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Balochistan: Why Modi's speech is a game-changer

By Colonel Anil A Athale (retd)
September 06, 2016 16:28 IST

Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaking at the Red Fort on August 15. Photograph: PIB

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Red Fort, August 15. Photograph: Press Information Bureau

'Even if it is difficult to replicate Bangladesh, India can cause sufficient turmoil in Pakistan to keep it off balance,' says Colonel Anil A Athale (retd).

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's declaration of support to the freedom fighters of Balochistan was not a 'tit for tat' move against Pakistan's support to Kashmir separatism; it was a game changer that signified that India has finally abandoned its wooly-headed approach to Pakistan.

Some carping critics had the temerity to compare it with the Sharm el-Sheikh moment of the previous prime minister when he 'admitted' Indian interference in Balochistan. Modi on the other hand asserted India's intent and right to support the Balochi freedom struggle. The two are as different as chalk and cheese!

To fully comprehend the significance of India's Balochistan moment it is necessary to have an understanding of the historical background.

The military in Pakistan, the real rulers in that country most of the time, have never really understood the noise and din of Indian democracy. A classic example of this inability or mindset is the assertion of the first military dictator of Pakistan, the late General Ayub Khan.

On July 11, 1961 on a visit to the US, Ayub Khan told President John F Kennedy that the Indian divisions on caste and regional basis were too deep. 'In 15 to 20 years' time India would break up. In that case it is not India, but Pakistan that is the key to stability and peace in Asia and a bulwark against the Chinese Communist threat.'

The break-up of India into small parts would automatically make Pakistan the predominant power in South Asia was the logic and hope for the Pakistani army for long. This has been so ingrained that it has now become a second nature and aspiration that dictates policies.

The real irony is that in ten years' time after Ayub Khan's assertion, in 1971, Pakistan broke up into two parts while India continues to survive and thrive.

The Pakistani army not only believed in this assertion but also acted on it. Right from the 1950s, the Naga and later Mizo rebels fighting India received arms, training, funding and sanctuaries in erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).

To some extent, India's support to the Mukti Bahini in 1971 was a response to this Pakistani provocation. It was realised by many Indians that so long as East Pakistan existed, India would find it difficult to get a handle on the rebellion in the north-east.

History has indeed vindicated this view and ever since the liquidation of East Pakistan, the revolt in the north-east has indeed been brought under control.

There are many in Pakistan and some even in India, who justify Pakistan's present hostility to India as a reaction to the Indian help to the Mukti Bahini in 1971.

These worthies forget that even before 1971, Pakistan has been actively working for the breakup of India and Indian help in the creation of Bangladesh itself was a reaction to Pakistani help to insurgents fighting India.

Post 1971 and a brief India-Pakistan honeymoon, the Indian establishment came to a conclusion that a 'united, peaceful and friendly Pakistan' on our Western flank was in the national interest. This notion had the support and encouragement of the Americans for whom the Pakistani army and State controlled by it was a pillar of its Middle-East policy.

This notion was further strengthened after the 9/11 terror attacks in the US and the turmoil in Afghanistan. India was happy that it was insulated from the Afghanistan turmoil and Pakistan was a useful buffer between India and the restive Middle-East.

However, the geopolitical situation in the world has changed fairly dramatically in the last decade or so. Persistent Pakistani support to all kind of terrorist organisations has turned international public opinion against it. The Americans no longer see Pakistan as a part of a solution, but more part of the problem itself.

In India's case, more than any other issues, continuous cross border terrorism has prompted a change in perceptions. In 2002, in wake of the armed mobilisation by India, Pakistan gave an assurance (guaranteed by the US) that its territory would not be used for attacks against India.

Pakistan has gone back on its assurance as evidenced by the 26/11 Mumbai attacks of 2008 and the January 1-2, 2016 attack by Pakistani terrorists on the Pathankot air base.

Pakistani support to the recent violent movement in Kashmir is the last straw on the camel's back. It is noteworthy that no nation has expressed any support to the secessionists in the Kashmir valley.

Virtually every nation of the world (the Philippines, Turkey, Indonesia, Iran to name a few) faces some sort of separatist movement. No country in the world is prepared to help give birth to another version of Islamic State.

Pakistan is thus isolated on the Kashmir issue. India has naturally decided to take advantage of the situation and end the interference once and for all.

The strategic significance of India giving up the notion of a united Pakistan being in its interest will manifest in increasing the internal stress in Pakistan. Those Pakistanis who feel that their nuclear weapons will save them are mistaken.

When internal turmoil led to the break up of the erstwhile USSR, its huge nuclear arsenal was of no consequence.

Of course, Balochistan or for that matter Sindh is no East Pakistan. The Pakistani army does not face the kind of logistical problems it faced in the Bangladesh war. Even if it is difficult to replicate Bangladesh, India can cause sufficient turmoil in Pakistan to keep it off balance. Pakistan could checkmate Indian moves if it were to move towards a real democracy and federalism.

Most Balochis will be satisfied with the Indian kind of federal structure of regional autonomy. But for this the Pakistani army has to relinquish its grip over the Pakistani State.

Should that actually happen, the civil leadership in Pakistan can usher in peace with India. Thus whichever way one looks at the new Indian approach, it is a win-win situation.

Colonel Anil A Athale (retd) is a military historian.

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