relations. Mr. Modi’s reference to Balochistan was also a calculated move designed to cause a stir in both Pakistan and China. A Chinese scholar, Hu Shisheng, in a recent interview to this newspaper said it “signals a watershed moment in India’s policy towards Pakistan in the future.” The same scholar is sceptical, however, about the advisability of the move, saying it could be “disastrous” for relations between Pakistan and India, and importantly, between China and India. Scholar Hu referred in this context to China’s emphasis on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and its determination to make the corridor a “success story”.

China’s drang nach süden or thrust towards the south, has seen its submarines in the Indian Ocean, homing into harbours close to our shores, and its One Belt One Road (OBOR) plans include the ambitious CPEC — that “noodle formation” of a highway as a Pakistani journalist called it. The CPEC will run through Indian-claimed territory in PoK, and thence down the Pakistani land mass to hit the port of Gwadar on the Balochistan coast, close to the Straits of Hormuz.

It is reasonable to surmise that in addition to Pakistan, China is uneasy about India’s move to shine a light on Balochistan. Gwadar, the end point of the CPEC, is a port that is a strategic investment of China’s and even as it may claim that the corridor is mainly focussed on advancing Pakistan’s economic progress and well being, the establishment of a viable link across the Karakoram from Xinjiang to this warm water port helps promote China’s economic and strategic great power ambitions with the detour it provides to bypass the maritime routes across the South China Sea and the Malacca Straits.

Balochistan formed with Nepal and the Naga Hills the “Inner Ring” of the so-called ring fence that defined the security perimeter of undivided India prior to Independence. There is evidence to suggest that British civil servants like Olaf Caroe even advocated an autonomous status with linkages to Britain for Balochistan (and not merger with a future Pakistan). Balochistan, with its strategic location on both maritime and land routes from the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula into the subcontinent, was prized territory that held the key to the “wells of power” (the words are Caroe’s), the vital energy reserves of the Gulf.

After August 1947, Balochistan, which comprises over 40 per cent of the territory of Pakistan today, was compelled to accede to Pakistan. India has not questioned the status of Balochistan within a sovereign Pakistan state. If the area were to secede, Pakistan would be a greatly shrunken country. Baloch identities are spread across Pakistan and Iran while a significant Pashtun population in the province is ethnically tied with members of the same community in Afghanistan across the controversial Durand Line. The Baloch population has suffered considerably as a result of their struggle against state repression, particularly since 2003. Young Baloch men and women have died or disappeared in large numbers as a result of this conflict. The Pakistani state’s aim has been to run the province with maximum central government control and military force leaving little scope for local autonomy or devolution of powers.

Caution advised

The fact that there will be more intensive focus publicly asserted by India on global platforms about Balochistan and the travails of its people as also the nature of administration in PoK and Gilgit-Baltistan, and the denial of rights to the people there, should be welcomed. By raising human rights issues in this context, India is acting in accordance with its own democratic standards and traditions, and this is entirely legitimate.

Keep in mind however, that the trajectory of such gambits must be plotted with due deliberation, calculation and calibration. The endgame cannot be a scenario of protracted contest and conflict. Voyages down a river of no return can come at a heavy cost for the nation. India’s strategic centrality to the region is best assured by ensuring that its agenda for accelerated economic development is reinforced and facilitated by secure defence of the homeland, the tangible reduction of tensions in the Kashmir Valley, super-efficient counterterrorism measures, and non-closure of the door to dialogue with Pakistan. The China factor also intrudes into the sphere of calculations to be made here. The implications of opening new fronts of tension with our largest neighbour must be clinically assessed.

Most importantly, it is essential for the government to express with greater clarity the agenda and goals of its Pakistan policy. The announcements in the Prime Minister’s speech of August 15 cannot be a cause for over-exuberance. Highlighting the grievous violations of human rights and repression in Balochishtan and PoK is certainly in order. But let us not be too expectant about this radically tempering Pakistan’s obdurateness on Kashmir. Festina lente. Hasten slowly.

Nirupama Rao is a former Foreign Secretary.


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Printable version | Jan 27, 2022 10:18:24 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/The-neighbour%E2%80%99s-concern/article14596749.ece

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