Balochistan: The Narendra Modi government’s big international gambit

Modi may just have opened the floodgates of a foreign policy dialogue from an altogether new platform.
Balochistan: The Narendra Modi government’s big international gambit
Balochistan: The Narendra Modi government’s big international gambit

When a word enters a language, it acquires new depth and space, but there's also a catch. No one can predict where it will go, how it will be received and what if anything will boomerang. Balochistan and the Baloch people’s struggle to seek independence from Pakistan is one such situation.

Ever since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke about Balochistan in his address to the nation a month ago from the ramparts of the Red Fort, all hell has not broken lose, but almost. Suddenly a new word has entered the language – a word that speaks of genocide, mass killings and disappearances. The Baloch people say they have found a voice in the world’s largest democracy. India will have to make a choice and it will not be an easy one.

Earlier this week, in an all-time-first, India flagged the Baloch cause at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva. As a stand-alone piece, it will not carry much weight, but coming as a part of a series of events, its will rattle many chains. September to March are busy months in the diplomatic calendar and India will have many occasions to flag the Baloch issue. Will India’s Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj raise it at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York on September 26 when she addresses the body? 

A major take-away from India’s pitch is this – it shows a confident New Delhi ready to actively clean up its neighbourhood without complaining to other heads of state and government about the lack of corrective action from Pakistan – read 26/11 (Bombay/Mumbai) and Pathankot. The evidence against Pakistan in the Bombay attacks is overwhelming, but there is not a whimper of remorse on the other side not even after the United States (US) in.  American lives were also lost in the attack. The Modi government changing tack and going on the attack when Pakistan least expected it, and where it foresaw even less, is an altogether new game perhaps ending India’s over 60-year-old whine with its ups and downs in its relations with Pakistan. It certainly testifies to talk-fatigue.

Terrorism is Pakistan’s treasury and that penny has dropped in all major capitals, but censure has been lackadaisical. While it is comforting diplomatese to show support and share pain as many countries have done, when push comes to shove, countries India’s size – or for that matter even smaller ones – have to wage a lone battle. Strong allies are bound by economic and/or military strength. Currently India is neither, but it has other advantages beginning with geography, a card now on some display. The only interest in geopolitics is self-interest and anything that bolsters that premise is kosher. 

Cross border terrorism is India’s problem and New Delhi is most likely trying a different approach by perhaps killing two birds with one stone. By blasting open the Baloch issue, New Delhi has sent a message not only to Pakistani diplomats and bureaucracy but also directly to the generals who run the country. It is a warning for now, but a resounding one and where there is a warning there is almost always a plan. India may even have the luxury of deciding the timing of rolling out its plan.  It is critical to recall that the Baloch movement/government in exile has also announced plans to take Pakistan’s powerful generals to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and other bodies for genocide and crimes against humanity. I would not put it beyond the realm of possibilities if the Baloch leadership in exile and New Delhi are coordinating certain actions. The granting of asylum – as and when it happens – must also happen away from media glare. That is normal practice.

While Modi’s move has been enthusiastically welcomed by the Baloch people in exile as well as many Indians, there are people in India who say top echelons of India’s foreign office were not consulted. And for the chain of command insofar as Pakistan, Afghanistan and India’s immediate neighbours are concerned, it is the NSA who calls the shots. That is now water over the bridge and the Baloch move has gone well beyond anything that any Indian government has done.  Bangladesh has also backed India's call suggesting that there may be may be a quest for new issue-based alignments in the region. As Brahumdagh Bugti, the President of the Baloch Republican Party (BRP) told The News Minute, the dialogue in the region now has a new entity and identity called the people of Balochistan backed by India the world’s largest democracy. The Baloch leader also told TNM a decision to send a formal request to India will be taken this weekend on the sidelines of the meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) meeting in Geneva and that he is fully aware of the pros and cons of hurried action. 

The timing and line up of events leading up to and beyond the call for travel documents from India is equally interesting. Modi’s focus on the plight of the Baloch people was backed by former Afghan President Hamid Karzai who, according to Bugti, always kept a look out for him and saved him from two assassination attempts while the latter was in that country. In several interviews Karzai has been deeply critical of the Taliban and cross border-terrorism his country is also subjected to. Washington has also issued statements calling on Pakistan to mend its ways and not cherry-pick on terrorism, just stopping short of calling for sanctions. Other European countries TNM has spoken to are waiting and watching to see how the situation develops. At the very least, the Baloch question is now squarely at the high table.

Where all this will lead to is difficult to predict. Bugti, who has been living in Switzerland for the past six years, is seeking travel documents and not a passport from India. Bugti has told TNM he will may make the move next week after consulting the BRP’s Central Committee currently in session in Geneva. See here.

Standing between India and Bugti is perhaps India’s biggest diplomatic gambit in many decades – travel documents for Baloch leaders. While India does not have an asylum law, people from foreign lands have taken shelter in the India or its embassies. Leaders from Nepal, family of leaders from Bangladesh and Afghanistan as well as millions of Bangladeshis and thousands of Tamils have found safe haven on India’s shores. There is also Gilgit-Baltistan to weigh in, as well the Rohingyas of Myanmar as the Baloch issue progresses. Democracies around the world have asylum laws and they grant this status on a discretionary basis making the difference, sometimes unfairly, between refugees and asylum seekers.  Many European countries offer third country asylum to people who are fleeing from political persecution or genocide in distant borders.

There are, however, two elephants in this room. One is China and the other is Iran. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which grazes the land that the Baloch people (Balochistan is a western province in Pakisran) are seeking as their own is critical.  China has deep pockets and even deeper political currency and no country will want to be on the wrong side of the Beijing. But will Beijing now want to be on the side of generals and politicians who bury people in mass graves, kills women and children and are in the process of annihilating an entire people?

There is Iran on the other side and Tehran’s animosity towards the Baloch people is no secret. If India is assuming a new leadership role in the region – that of a responsible and responsive democracy and neither China nor Tehran fit that democracy bill - then Narendra Modi may just have opened the floodgates of a necessary foreign policy dialogue from an altogether new platform. India’s role in ensuring peace in the region cannot be overstated. The next few days will be ones to watch. As Bugti told TNM in an earlier interview, “Un-contained, Pakistan will destroy the whole world”. Read here

Note: The views expressed in this piece are the author's own

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