Behind the opening of the Balochistan front

India’s limited options against a nuclear Pakistan make the Baloch card tempting


Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

The great military theorist Carl von Clausewitz said: “No one starts a war—or rather, no one in his sense ought to do so—without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” The inability to comprehend what Prime Minister Narendra Modi realistically intended to achieve—and how exactly—by using the Balochistan card in the battle for Kashmir triggered much of the criticism of his third Independence Day speech. Playing the Balochistan card is not exactly going to war but it certainly ups the ante with Pakistan.

After Operation Gibraltar—Pakistan’s attempt to foment an uprising in Kashmir—in 1965 failed, six Pakistani armoured divisions attempted to isolate Srinagar from the rest of India as part of Operation Grand Slam. India retaliated by opening another front in Punjab, taking the Pakistani generals by surprise. The thrust towards Lahore was part of India’s strategy to achieve its military objective, or what Clausewitz would call ziel, not its political objective or zweck. New Delhi did not have any expansionary designs over Pakistan’s Punjab.

It is the difference between 1965 and 2016 that explains Modi using the Balochistan card. Both India and Pakistan are now nuclear weapons states. It is also now well understood that nuclear parity helps the conventionally weaker power—in this case Pakistan—to explore sub-conventional options. India, while conventionally stronger, cannot respond adequately due to fear of nuclear escalation.

As Vipin Narang explains it in his 2014 book Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era: Regional Powers and International Conflict, opening another front militarily has almost been out of the question since 1998—the year Pakistan explicitly became a nuclear weapons power and began to threaten their first use.

A status quoist power, India’s zweck remains limited—to eliminate Pakistan’s role from Kashmir. But since military escalation and opening up the Punjab front is no longer considered feasible, the Balochistan option appears tempting. Strategic affairs expert Rajesh Rajagopalan sums it up (goo.gl/UAQE85) accurately: “… the most important benefit of the Balochistan strategy is that it gives India the option of responding forcefully to Pakistan’s own use of (terrorist) force against India without fearing nuclear escalation. This is another reason why India’s failure to use the Balochistan option until now is difficult to understand…”

Balochistan is not territorially contiguous with India and does not, like East Pakistan in 1971, present a refugee problem for New Delhi. Nor does any Indian province share ethnicity with the Baloch people, thus giving rise to the kind of situation which led to Indian intervention in Sri Lanka through its peacekeeping forces in 1987.

So, while Balochistan is an attractive option for New Delhi to exploit, it does not provide much scope for military intervention or an ambitious zweck. Iran’s fear of a pan-Baloch rebellion and China’s commercial interests in Pakistan’s restive province further limit India’s manoeuvring room.

India can, at the maximum, provide moral, political, financial and intelligence support to the Baloch insurgents and thus keep the Pakistani army busy on the western frontiers. A bleeding Rawalpindi, New Delhi hopes, will realize the follies of its misadventures in Kashmir.

This strategy was kicked off by Modi at the all-party meeting on Kashmir, where he called out Pakistan for the human rights violations in Balochistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. He followed this up by expressing his gratitude to people of Balochistan, Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Gilgit during his Independence Day speech.

External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj has reportedly been consulting former diplomats in order to give shape to the new policy on Balochistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Several suggestions, like raising the Baloch human rights issue in the UN General Assembly and inviting the diaspora from Gilgit-Baltistan for Pravasi Divas 2017 are on the table.

On the other side of the line of control, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has decided to escalate the matters further by naming 22 parliamentarians to rake up the Kashmir issue in various multilateral forums. Unless this is to end in a long lasting rupture, at least one side has to blink. Given the historical record, including that of Modi, the bets are on New Delhi blinking first. For Modi to turn the tide will require one realization: no policy will be successful unless his government is willing to bear the enforcement costs. Or else, since the stakes are higher this time, the fall will be greater too. Baloch mistrust will accompany Kashmiri.

Can India use the Balochistan card effectively against Pakistan? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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