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SUKUMAR MURALIDHARAN | 1 SEPTEMBER, 2016

Kashmir to Balochistan: Eyes Wide Open, India Steps Into a Strategic Quagmire


NEW DELHI: A certain domestic constituency cheered Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day declaration from the Red Fort about India’s intent to make the human rights cause in Balochistan its own. But beyond the cheers of the misinformed, endorsements for India’s new resolve were few and far between.

One such cheerleader was Brahamdagh Bugti, grandson of the late Baloch feudal chieftain Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti. Akbar Bugti enjoyed a brief flurry of attention in the Indian media early in 2006 as leader of the uprising in Balochistan, before he was killed in a rocket strike by the Pakistan army. Brahamdagh has since lived in exile, first in Afghanistan and now reportedly in Switzerland.

Sarfraz Bugti, who holds the internal security portfolio in the provincial government of Balochistan, shares a tribal affiliation with Brahamdagh, though not the feudal lineage. His response to Brahamdagh’s effusive praise for PM Modi was simple. The Balochistan Republican Party that Brahamdagh heads, is a terrorist organisation under Pakistan law. To declare support for it would be a crime meriting prosecution under Pakistan’s anti-terrorism laws.

Knowingly or otherwise, Sarfraz Bugti was underlining the wisdom imparted by India’s Union Home Minister, Rajnath Singh, during his tense and ultimately futile visit to Pakistan’s capital city Islamabad for a SAARC conference on August 11.

“Terrorists should not be glorified as ‘martyrs’. There is no good or bad terrorism. Terrorism is terrorism,” Rajnath Singh pronounced during his plenary remarks.

Pakistan’s Interior Minister Chaudhary Nissar Ali Khan, temporarily departed from protocol as host to deliver a riposte. He pointed to certain especially brutal terrorist attacks that Pakistan has suffered in recent times and urged a more cordial spirit of engagement, free of the “blame-game” and “swipes at each other”. “We should take time out to reflect and sit together to try and work out the problems and reservations that we might harbour towards each other”, he argued.

Reconciliation between these two diametrically opposed positions is not impossible, since they both revolve around the truism that terrorism cannot have a good and bad avatar. But resolution would normally require an element of trust and a willingness to exchange information and sift through it to identify authentic and actionable elements.

India and Pakistan have twice in the last decade, come close to this manner of an engagement, both curiously, on the sidelines of summits of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).

At the Havana NAM summit in 2006, the two countries agreed on a joint institutional mechanism to combat terrorism. It was not a very cordial time and the announcement from Havana was akin to a rabbit emerging out of a magician’s hat.

The aftermath was not particularly happy. There were scarcely concealed grimaces within India’s intelligence agencies, most of them simply unenthused by the idea of information sharing with cross-border counterparts, which they saw as infringing operational autonomy and a manner of giving comfort to the enemy.

That idea floundered, though not the urge to surprise. Expectations were low as the Indian and Pakistani Prime Ministers arrived at the 2009 NAM summit in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm al-Shaikh. The Mumbai attacks were just eight months past and Pakistan’s Yusuf Raza Gilani, in office for just over a year, was yet to find his bearings. It was a surprise in itself that a joint statement was released, and the effort at compromise was evident.

Both sides agreed that they faced common threats and vowed to share real-time intelligence to facilitate the struggle against terrorism. Pakistan vowed to bring those guilty of the Mumbai attacks to justice and Prime Minister Gilani was recorded in this context, to have put forward “some information on threats in Balochistan and other areas”.

Within hours, that statement was ricocheting through the echo chambers of India’s strategic affairs specialists, eliciting a collective groan from a fraternity that earns its meal ticket from endless hostility to the neighbour.

The BJP, then the main opposition party, was incensed at the loss of moral advantage on terrorism. With Parliament paralysed, the explanation when it came from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, was feeble and apologetic. The promise of Sharm al-Sheikh, the mutual resolve to push the structured dialogue forward without allowing terrorists a veto, was stifled at birth.

The NAM spirit obviously will not influence the India-Pakistan dialogue any further. PM Modi has already sent out signals that he would not be attending this month’s NAM summit in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, which was once postponed to suit his convenience. Meanwhile the audition, as one observer put it, for a role as sidekick in the U.S. global plan, continues.

