India & Pakistan

Back to square one

Print edition : September 16, 2016

Home Minister Rajnath Singh with the Indian delegation at the first working session of the SAARC Home/Interior Ministers' meet in Islamabad on August 4. Photo: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivering his Independence Day address from the Red Fort in Delhi. Photo: PRAKASH SINGH/AFP

Pakistan Prime Mjnister Nawaz Sharif. Photo: Ishara S. KODIKARA/AFP

Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, Pakistan's Interior Minister. Photo: B.K. Bangash/AP

The site of the bomb blast at the government hospital in Quetta on August 8 in which more than 70 persons, most of them lawyers, were killed. Photo: BANARAS KHAN/AFP

Tensions between the two nuclear-armed neighbours escalate as India’s Prime Minister brings up the issue of “large-scale human rights violations in Balochistan” and Pakistan urges the international community to push for a plebiscite in Kashmir.

THE flicker of hope that India and Pakistan will restart the stalled dialogue process soon has now been extinguished. There were reasons to be optimistic. The Line of Control (LoC) was noticeably quite from the beginning of the year, and reports of infiltration across the LoC were also rare. Then, all of a sudden, the killing of Burhan Wani, the rebel youth icon in the Kashmir Valley, in the second week of July by security forces changed the situation radically. From all credible reports, the Valley erupted spontaneously in anger. The security forces had to resort to draconian methods to combat the street violence, and the death toll among civilians crossed the 70 mark by the third week of August. The pellet guns that the security forces used caused killed or caused grievous injuries to many protesters.

Pakistan was quick to describe Wani’s killing as an “extrajudicial” one and it also issued strong statements to condemn the crackdown in Kashmir. The Nawaz Sharif government had no option but to adopt a tough posture on the issue because of the public sentiment in the country and its strained relations with its security establishment. Sharif said it was his obligation as Prime Minister to be the “voice of the oppressed Kashmiri people”. “Oppressive methods cannot deter the valiant people of Jammu and Kashmir from their demand of exercising the right of self-determination in accordance with the U.N. Security Council resolutions,” the Pakistan Prime Minister said in a statement. The Pakistan Foreign Office spokesman reiterated the government’s position that the Kashmir dispute can be resolved only through a “fair and impartial plebiscite” held under the auspices of the United Nations.

Pakistan observed a “black day” on July 19 in solidarity with the victims of violence in Kashmir. On August 9, Sharif wrote letters to the U.N. Secretary-General and the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights urging them to take more efforts “to end the persistent and egregious violation of human rights” of the Kashmiri people.

The Indian side did not waste time in firing back diplomatically. The External Affairs Ministry spokesman said the official statements from Pakistan reflected the country’s “continued attachment to terrorism and its usage as an instrument of state policy” and also advised Pakistan to refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of neighbouring countries. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, in a rejoinder to the statement by the Pakistan Prime Minister, said Kashmir “can never become a part of Pakistan”. She accused Pakistan of involvement in the current unrest in the Valley by aiding and abetting terrorist groups such as the Hizbul Mujahideen.

It was in this surcharged atmosphere that India’s Home Minister Rajnath Singh decided to undertake a visit to Islamabad to attend a routine meeting of Interior Ministers of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) on August 3. Bangladesh and Maldives did not send their Interior Ministers and were represented by senior officials. Many observers of the diplomatic scene were surprised when the Indian government announced that the Home Minster would travel to Pakistan for the meeting. He arrived in Islamabad to a cold welcome despite being the seniormost Minister in the Indian government.

It was initially speculated that the Home Minister’s visit was aimed at calming the tensions between the two countries. A thaw in relations could have helped calm down the situation in the Valley. The annual SAARC summit is scheduled to be held in November in Islamabad and until recently indications were that Prime Minster Narendra Modi would attend. The Indian Prime Minster, as is his wont, gives great emphasis to personal diplomacy. A good illustration of this was his surprise visit to his Pakistani counterpart’s home in Lahore in December last year.

