NEW DELHI: Prime Minister Narendra Modi in driving a major policy shift to embrace Balochistan in Pakistan might have opened a Pandora’s box that might unleash consequences difficult to control. It cannot be said at this stage whether this comes out from a considered policy, or whether it is a knee jerk reaction in keeping with a certain national security narrative that seems to be dominating the discourse these days.

Apart from the popular perception that Balochistan, and a reiteration of Indias claim over Pakistan occupied Kashmir including Gilgit-Baltistan comes as a tactic to deflect attention from the ongoing Kashmir crisis, there is little by way of a coherent explanation for this dramatic shift in policy. More so, as it brings what might have been covert operations into the overt arena and gives Pakistan a handle to further drive its propaganda of Indian involvement in Balochistan.

It is for the first time that a Prime Minister of India has spoken of Balochistan in so many words as an area of concern. Earlier when former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had returned from Sharm- el -Sheikh with a joint statement with Pakistan where Balochistan was mentioned for the first time as a bilateral issue for discussion between the two countries, the BJP had criticised the Congress for this inclusion. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley had then said as the Leader of the Opposition, “we went to Sharm-el-Sheikh as a complainant and returned as guilty.” BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad had demanded an explanation from Singh about this inclusion. Yashwant Sinha, former Minister of External Affairs, had slammed the Congress government saying “all waters of seven seas will not wash this shame…”

Pakistan, then and now, has issued statements stating that the “Indian hand” in fostering trouble in Balochistan was now confirmed. It is no secret that New Delhi had been in touch with Baloch exiles who had been independently running a campaign at various human rights forums, including the UN talk shop at Geneva, against Pakistan for gross human rights violations. Pakistan had countered this by insisting that India’s intelligence agencies were behind this, and that India was interfering in Balochistan through its consulates in Afghanistan.

However, given the political silence of successive Indian governments on what was essentially an internal matter of Pakistan little credence was given to this propaganda by world governments. Balochistan, as several experts have repeatedly pointed out, lies outside the claim of India which is limited to PoK and Gilgit and Baltistan, as Congress leader and son of Maharaja Hari Singh of Jammu and Kashmir recently re-emphasised in a debate in the Rajya Sabha.

Thus, unless there is a plan that has still to be revealed, this sudden statement by PM Modi basically allows Pakistan to accuse India of interference; and to point every act of insurgency in the troubled province to India’s door. As sources said, if Akbar Shahbaz Khan Bugti who was killed in what New Delhi and sections of Pakistani political and civil society describe as a military operation, was to have died now in a similar fashion, Islamabad would have gone across the world blaming India for this. And found believers in world governments. As former Union Home Minister LK Advani had said in response to the Sharm el Sheikh statement, ““For the first time in last 60 years have we issued such a statement. If they got Balochistan in, why did we not add our point of view in the statement? This is our objection. I fully agree with the views of my colleague Yashwant Sinha that the mention of Balochistan in the joint statement will haunt the country for a long time to come.”

These apprehensions voiced openly then, and by many silently now, will only be countered through information of a thought out strategy by the ruling dispensation now. In 2009 the edge was captured by Pakistan, with New Delhi totally on the defensive on the issue. Today PM Modi is more aggressive, the Opposition is silent, the Congress divided, and the larger strategic establishment waiting for more information on the issue.

The Pakistan Army has been carrying out lethal operations in Balochistan. Human rights violations are a part of this exercise. But whether it is a handle that will deflect attention from the current unrest and violence in Kashmir where over 65 persons have been killed and over 5000 injured, or whether it will compound the issue further remains to be seen. There is a sense of unease as the answers are not clear, and there is worry about whether PM Modi and his advisors have thought out the issue to its last full stop.

There is quietly voiced pessimism. This arises from two factors. One, by interfering in the internal human rights violations of another country as a matter of policy now India loses much of the moral high ground it has always maintained in the region, and the world. Globally, and more so now where borders again seem to be more relevant than they were say a decade ago, the world response to this might be negligible thereby, robbing the Balochistan issue of its essential foreign policy dimension. The government then will be left only with the domestic policy impact on a certain constituency that will predictably demand a next concrete step. What this will be or could be remains in the unfathomable space at the moment.

And secondly, the pessimism is based on the absence of a clear cut policy for Pakistan. In that the initial, dramatic steps taken by PM Modi to break bread with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif remained stuck in isolation. The decision to invite the Saarc leaders for his oath taking ceremony dissolved very soon into acrimony with Pakistan; then his unscheduled halt at Lahore to have tea with Sharif again was overtaken by bad blood; all this interspersed with the announcement of talks, then the cancellation of talks, and now open confrontation and tit for tat exchanges by both sides presents more a picture of ad hocism than sound policy. In the process relations have dipped to a point from which return will be the constituencies of both the military in Pakistan and the BJP in India as eating crow, a risk neither side is obviously now willing to take.

So what now? Taken to the logical conclusion it means war as many hawks have already started advocating in columns and on television.

It is time for the government to join the dots that it has flagged from time to time, and spell out the policy it has drawn up for the region. And the region today does not include just Pakistan, but also China that has stakes in Balochistan and the neighbouring country as a whole.

(Pakistan Army operations in Balochistan)