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Picture for representational purpose (Photo: AP/File)
With the foreign secretary level talks between India and Pakistan being iced due to the meeting between Kashmiri separatists and the Pakistani high commissioner, it may be worth recalling an episode from contemporaneous history.
On July 16, 2009, at Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt, one line in a joint statement issued after the meeting of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with his Pakistani counterpart, Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani, set off a firestorm in India. The line read as follows: “Prime Minister Gilani mentioned that Pakistan had some information on threats in Balochistan and other areas”.
All manner of adjectives were mobilised to characterise this inclusion in the joint statement as a sell out. It was alleged that India had allowed Pakistan’s proxy war in Kashmir be equated with Pakistan’s oblique insinuation about purported Indian meddling in Baloch-istan. Interestingly, the ubiquitous “K” word was not even mentioned in the joint statement except a rather ambiguous reference to all outstanding issues. In fact, India should have seized the opening provided by Pakistan as it is in India’s interest to discuss the situation in Balochistan. This region bestrides three countries — Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan — all of whom are of strategic importance to India.
A historical overview of the Baloch question may be in order to provide perspective to the issues involved. Informed opinion suggests that the Baloch Nationalist Movement has an antiquity that dates back two millennia. However, analysts put the origins of the struggle down to the late 19th century when the rivalry between the British and the Russian imperialists impelled the first British invasion of Afghanistan between 1839 and 1842. This brought the British in contact with the princely state of Kalat that comprises modern day Balochistan.
However, the British were rather prudent though persnickety about prying into the internal affairs of princely states and it was only on August 15, 1947, when the Khan of Kalat declared his independence from Pakistan that had come into existence a day earlier, that trouble commenced.
Pakistan, of course, rejected the declaration and nine months later Kalat was forcibly appropriated into Pakistan. Baloch nationalists did not take this annexation kindly. In 1948, and then again in 1958 and 1962, encounters took place between the Pakistani state and Balochis.
However, from 2005 onwards a full-scale unrest commenced, triggered by the rape of a doctor, Shazia Khalid, allegedly by Pakistani security forces in the town of Sui, where the provinces Punjab,
Sind and Balochistan meet.
The Pakistani state reacted to the insurrection in the same manner as it had attempted to stamp out the Bangladeshi liberation struggle in 1971. Alleged “kill and dump” operations, as they are colloquially referred to, let loose a wave of oppression and repression. Enforced disappearances became the norm rather than the exception. The killing of Akbar Bugti, the leader of the Baloch Republican Party by the Pakistani Army in 2006, is a poignant case in point.
Nasrullah Baloch, the chairperson of the Voice for Balochistan Missing Persons, puts the number of missing persons at 23,000 according to a statement attributed to him on the South Asian Terrorism Portal, though the portal, based on partial data compiled by it, puts the civilian fatalities at 3,073 since 2004.
The moot point being that the human rights of the Baloch people are being seriously trampled upon by the Pakistani state. When India can host the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala, express solidarity with Aung San Suu Kyi, vote for the Tamil minorities in Sri Lanka and the Palestinians at the UNHRC, should the Baloch people be treated differently? Should India at least not bilaterally raise it with Pakistan if not at multilateral settings?
Even from a purely strategic perspective, Balochistan is also home to the port of Gwadar that lies at the mouth of the Persian Gulf just outside the Straits of Hormuz. On February 18, 2013, Pakistan transferred the control of this strategic asset to China, giving it the ability to project power and, if required, even dominate the Sea Lines of Commerce through which the bulk of the world’s energy supplies transit.
The Chinese are already contemplating building an LNG terminal with pipelines from Gwadar to MP 250, a point on the Iran-Pakistan border, and Gwadar to Kashgar in western China. The latter pipeline is ostensibly supposed to transit through those parts of the state of J&K that are in illegitimate possession of Pakistan and further unlawfully ceded to China. The proposed pipeline notwithstanding, the technological challenges would allow China to simultaneously surmount both the Hormuz and Malacca “dilemmas” and would add another dimension to the already complex strategic situation in the Sino-Pak-India triangulation. Does this not warrant a discussion with Pakistan and, for that matter, even with China as to what would be the implications of these developments on India?
With triple transitions at play in Afghanistan, chaos and the rise of radicalism in Balochistan would have a direct impact on the two most fragile provinces of Afghanistan — Helmand and Kandahar that adjoin it. This is a consequence of a policy of years of Islamisation followed by the Pakistani state’s attempt to erase the Baloch identity and overlay it with an Islamic one. A large number of sectarian and terrorist outfits are not only active but are now based there, riding on the back of a string of madrasas especially on the borders. They include and are not limited to the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Sipah-e-Muhammad, the Tablighi Jamaat and both the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban, all of whom have a pernicious Pan-Islamic agenda.
Since India has a stake in a stable and peaceful Afghanistan, is it not imperative that in conjunction with other stakeholders who have similar priorities, their be a somber conversation with Pakistan as to how its internal dynamics can potentially destabilise efforts of the international community in securing Afghanistan?
While it needs to be made abundantly clear that India does not have even the remotest interest in the secession of Balochistan, fact is that, contrary to all allegations that have been levelled till now, Pakistan has not been able to furnish evidence of any Indian involvement.
In retrospect, was Sharm el-Sheikh then not a missed opportunity to put Balochistan on the table? Does obtuse opposition not jeopardise national interest? Should Balochistan not figure on the agenda in the Indo-Pak dialogue?
The writer is a lawyer and a former Union minister.