Prime Minister Modi’s comments on Balochistan, Gilgit and PoK were about 350 words in a speech that lasted more than one hour and a half. The subsequent commentary in India has been essentially about Balochistan with hardly any comments on whatever else Narendra Modi said about India – the economy, society and politics. But given Modi’s persona, one half-expected him to say something on August 15. Not saying anything would have equally invited comments from both Indian and Pakistani commentators. The former would have been critical about the silence and the latter, triumphant. So, damned if I do and damned if I don’t.
Leading up to the speech were clenched fist speeches from Pakistani politicians led by Nawaz Sharif, their Home Minister’s boorish conduct towards our Home minister Rajnath Singh, dire threats from the Ghazwa-e-Hind brigades and then their High Commissioner in New Delhi was shooting from the lip. One gets the feeling that this chorus was orchestrated by the man with the swagger stick and everyone was paying obeisance to the conductor in Rawalpindi. The Pakistan Army is obviously hurting that its surrogates are now running out of control and the latest evidence was the horrible bombing of the Quetta courts killing about 100, mostly lawyers, on August 8. The failure of Zarb-e-Azb and the National Action Plan must be hurting, so what better than get into denial and blame the evil Indians.
Narendra Modi’s comments brought headline news the next morning and animated, indeed chaotic debates on some TV channels as if India had made a path breaking policy change. The statement by itself does not show a policy change; what it might show is a change of tactic. One presumes though that this comment was not a bolt from the blue and had followed serious discussions weighing in the likely reactions in Pakistan and India before adding the reference to Balochistan, Gilgit and PoK in the speech. A policy change would be indicated by subsequent actions that are sustained over a period of time. It was unreal to expect the Prime Minister to disclose his plans. Our regional environment and our abilities impose some restrictions on what we can say in public.
In the context of the speech two issues are important – Balochistan and Gilgit and the two are strategically interconnected given the renewed Chinese interest exhibited through the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The Chinese would like a quiescent Balochistan for progress on not only Gwadar but the linkages that flow from the port and lead to Xinjiang via Gilgit.
On the other hand, the Baloch have been suspicious that Islamabad was interested in developing Gwadar by importing manpower from Punjab and PakhtunKhwa provinces, that the locals would get no benefit and would be reduced to a minority in their own province. Even prior to this, Baloch nationalism, has cited social discrimination and economic deprivation as the main causes for seeking separation. They have viewed with hostility and suspicion the establishment of new military cantonments in Balochistan meant to control the Baloch and the deployment of special forces numbering about 10,000 to protect the Chinese.
The Baloch leader, Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, killed in August 2006 under General Musharraf’s orders, used to say that the coastal land from Jiwani (including Gwadar) to Karachi would one day be detached from Balochistan and given away to a foreign power. Quite obviously, given the higher than the skies and deeper than the oceans Pakistan-China relationship, China seems to be the best candidate for this transfer of land. Akbar Bugti’s grandson, Brahmdagh Bugti was worried that China would usurp Balochistan’s natural resources.
The present battle in Balochistan began as a reaction to the rape of a woman doctor Shazia Khaled in 2005 and the cover up by the Pakistan Army. Akbar Bugti led the campaign and he was killed. Baloch nationalists have been fighting since then. Pakistan reaction has been harsh and brutal and any one visiting social media sites can see the campaign the Baloch have launched. Kidnappings, torture and disappearances are common and often a part of the kill and dump policy adopted by Pakistani agencies.
For the Chinese, however, Gwadar will remain of very limited strategic salience unless they have security and control in Gilgit Baltistan through which all infrastructure lines to Xinjiang will pass. The Chinese have now begun to refer to Gilgit as part of PoK. In our discussions with Pakistan or anywhere else we seem to have allowed all discussions to be centre around the Valley of Srinagar-Baramulla-Anantnag as if this was the only area that needed to be discussed.
We never seem to have stressed with Pakistan or any other power that the discussion would have to include Gilgit Baltistan and PoK. Any Chinese commercial dealing with Pakistan through Gilgit, Baltistan and PoK is thus through an area that has to revert to us. CPEC may benefit Pakistan and China, but a protest against any of its projects through these regions would be perfectly in order; in fact, silence would mean acquiescence.
Gilgit was very much a part of the Riyasat of Maharaja Hari Singh and surreptitiously handed over by the British to Pakistan after the Maharaja acceded to India. We did not protest but took the matter to the UN. Soon afterwards the Pakistanis began to change the demography of the region by sending in Sunni Pushtun settlers to try and balance out the Shias and Ismailis.
The campaign was particularly vicious under General Zia and there were massive riots in 1988. We responded with a parliamentary resolution in 1994 which said Gilgit Baltistan were a part of Jammu and Kashmir which was an integral part of India. That is where the matter rests today. Neither China, and bolstered by this, nor Pakistan are likely to change any of their actions unless there is something else at stake for either of them. If we want to alter the narrative now, we will have to work overtime and take policy initiatives, like seeking a relook at the Indus Waters’ Treaty.