Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mere mention of Balochistan in his Independence Day speech probably caused more flutter than any actual Indian policy ever has. An earlier reference to the western Pakistani province by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval at the 10th Nani Palkhivala Memorial Lecture in February 2014 had already set the tone – in rhetoric, at least – of the Modi administration towards misadventures from its western neighbour. In the wake of the terror attack in Uri, these comments have acquired greater salience among the public.
To be sure, these utterances represent some bold and out-of-the-box thinking by anyone in the Indian government. However, supporting an insurgency – in whichever country – is a complicated and messy affair that cannot be dismissively relegated to a mere talking point. There is interest in many quarters about the feasibility of Indian support to Balochistan, especially since it appears at first glance to be analogous to the situation in Kashmir. Yet appearances can be deceptive and if Modi & Co. are serious about the option, there are some questions they must first consider.
Henry Kissinger is famously said to have asked, “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?” The same is true for Balochistan. Whom does the prime minister – or his national security advisor – call if he wants to call the Balochi rebels? The Balochi struggle, such as it is, remains deeply fractured and it is difficult to identify one clear leader or even someone who could potentially unify the different factions against their common oppressor. Needless to say, Islamabad would have picked off such a person at the earliest had one emerged.
Uniting factions in service of a common cause is not easy as even the United States with its several carrots found out in Syria. Even supporting the two or three major factions is a recipe for disaster as intra-faction fighting can quickly sap international sympathy and India’s patience.
Even if the Baloch were able to come together, what would India’s aid look like? The rebels would be committing suicide with small arms alone and heavy arms would only encourage the Pakistani Army to bring in even heavier arms such as armour and air support; Delhi can hardly supply the rebels commensurately. Yet India’s struggle to even overtly train and arm the Afghan Army puts the country’s role as an arms supplier to the Baloch in question.
There is also this to be considered: who stands guarantee to the suitability of Baloch targets? So far, India has had the advantage of international confidence that it does not distinguish between good and bad terrorists. Were Balochi fighters to target Pakistani civilians, especially schools or hospitals, it could tarnish India’s reputation for no apparent gains. This is not an unlikely situation – Baloch anger at their harsh treatment by Islamabad so far would only naturally boil over and lash out at the first instance it can strike where it hurts. Wars seldom remain kosher for long.
An armed and active Baloch insurgency would cause alarm in the neighbourhood – Tehran, Kabul, and Beijing at the very least. Historically, the Baloch people have lived in what is today western Pakistan, eastern Iran, and southwestern Afghanistan. If the insurgency were to excite dormant aspirations among Balochis outside Pakistan, it would very well sour India’s relations with Iran and Afghanistan. Baloch leaders would have to promise to abandon any dreams of an akhand Balochistan and even if they were to, could they be trusted? For how long?
Beijing would have its own concerns with a Baloch uprising. After having invested heavily is propping up a teetering state like Pakistan, China would be loathe to see its interests washed away. First, they would lose the strategically important port of Gwadar; second, they would have to abandon their economic corridor into Pakistan; third, and most vitally, their dagger pointed at India’s back would be blunted. It is highly unlikely that China’s leaders would sit idly by for long if Baloch fighters gained momentum against Islamabad’s forces, with or without India’s help.
The international community would have its own nightmares – it is not often that a state possessing nuclear weapons succumbs to such a virulent separatist movement. There would be immense pressure on India – if links were established – to cut all support to the Baloch rebels and to do so quickly.
Allowing for the moment that a Baloch insurgency is successful and Kalat regains its independence, how would it benefit India? Pakistan would lose approximately five percent of its population and 45 percent of its territory; electoral results suggest that it is unlikely that this would excite other separatist movements such as in Sindh. Will the new Balochistan tilt towards India? Delhi’s experience with Bangladesh in 1972 suggests that even this is not a given.
The nuclear arsenal, India’s primary concern, will in all likelihood remain in Punjabi hands. Punjab, the brightest ember in Pakistan’s fire of anti-India hatred, will emerge even more concentrated and certainly in no mood for negotiations henceforth. While the new situation may affect the tactical military situation, there would be little impact strategically except perhaps to lower the nuclear threshold even more and make the subcontinent an even more dangerous place.
Finally, if answers to all these convolutions do already exist somewhere in South Block, is it really wise to announce Indian support for an independent Balochistan so publicly? Declaratory wars have not been in fashion for over a century now. Plausible deniability is a very effective strategy; if Indian fingerprints were indeed found on a resurgent Baloch insurgency, there is no guarantee that it will not cross Pakistan’s nuclear threshold…especially if the insurgency makes initial gains.
None of this is to say that Modi should not extend support to the Baloch. The first step, however, might be to regularly highlight their plight on the international stage. If indirect funding could be made available for the diaspora and others to produce documentaries, organise conferences, and lobby important politicians in major capitals, it would create momentum around their cause. Exaggeration and too shrill a tone, however, would only set back the cause. A model one might learn from is how Armenians got the massacres of 1915-1917 internationally recognised as genocide. Such recognition opens several legal avenues for concerned states as well as affected people to take against Islamabad’s policies.
If aid were to ever include weapons, the Indian government would do well to closely consider the impediments to their action, potential fallout, and certain blowback.
This post appeared on FirstPost on September 21, 2016.