Balochistan - a new irritant in Indo-Pakistan ties

Modi's mention of restive Pakistani province in key speech ups stakes between arch-rivals

Clara Chong JY:  Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the nation from the Red Fort in New Delhi, India on Aug 15. He expressed support of freedom for Balochistan and Pakistan occupied Kashmir during his speech.
Clara Chong JY: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the nation from the Red Fort in New Delhi, India on Aug 15. He expressed support of freedom for Balochistan and Pakistan occupied Kashmir during his speech. PHOTO: EPA

NEW DELHI/ISLAMABAD • When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met top aides to prepare last week's Independence Day address, senior bureaucrats warned him against mentioning arch-rival Pakistan's restive south-western province Balochistan.

Bringing it up in such a major speech would be an unusual move that could ratchet up tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbours who often trade barbs over Kashmir - the cause of two of the three wars between them.

A senior official at a meeting, held earlier this month, said the more hawkish politicians, angered by what they saw as Pakistan's recent troublemaking in Kashmir, thought differently, and so did Mr Modi.

By siding with the hawks and including Balochistan in his address, Mr Modi signalled a more muscular approach towards Pakistan.

That dims prospects of bringing the rivals closer together to reduce economic pain and the risk of more violence. It is an issue that will be high on United States Secretary of State John Kerry's agenda when he is in New Delhi on Monday for a three-day visit.

"The bureaucrats suggested that talking about Balochistan is a good idea but maybe the Independence Day speech was not a good platform for it," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar "rejected these ideas", while Home Minister Rajnath Singh supported Mr Parrikar by saying "we should do everything to silence Pakistan", the official said.

Speaking at the 17th century Red Fort in Old Delhi on Aug 15 - India's Independence Day - Mr Modi thanked the Baloch people for their support after a number of separatist leaders published videos praising him for acknowledging their cause previously.

He also lashed out at supporters of "terrorism", in a more familiar broadside against India's old foe.

Pakistan seized on Mr Modi's speech as evidence that India has a hand in the decades-long Baloch separatist campaign, in which insurgents in the resource-rich but impoverished region have launched sporadic attacks and demanded independence.

A senior Pakistani foreign ministry official said Mr Modi had "crossed the red line". But India denied the charge.

Indian officials said the speech was to remind the world about alleged human rights abuses by Pakistani forces in Balochistan, just as Pakistan accuses India of abusing civilians in Kashmir during recent unrest.

But questions are being asked about what strategic reward, if any, India can hope to gain by raising the geopolitical stakes.

"Politically, it's much less useful in terms of Pakistan using this as evidence of Indian meddling. It gives them ammunition," said Dr Daniel Markey, a South Asia expert at Johns Hopkins University in Washington.

India-Pakistan ties have deteriorated since the killing of a separatist leader in Indian-ruled Kashmir on July 8, which sparked the worst violence in the disputed territory in six years.

At least 66 protesters and two security personnel have been killed and thousands wounded on both sides.

Two senior Indian officials said Mr Modi has become frustrated with Pakistan's latest bid to draw international attention to the Kashmir issue and the current clampdown, and to take the matter to the United Nations.

"Dealing with militancy is our internal issue and we will not tolerate any other country's interference," said one of the officials.

Some of the Baloch separatist leaders who praised Mr Modi before his address worry that their battle for a homeland will become a political football between the two rivals.

"If India's support is just a reaction to the politics and to Kashmir, then it could damage the political struggle," said Baloch Republican Party leader Brahamdagh Bugti.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 27, 2016, with the headline 'Balochistan - a new irritant in Indo-Pakistan ties'. Subscribe