Though Prime Minister Narendra Modi's speech on Independence Day covered a wide range of issues, it was his reference to Pakistan's human rights aberrations in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (including Gilgit Baltistan) and Balochistan that triggered a lot of speculation about a new Indian narrative on Kashmir.
No PM before Modi had ever raised the issue of Pakistan's poor human rights record in POK and Balochistan in their Pakistan discourse. Prime Minister Modi is not given to impulsive pronouncements on foreign policy issues. So why did he surprise everyone by raising Pakistan human rights issues in his Independence Day address? The easiest answer is that he was using it as a gambit to halt Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from further whipping up anti-Indian sentiments going on ever since Hizbul Mujahideen leader Burhan Wani's killing triggered widespread protests in the Kashmir Valley.
However, a gambit without a game plane is of little use as its impact would only be transitory. This was evident when Pakistan declared that the Indian PM had crossed the "Red Line" in his Independence Day address by referring to Pakistan's internal problem in Balochistan.
Does that mean Modi is evolving a new game plan on Kashmir? It may well be a work in progress because a few days before the Independence Day, Modi had convened an all-party meeting to evolve a consensus on Jammu and Kashmir. So the PM might simply be sending a signal to Nawaz Sharif that India could 'redouble' Pakistan's over-hype on the unrest in the Kashmir valley by drawing attention to Pakistan's poor human rights record in its own backyard.
How far can Modi's empathy to the people of POK and Balochistan be taken forward to shape India-Pakistan relationship equation? The answer to this question is as complex as the three distinct regions - POK (part of Kashmir under Pakistan's control since 1947), Gilgit-Baltistan which were parts of Maharaja Hari Singh's kingdom at the time of partition and once known as Northern Areas forming part of Pakistan and Balochistan province bordering Iran with its own cultural and ethnic history spilling over into Iran.
For five decades now, India had virtually written off POK and the Line of Control dividing it with the rest of Jammu and Kashmir has practically the status of an international border. Both POK and Gilgit Baltistan can probably hype up in the India-Pakistan discourse as a trade off for specific advantage; on the flip side it could prolong any negotiations.
As far as Balochistan is concerned, the sparsely populated province's struggle for preserving its identity in the national discourse has seen many ups and downs. Pakistan army has ruthlessly used force to suppress the freedom movement and many Baloch leaders in exile have been thrilled by Indian PM's words of support.
The region, rich in mineral resources, is vital for the Pakistan-China strategic framework as Gwadar port developed with Chinese investment is core element in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor providing land locked Xinjiang province in China access to the Arabian Sea. Already Pakistan had been accusing India of supporting Baloch separatists through Afghanistan. Indian prime minister's vocal support to Baloch freedom movement would further exacerbate Pakistan's concern.
India has demonstrated in the past its capability to militarily intervene in erstwhile East Pakistan that led to the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 and in Sri Lanka in 1987. So Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif simply cannot afford to ignore Modi's statements on POK and Balochistan. This could impose caution in his actions regarding India in the near term when the public ardour to support Kashmir agitation cools down. However, the moot question is how much control Nawaz Sharif has over the country's relations with India?
Initially, Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif welcomed Modi's overtures to build better relations with Pakistan from the day Modi became Prime Minister. In fact, Nawaz Sharif had called his victory in the national elections in April 2014 a mandate for peace with India. He wore the pink Rajasthani turban gifted by Narendra Modi at his granddaughter Mehrunnisa Safdar's wedding. In December 2015, Pakistan media quoted his instructions to ministers and senior officials not to issue any statement that could damage the peace process with India. The same report quoted the outgoing Indian High Commissioner TCA Raghavan saying the relations between the two countries were heading towards betterment.
Six months later, the same leader was asking the people "not to forget those in Kashmir who are sacrificing their lives for their movement for freedom….Their movement for freedom cannot be stopped and it will be successful. You are aware of how they are being beaten and killed. All our prayers are with them and we are waiting for the day Kashmir becomes (part of) Pakistan."
What has changed in between for Nawaz Sharif, a pigeon cooing peace to morph into a predatory hawk spouting anti-Indian slogans? There are probably both internal and external reasons that have persuaded the Pak prime minister to shelve his 'peace with India' agenda and revert to 'Kashmir first' formula. First is the army gaining complete control over Pakistan's India policy. It came after a brief confrontation with the prime minister when it saw its control slipping away after Prime Minister Sharif and Modi started developing personal rapport.
Second, the Army chief's strident call for cracking down on corruption after Panama papers showing details of offshore accounts of Sharif's kin surfaced unnerving the prime minister. India's rather confused handling of the Pathankot attack and its aftermath probably strengthened Pak army's case for continued use of "good terrorists" against India and Afghanistan while hunting "bad terrorists" at home in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and Balochistan.
It would seem the Pak army chief and Sharif are on the same page on India now to build their strategies around Kashmir civil unrest. Otherwise it is difficult to explain ministers and leaders participating in anti-India rallies organised by the 26/11 Mumbai Lashkar attack mastermind and Jamaat ud Dawa leader Hafiz Saeed. He has been given a free hand to organise the "Kashmir Caravan" comprising buses and trucks stretched for several kilometers to move from Lahore to Islamabad to drum up support for Kashmir unrest.
Hafiz Saeed's "warning" to India to either accept the separatist Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani's 4-point formula on Kashmir and "withdraw security forces from the Valley, or face the decision in battlefield" has an ominous ring. It raises the uncomfortable question is Pakistan preparing for Operation Badr-2 (Operation Badr being infiltration of jihadi terrorists -who were actually troops- into Kashmir prior to Kargil War)? Hafiz Saeed's statement should not be ignored as a rant for gaining cheap publicity. Probably, security and intelligence agencies in New Delhi and Srinagar are already on the lookout for tell-tale signs of Operation Badr-2; Pak intentions would probably become clear in the coming months.
Notwithstanding his recent comments on Pakistan, Prime Minister Modi probably still considers building friendly relations with India's neighbours including Pakistan as his foreign policy priority. But he has to bring back normalcy in Kashmir Valley if we are to avoid a more complex re-enactment of the Kargil experience. That is the first step before we contemplate further moves on Pakistan.
Balochistan, situated in the southwest of Pakistan and covering an area of 347,190 square kilometres is Pakistan's largest province by area, constituting 44% of Pakistan's total land mass. The province is bordered by 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. To the south lies the Arabian Sea. Balochistan is located on the south-eastern part of the Iranian plateau.
The strategic significance of mineral and natural and renewable sources of energy rich Balochistan has been enhanced by the expansion of the Gwadar port, a warm water deep sea port on the Arabian Sea. It features prominently in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) plan, and is considered a crucial link between the ambitious One Belt, One Road and Maritime Silk Road projects. Its geographical location has placed the otherwise desolate region in the scope of competing global interests....