The mention of Balochistan in PM Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speech last year seemed to signal a major shift in India’s Pakistan policy, but precious little has happened in that regard since then. Photo: HT
The mention of Balochistan in PM Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speech last year seemed to signal a major shift in India’s Pakistan policy, but precious little has happened in that regard since then. Photo: HT

Independence Day speech: A year on, what happened to India’s ‘Balochistan card’?

There's hardly been a mention of Balochistan in India's policy circles since the issue was mentioned by PM Narendra Modi in his Independence Day speech last year

New Delhi: During his Independence Day speech a year ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi seemed to signal a major shift in foreign policy, with an aggressive countering of Pakistani propaganda by raising human rights issues in Balochistan, Pakistan-administered Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan.

The reference to Balochistan in the speech from Red Fort drew cheers from Baloch nationalists as it raised hopes of active Indian support for their cause.

That India would press ahead with this strategy seemed certain when foreign minister Sushma Swaraj referred to Balochistan in her speech to the UN General Assembly in September—describing Pakistani state excesses in Balochistan as “the worst form of state oppression".

But a handful of references apart, a year down the line, there seems to be hardly any mention of Balochistan in Indian policy circles. Neither is there any official word on whether an asylum request by leading Baloch nationalist Brahumdagh Bugti has been granted. The Indian home ministry seemed unaware of any such request logged last year at the Indian embassy in Berne. An aide of Bugti’s said there had been no response from India on an asylum request and a visa request to visit India.

Analysts in India are divided over whether India has a ‘Baloch card’ to play vis-a-vis Pakistan and its use to highlight human rights abuses by Pakistan.

“I don’t think the Baloch card was going to be played," said former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan T.C.A. Raghavan. “What the Prime Minister was doing in his speech was to expose the fault lines in Pakistan in the context of them putting pressure on us," he said. The reference was to Pakistan piling pressure on India on alleged human rights violations in Kashmir last year, against the backdrop of protests at the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen terrorist Burhan Wani. Scores of people were killed when Indian security forces tried to put down the protests —something Pakistan tried to highlight through briefings to diplomats and writing to then United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon.

According to Raghavan, Modi’s comments were more “tactical" in nature. Besides, “the Baloch nationalists are divided into many factions and Baloch expectations are varied," he said, adding: “Some of them use statements made by India for their own tactical advantage."

Former foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh, however, was of the view that “there is always a Baloch card to play", given the many internal schisms within Pakistan.

“Balochistan is one of the oldest running insurgencies in Pakistan. I don’t know whether India has done anything about it. I would be surprised if India was not doing anything about it," Mansingh said when asked if he was aware of any moves by India to exploit Pakistan’s Achilles’ heel.

According to Mansingh, Balochistan has been one of the many prongs in India’s strategy to discomfit Pakistan in the past year. “The Prime Minister flagged the issue and created a sense of discomfort for Pakistan. Simultaneously, India has raised the issue of Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorism. The Indian government has also been effectively meeting the Pakistani challenge along the Line of Control in Kashmir," he said. The last was a reference to India responding strongly to Pakistani troops violating a 2003 ceasefire agreement.

Harsh Pant, a professor of international relations at King’s College London, said Modi’s reference to Balochistan in his Independence Day speech is evidence enough that Indian policymakers think there “is a Baloch card" to be leveraged. “I think the aim of the reference was to attempt to pitch Indian diplomacy into an offensive mode from the defensive over Kashmir," he said.

Having done that, “India, I think, would like to balance it out" with moves like no asylum for Baloch nationalists or providing material support to their cause, he said.