Domestic politics, too, plays a big role in Modi’s foreign policy stratagems. Before the Assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir last year, tensions were running high between the two countries, with almost daily exchanges of fire across the LoC. The tough posture that Modi adopted resulted in the BJP harvesting the majority of the seats in the Hindu-dominated Jammu region. The BJP went on to become a partner in the government in the State for the first time. Elections are round the corner in Uttar Pradesh, which has a sizable Muslim population, and the BJP has already started playing the “nationalism” card in a big way, with its senior leaders demonising Pakistan. The statement of Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar in which he compared Pakistan to “hell” is an illustration.

The Pakistan side now seems completely disillusioned by the Modi style of diplomacy. Senior Pakistani officials have said that they have no hopes of the dialogue process resuming under the present National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. It was expected that Foreign Secretary- and Foreign Minister-level talks between the two countries would resume at least after two and a half years of Modi’s rule. But the Pathankot terror incident earlier this year has seemingly led to the bonhomie between Modi and Sharif evaporating once again. New Delhi holds Islamabad partly responsible for the diplomatic fiasco in India’s bid for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). Pakistan and China have forged even closer ties as the NDA government moves India into the United States’ sphere of influence.

The tough tone adopted by Rajnath Singh in the two-day SAARC ministerial meeting was a precursor to the speech delivered by Modi on Independence Day. Rajnath Singh accused the Pakistani government of “eulogising” terrorists and reiterated India’s stand that “there are no good terrorists or bad terrorists”. Pakistani Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, not to be outdone, strongly criticised “the use of excessive force” to suppress protests in Kashmir. “Using torture against innocent children and violence against civilians qualifies as terrorism,” he said. He added that like India, Pakistan, too, was a victim of terrorism.

A terror attack in Quetta on August 8 killed more than 70 people, most of them lawyers. Not surprisingly, the Pakistani military establishment alleged that the terror attacks were being facilitated by Indian agents based in Afghanistan through “facilitators” within that country. Not much credence is being given to these allegations. A faction of the Pakistani Taliban as well as the Daesh (Islamic State) have taken credit for the heinous suicide attack.

The tense relations between the two countries deteriorated further after Modi’s speech on August 15, in which he referred to large-scale human rights violations in Balochistan, Pakistan-administered Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. Islamabad was taken aback as it was the first time that an Indian Prime Minister had officially supported the separatist Baloch cause publicly. Modi’s statement came just days after the terror attack in Quetta. Modi told an all-party meeting in the third week of August that the time had come for Pakistan “to answer to the world for the atrocities committed by it against the people of Balochistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir”. It is well known in the intelligence community that India has been helping the Baloch separatists in different ways for quite some time. The joint statement released in Sharm el-Sheikh after the meeting in 2009 between the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan, Manmohan Singh and Yousuf Raza Gilani, was the first occasion the issue of Balochistan was mentioned at the highest level. India and Pakistan had accused each other of encouraging anti-state activities.

Pakistan has sent dossiers containing evidence of alleged Indian involvement in Balochistan to the U.N. Earlier in the year, a retired Indian naval officer was arrested by the Pakistani authorities and accused of being an intelligence agent helping Baloch insurgents. Sartaj Aziz, the foreign policy adviser to Nawaz Sharif, was quick with an angry retort after Modi raised the Balochistan issue. “Prime Minister Modi’s reference to Balochistan, which is an integral part of Pakistan, only proves Pakistan’s contention that India, through its main intelligence agency RAW [Research and Analysis Wing], has been fomenting terrorism in Balochistan,” Aziz said. The Pakistani political establishment views Modi’s statement on Balochistan as a not-too-subtle encouragement for the further dismemberment of Pakistan.

Pakistani officials say that after the NDA returned to power, the Indian government has once again upped its support for the Baloch separatists. The sparsely populated province has significant hydrocarbon and mineral deposits. The Baloch have been angry with the central government for the lack of development and the general backwardness of the region. Baloch nationalists have never reconciled to being part of Pakistan or for that matter being under Iranian rule. The Iranian province of Sistan-Balochstan adjoining Pakistan is also largely populated by Baloch people. In Iran, the fight against the central government is spearheaded by the Jundullah, a radical Islamic group having close connections with the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Baloch nationalists refer to all the lands their people reside in as “Greater Balochistan”. There are a sizable number of Baloch in Afghanistan also. “I have been a Baloch for several centuries, a Muslim for 1,400 years and a Pakistani for just over 50 years,” the late Baloch rebel leader Nawab Akbar Bugti had once said. Bugti had once served as a federal minister in Islamabad. He embraced Baloch nationalism in his old age. The current round of Baloch insurgency started in 2004. Bugti died in an army operation in 2009. His death further infuriated the Baloch.

