India celebrated Modi’s ill-thought Independence Day speech but it hurt Balochistan badly

Two years after Prime Minister Narendra Modi brought up Balochistan in his Independence Day speech, there has been no sign of India’s success in raising human rights violations in the restive Pakistani province to the level of a significant international issue.

If anything, public professing of support from New Delhi without any substantive follow up actions has only reinforced Pakistan’s contentions about an Indian role in fomenting terrorism in Balochistan.

Modi’s remarks two years ago were probably not thought through. They certainly had not been discussed with India’s friends abroad, before the speech, to coordinate policies.

Had such discussions taken place, Indian diplomats would have learned in advance that most of the world does not support the notion of an India-led attempt to foment secessionist rebellions in Pakistan.

Although several Baloch leaders in exile responded positively to Modi’s remarks, their expectations of being allowed to set up shop in India were not fulfilled.

There is no evidence that India stepped up support to exiled Baloch groups, many of whom have limited their activity over the past two years to avoid being accused of acting at India’s behest.

In his address to the nation on 15 August 2016, Modi had said, “Today, I want to especially honour and thank some people from the ramparts of the Red Fort. For the past few days, the people of Balochistan, people of Gilgit, people of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, the way their citizens have heartily thanked me, the way they have acknowledged me, the goodwill they have shown towards me, people settled far across, the land which I have not seen, people I have not met ever….”

The reference to Balochistan was deemed significant because, unlike Kashmir, Balochistan is not disputed between India and Pakistan.

A few days earlier, Modi had vowed to raise the issue of “atrocities by the Pakistani government” in these three areas at the international stage while speaking to an all-party delegation about the situation in Jammu and Kashmir.

India had previously made at least two public statements in 2005 and 2006, denouncing Pakistani military operations against the Baloch and had expressed concern over the “spiralling violence” in Balochistan. But Modi’s statement was the first that sought to generate fear of an Indian tit-for-tat against Pakistan’s longstanding support for Jihadi groups in Jammu and Kashmir.

Soon after his statement, Indian hawks described Modi as a “game changer”. Former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal had said, “By raising the Balochistan issue, he (Modi) has changed the rules of the game. From the PM’s point of view, this is a warning signal to Pakistan.”

G. Parthasarathy, former High Commissioner to Pakistan, was quoted saying that while some would call it “long overdue”, he would describe it as a “necessary measure” and that “there has to be some inducement for Pakistan to fall in line”.

For several days after the initial remarks, there were reports that the Indian Prime Minister had received many messages on social media from Baloch groups and Kashmiris around the world and in Pakistan thanking him for his support. But beyond that, the spectre of Balochistan being turned into a new Bangladesh went nowhere.

It seems now that the statement on Balochistan was just a statement that was (luckily) not backed by actual plans. Any plans to step up violence in Balochistan would have delegitimised India’s case against Pakistan’s support for internationally designated terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammed.

As India does not have geographic contiguity with Balochistan, any meddling there would need support from Iran and Afghanistan, both of whom do not want to escalate tensions with Pakistan.

The United States’ military presence in Afghanistan also ensures that Afghan authorities must consider US concerns about further destabilisation of Pakistan. There is hardly anyone in the US who wants to increase Pakistan’s paranoia about conspiracies aimed at its disintegration.

The Prime Minister’s statement and its immediate aftermath actually hurt the Baloch nationalists, many of whom found themselves tarred with the brush of being Indian agents without any benefit of Indian support.

They have legitimate grievances against the Pakistani state and bear the brunt of human rights violations. But their cause needs more support within Pakistan and from the international community without the burden of being painted as Indian-backed terrorists.

Just as Pakistan-based terrorists have ill-served those in Jammu and Kashmir seeking a different relationship with the Centre, Indian-backed threats of violence would not have had a different outcome in Balochistan.

Baloch nationalists must have flexibility in negotiating for the rights of their people. Not all of them see secession and separatism as the only choice. The impression of external support limits Baloch leaders’ ability to seek a better deal from Rawalpindi and Islamabad.

It is best to let the Baloch speak for themselves and for Pakistani reformers to support them internationally rather than adding Balochistan to the already complex menu of India-Pakistan issues.

In any case, chaos and disintegration of Pakistan are not in India’s interest nor is the international public opinion too keen on the idea of encouraging anarchy in Pakistan.

It is true that the stubbornness of the country’s military-led establishment causes frustration to a lot of people around the world, most of all Pakistanis who want prosperity rather than conflict to be their nation’s principal objective. But Pakistan’s national pride and the discourse about India being Pakistan’s eternal enemy make it impossible for India to be the agent of change in Pakistan’s policies.

Prime Minister Modi was probably frustrated with the constancy of unrest and terrorism on the Indian side of the Line of Control when he decided to throw the gauntlet over Balochistan. It was not the best of political moves.

Since then, India seems to have realised that the road to building pressure on Pakistan runs through Washington, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), and European donors. Balochistan is not the best point of inflexion. Threats of increasing trouble there only brings greater hardship on the already battered Baloch people.

- This piece was originally published in The Print.