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Business News/ Politics / Policy/  PM Modi’s reference to Balochistan in I-Day speech seen as game-changer

PM Modi’s reference to Balochistan in I-Day speech seen as game-changer

An explainer on Balochistan and how it could affect future India-Pakistan ties

Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivering a speech on India’s 70th Independence at the Red Fort in New Delhi on Monday. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/MintPremium
Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivering a speech on India’s 70th Independence at the Red Fort in New Delhi on Monday. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reference to Balochistan in his third Independence Day speech delivered on Monday is widely being viewed as a game-changer in India’s foreign policy vis-a-vis Pakistan. Why? Because till now, India has been seen as restrained or diffident (depending on the choice of word) in setting the record straight whenever Pakistan accused India of fomenting an insurgency in the resource rich region that Pakistan has been trying hard to subdue.

The accusation of Indian support to the Balochis has routinely come up as a counter to India blaming Pakistan for the Islamist insurgency in India-administered Kashmir. It has also served as a convenient tool for Pakistan to limit Indian influence and presence in Afghanistan, with Pakistan blaming Indian missions in south-west Afghanistan of fomenting the Baloch insurgency.

This is one of the main reasons why the 2009 India-Pakistan joint statement after talks between then Indian and Pakistan prime ministers Manmohan Singh and Yousaf Raza Gilani, respectively, was seen as a sell-out in India. “Both leaders agreed that the two countries will share real time credible and actionable information on any future terrorist threats," said the text of the 2009 statement. “Prime Minister Gilani mentioned that Pakistan has some information on threats in Balochistan and other areas," it added. According to sections of the then ruling Congress party and then opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, the statement was tantamount to admission by India that it had a hand in the Baloch insurgency.

Pakistan’s alleged capture of an Indian spy, Kulbhushan Jadhav, along the border with Iran earlier this year seemed aimed at buttressing its position that India has been aiding the Balochis, but the “evidence" doesn’t seem to have persuaded the international community.

Here’s an explainer on Balochistan and how it could affect future India-Pakistan ties.

The region: Balochistan is one of the four provinces of Pakistan, the biggest in terms of land area or a little less than about half of Pakistan. The province shares its borders with Afghanistan to the north and north-west, Iran to the south-west, Punjab and Sindh, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas to the north-east. Balochistan takes its name from the Baloch people who inhabit it. Its provincial capital and largest city is Quetta. The province is reported to have abundant natural resources like natural gas, copper and gold.

Its history: In ancient times, Balochistan has been recorded as being part of the Achaemenid Persian Empire and then various Persian and Indian empires. In more recent times, Balochistan came under British rule in 1839 when the British invaded Kalat. Part of the Khanate of Kalat, as it was then called, came under British rule. In 1947, when the Indian subcontinent was partitioned, the Khan of Kalat, the quasi-autonomous monarch who ruled Balochistan under the umbrella of the British Empire, wanted to remain independent. But Pakistani troops moved into Baluchistan in March 1948 and it was finally absorbed into Pakistan in 1955. The history of insurgency in Balochistan dates back to 1948 with brief lulls in between.

The current unrest: The current unrest in the region dates back to around 2003. One of the incidents that brought the plight of the Balochis into international focus was the killing of Nawab Akbar Bugti, the octogenarian head of the Bugti tribe. Bugti was involved in a struggle, at times armed, for greater autonomy for Balochistan. But the Pakistani government then headed by General Pervez Musharraf accused him of keeping a private militia and leading a guerrilla war against the state. Bugti was reportedly killed in August 2006 when a cave he was hiding in collapsed due to Pakistani bombing. The violence in the region has only escalated ever since. Pakistan reportedly uses heavy artillery and fighter jets to bomb the region.

Baloch insurgent groups believed to be active in the region include Balochistan Liberation Army, Baluchistan Liberation Front, Baloch Republican Army and the United Baloch Army.

Balochi demands include greater say (read autonomy) in decision making and greater control over the resources in their province.

How India could use the Baloch card: Analysts in favour of India using the Baloch card say India does not really need to support the Baloch insurgency. All it needs is to allow Baloch voices to be heard on Indian TV which will expose to the world how brutally Pakistan suppresses insurgency in Balochistan. Pakistan’s alleged atrocities in Balochistan have been documented, but first person accounts would serve to mount fresh pressure on Pakistan. India has already allowed some Balochis to travel to India. Balochistan Liberation Organisation (BLO) representative Balaach Pardili addressed a gathering in New Delhi on 4 October 2015, according to reports in The Hindu newspaper and Pakistani media.

If, on the other hand, India does fund and support the Baloch separatists, Pakistan could be in for big trouble, given that it is already suffering the blowback from its policy of supporting militant groups on its soil—with a number of these groups now turning against the state.

International repercussions: The spectre of India fomenting unrest in Balochistan can affect the prospects of the much touted China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. One of the reasons given by the Nawaz Sharif government for developing the corridor is to develop the region as the $46 billion project aims to link Xinjiang in China with Gwadar in Balochistan. If there is a further spike in the insurgency, it could spell disaster for the project.

On the flip side, India’s efforts to normalize ties with Pakistan would take a hit as Prime Minister Narendra Modi could find it difficult to reach out to Pakistan the way he has done in the past—a pull aside at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris in November and an impromptu visit to Pakistan on 25 December. Given that the two countries possess nuclear weapons, Western countries have been concerned about tensions triggering a war; this could mean pressure on India as the bigger country to engage Pakistan.

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Published: 16 Aug 2016, 12:05 PM IST
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