In simultaneous events in the two national capitals, India’s Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar signed a memorandum of understanding on military logistics with his U.S. counterpart, while External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj hosted her counterpart in the second phase of a “strategic and commercial dialogue”.

In Washington, U.S. Defence Secretary Ashton Carter lauded the deepening military ties with India. Defence partnership agreements between the two countries he said, marked “a very substantial change”, indeed, “an enormous change from fifty years of history”.

And in Delhi, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke of strategic concord with India as a vital part of the continuing war on terror. “We cannot and will not make distinctions between good and bad terrorists”, Kerry said: “Terror is terror no matter where it comes from, (or) who carries it out”.

In its fundamental spirit, Kerry’s remarks are no different from what Sarfraz Bugti said recently in reference to Balochistan, and Rajnath Singh in the larger context of India and Pakistan. The difference is that the U.S. still believes it has the power to enforce compliance with its views. And India more than at any time in the past, now believes the U.S. is onside and will exert its global weight in its favour. The proposal to hold a trilateral summit involving Afghanistan, India and the U.S., is in this spirit of calling in superpower adjudication in resolving long-running neighbourhood disputes with Pakistan.

Clearly, India needs to think this matter through. A look at current realities in one of the theatres of the U.S.’s global war, would strip away some of the delusions. After years of active sponsorship of the idea that the solution to the chaos in Iraq lay in spreading the anarchy to Syria and effecting regime change there, the U.S. is today in headlong flight. Syria’s chaos was the midwife for the birth of the Islamic State (IS), a terrorist formation that the U.S. thought would be a “useful idiot”, but has now transformed itself into a formidable threat to the entire region.

Even as it desperately recruits Kurdish militias to its cause in the battle against IS, the U.S. has seen Turkey, a charter member of NATO and putatively its closest ally, strike out on a contrary strategic path. In recent military deployments in Syria, Turkey has frontally attacked the very Kurdish militias that the U.S. has been counting upon as force multipliers for the airstrikes it has long been carrying out.

The IS and the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, are lesser adversaries for Turkey, which may rapidly be shifting its strategic goal towards keeping the Assad regime in power. That would signal an overt endorsement of the object pursued by Russia and the Iran – a strange place for a NATO member state to be in.

Growing incoherence is the emerging new feature of U.S. strategic alliances. India needs to factor that into its calculations when it seeks to retaliate for the Kashmir crisis by fomenting trouble in Balochistan.

Geographically Pakistan’s largest province though also its most sparsely populated, Balochistan is an energy and mineral rich region, with a long history of insurgencies. Some of these have been fanned aflame by the local feudal chieftains (the infamous “sardars”) pushing back against the assertion of power by Pakistan’s federal government. Some of the impetus has come from genuine popular disenchantment at the poor deal that Balochistan has received in the benefits flowing from its energy and mineral resources.

The current phase of insurgency began in the early years of the century, when the Pakistan federal government announced major extractive plans for Balochistan with a heavy infusion of Chinese investment and expertise. Again, a part of this was fuelled by the feudal sardars bargaining with the federal authorities and squabbling among themselves over respective takes from the riches. The Bugti clan, once aligned with the federal authorities against other sardars such as the Marri and the Mengal, is now in the forefront of the insurgency.

This though, is only a part of the vast ethnic complexity of Balochistan, which has a substantial Pashtu population and a significant number of the shi’a Hazara, both of which tend to be more favourably disposed towards the federal authorities. There are moreover, significant Baloch settlements in the Sindh province of Pakistan and southern parts of Punjab, where they are associated with the land-owning feudal aristocracy.

If these are not complex enough, India’s recent enthusiasm for human rights in Balochistan has stirred up suspicions in China.

Iran is unlikely again to sit back and watch India pursue its great game, since it has a substantial Baloch population in neighbouring provinces and fears a possible spillover that the west could exploit. As investigative reporter Seymour Hersh has pointed out, the U.S. government in 2008 authorised extensive clandestine actions in Iran’s southern provinces using Pakistan as an operational base, and an ethnic Baloch militia, the Jundullah as its proxy.

India’s plans to step into this quagmire, even as it is squandering its last chances of a sincere process of dialogue and reconciliation in Kashmir, must count as one of the most reckless strategic gambits it has ever undertaken.

(Cover picture: The cave where Baloch leader Akbar Bugti was killed)

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