To complicate matters, the various factions of the Taliban and some other extremist groups are also active in the province. There is a sizable Pashtun population in the province. Balochistan has also been witnessing sectarian strife, with the minority Shias being targeted.

The Pakistan Army has been ruthless in its efforts to suppress the Baloch insurgency. Frequent killings and disappearances have been well documented by human rights groups.

Senior Pakistani officials say the separatists now have little support on the ground and are not considered a serious threat anymore. According to them, the Pakistan government has been paying a lot of attention to infrastructure development in the region and the improvement of the quality of life of the Balochs. Balochistan is now poised to play a key role in China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative. Beijing is investing in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a $46 billion rail, road and pipeline network that will connect China to West Asia and the African continent. China has already developed the port of Gwadar on the Balochistan coast. Gwadar was in the possession of the Sultanate of Oman and was ceded to Pakistan only in 1958. Gwadar and the surrounding areas were then incorporated into Balochistan province.

The CPEC will provide for the quick transit of goods to and from the Indian Ocean to the Chinese mainland. It passes through Pakistan-administered Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan and the province of Balochistan. The Indian government has already objected to the CPEC passing through the disputed Pakistan-occupied territories of Kashmir, Gilgit and Baltistan. Now the Modi government has seemingly added Balochistan to the mix, though the entire world recognises Balochistan as an integral part of Pakistan.

China is not bound to be happy with the latest developments. The CPEC is of major strategic importance for Beijing. Iran, too, has reasons to be unhappy with New Delhi's open backing for Baloch separatists. Tehran fears that the Baloch on their side of the border will be further emboldened to carry out more terror attacks in their quest to break away. The Chabahar port, in which India has a stake, is situated in Iran’s restive Sistan-Balochistan province. So far only the Bangladesh government has supported Modi’s stance on the Baloch issue. Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai has also spoken out openly in favour of the Indian government’s position.

The U.S. has assured Islamabad that it does not support the cause of an independent Balochistan. “The U.S. government respects the unity and territorial integrity of Pakistan and we do not support independence for Balochistan,” said a statement from the U.S. State Department. Pakistani officials said that Modi was trying to equate Balochistan with Kashmir to cover up for the atrocities being committed there. They pointed out that unlike Kashmir Balochistan was not a “disputed territory”. Senior Pakistani officials, however, insisted that Islamabad would not use the Modi speech to interfere in the internal affairs of India. “Our focus will remain on Kashmir,” said one senior diplomat. Pakistan is planning to highlight the Kashmir issue more aggressively in international forums. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has strongly criticised the Indian government’s handling of the situation in Kashmir and called for the holding of a plebiscite in the disputed region. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has in a statement “deplored the loss of life” and expressed the hope that “all efforts will be made to avoid further violence” in the Kashmir Valley.

Meanwhile, some respected retired Pakistani diplomats have advised their government that if it wants the international community to take the Kashmir issue seriously, Pakistan has to first improve its image. The country’s past connections with radical groups and Osama bin Laden have not been forgotten. The governments of Afghanistan and Bangladesh routinely accuse Pakistan of complicity in terror attacks. But Pakistan insists that it is doing all it can to curb the menace of terrorism.

In early August, Pakistan, China, Afghanistan and Tajikistan formally unveiled the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism in counterterrorism. The first meeting was held in the Chinese city of Urumqi. “The participants unanimously agreed that terrorism and extremism are a serious threat to regional stability and reiterated to cooperate for tackling these forces for peace and stability of all member countries,” a communique issued at the end of the meeting said.

Pakistan has urged the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council to take notice of the situation in Kashmir. The international community has reasons to be concerned. The border between the two nuclear-armed countries is routinely described as the most dangerous corner on the planet. Pakistan has deployed tactical nukes along the border with India as a deterrent to India’s superior armed capabilities.

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