Balochistan has, for some years now, become something of a buzzword in India to score some debating points over Pakistan. In the process, India has done great disservice to the Baloch who are waging a lonely battle against the might of the Pakistani state. Unwittingly, every time any Indian mentions the ‘B’ word, the Pakistanis get an alibi and an excuse, even a degree of legitimacy, to ramp up their savage military campaign to crush nationalist aspirations of the Baloch. In a sense, it’s a double-whammy for the Baloch: they face the brunt of a brutal Pakistani crackdown without getting any material, or even moral, assistance from India. Clearly, if empty talk is all that India can do for the Baloch, then instead of helping them, Indians actually end up harming them.
Broadly, there are four possible reasons for India to get interested in the issue of Balochistan. The first relates to what we have already been doing, which is that we bring up Balochistan in debates with the Pakistanis because it makes them squirm. Balochistan is after all Pakistan’s soft-underbelly, and if there was anything like conscience in international relations, then Pakistan would have been in a dog-house for the crimes of humanity they have committed and continue to visit upon the Baloch. The Pakistanis, despite brazening it out and blaming India for their troubles in Balochistan – the drama over the alleged Indian spy is just the latest in a series of bizarre accusations that the Pakistanis level against India – know the truth about the horrors being inflicted upon the Baloch and find themselves on the defensive when these are pointed out to them in debates. But the vicarious pleasure isn’t policy. While Balochistan might come handy to us to sock it to the Pakistanis every time they mention Kashmir, it doesn’t do anything for the Baloch.
A second reason for India to get involved in Balochistan could be as a payback for all the terrorism, insurgency and separatism that Pakistan has sponsored and supported in India. Balochistan can serve as an excellent leverage that India has over Pakistan, and as such, can become a negotiating tool to make Pakistan back off from what they are doing inside India. At the very least, India can settle scores in Balochistan for anything the Pakistanis throw at us in Kashmir or elsewhere in India. But in a broader strategic context, the tit-for-tat policy is neither here nor there. At best, it has only a marginal utility because it really doesn’t change the strategic environment in any meaningful way. More importantly, it doesn’t have a long shelf-life because it turns off the people who feel they are being used as pawns who will be sacrificed to serve someone else’s interest.
A third reason for backing the Baloch independence movement could be because it is the right thing to do, a moral imperative and obligation that must be fulfilled. Balochistan is currently seeing the fifth and longest and bloodiest uprising against Pakistani rule. This latest rebellion can be traced back to around 2001-02 when reports started filtering in of rocket attacks on Quetta cantonment, sabotage actions, target killing of ‘settlers’ and law enforcement officials. After the killing of the octogenarian Baloch leader Nawab Akbar Bugti in 2006, the rebellion changed gears and became more intense.
Like the previous four, the fifth uprising was fuelled by deprivation, discrimination, marginalisation and exploitation of the Baloch by the Punjab-dominated Pakistan. Thousands have been mercilessly killed and thousands more have ‘disappeared’ – kidnapped, tortured and later killed by death squads backed by the Pakistan authorities or in many cases run by Pakistani security personnel. The media is muzzled, and any local Baloch journalist intrepid enough or foolish enough to report honestly is invariably intimidated and occasionally ‘silenced’. Newspapers have been shut down, internet is strictly monitored, TV channels have limited access — in short, it’s a police state. To make ‘good’ Muslims of the secular Baloch, terror groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba have been given a run of the place to infuse the virus of Islamic extremism into the Baloch society. In the name of development, mega projects aimed to colonise the Baloch even more, and reduce them to the status of ‘Red Indians’, have been started. The much vaunted Gwadar port project has made the local Baloch aliens in their own city, ruined their habitat and their livelihoods, and introduced apartheid-type rules to keep them out of the way of the Chinese overlords.
It is in this context that it becomes a moral duty of not just India but also other right thinking countries to support the struggle of the Baloch. That cynical strategic compulsions and calculations often guide the policy of countries is manifest in Balochistan, where the ‘thekedars’ of human rights in the West haven’t uttered a word against the Pakistanis. Though organisations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have published reports on the state of affairs in Balochistan, they haven’t really agitated, much less lobbied, over the issue. In other words, they paid lip service to what was happening in Balochistan lest they be accused of hypocrisy and double-standards.
The fourth reason to back the Baloch is because an independent Balochistan fit into our grand strategic calculation. Not only does it cut Pakistan down to size but more importantly robs Pakistan of the only area which actually lends Pakistan any geo-strategic importance. If anything, Balochistan’s strategic relevance lies outside Pakistan and not inside it. Its geographical location will make Balochistan a strategic pivot in the region. What is more, the secular character of Baloch society, will make beacon of progressive values in a region where fires of jihadism are wreaking havoc.
Clearly, if India has to support the Baloch, it must be because it is the right thing to do and because it makes strategic sense. But if India does indeed decide to do so, then it must persist until the achievement of the objective. Unfortunately, India is notorious for flip-flops in policy and half-way house solutions. Worse, India is seen as an unreliable partner which leaves people in the lurch to cut a deal. This is precisely what India did with the Baloch in the 1970s, so much so that top leaders who considered India a friend were refused visas because the then government wanted to woo the Pakistani military dictator Gen Zia-ul-Haq. In the end, India ended with worst of both worlds: it lost the trust of the Baloch without getting anything from Zia.
Apart from mounting a robust diplomatic and publicity campaign to highlight the issue of Balochistan before international audiences, India must also educate itself on Balochistan before taking any plunge. At the political level the ignorance about Balochistan in India is astounding. During the parliamentary debate on the Sharm-el-Sheikh fiasco, the JDU leader Sharad Yadav spoke passionately about Balochistan and then linked it up with Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan! Unless we become better informed about Balochistan we will not know the enormous pitfalls and complexities that will confront us if we were to get involved there.
These include the socio-political dynamics in which tribal Sardars and even political leaders who don nationalist robes in opposition take no time to behave like Quislings and sell their people and their own souls for money and positions. The absence of any coherent national movement which is spearheaded by any one party or organisation is one of the most glaring weakness in the fight of the Baloch for self-determination. In other words, while the passion of freedom burns deeply, the politics that can guide that passion towards its objective is all messed up. Finally, there is sensitivity of neighbouring countries like Iran (which has its own Baloch problem which is not just ethnic but also sectarian) that has to be taken into account, because the logistics of providing material support will depend on cooperation of Balochistan’s neighbours.
As is our wont, we can delude ourselves that merely empty rhetoric on Balochistan will be enough to win this war. That is a folly best avoided. A bigger folly would, however, be to jump in headlong and then leave the job half done. This time, if India starts something, it must see it to the end without getting into any quid pro quo deals with the devils.