Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement about Pakistan’s human rights violations in Balochistan (and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir) is a welcome turning point for India’s Pakistan policy, which has been more-of-the-same in the recent past. As such, it has been in the making since the Modi government came to power.
National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval’s now-infamous reference to India’s potential to disrupt Pakistan’s status quo through Balochistan (albeit made before he became NSA) and the emergence of a Modi/Doval national security doctrine based on a more forceful use of what Doval calls “coercive state instrumentalities” implies that it is not too fanciful to imagine India playing the Balochi card more forcefully in the future. The implicit governmental backing of exiled leader Naela Quadri Baloch’s much-publicised India visit in April will now be viewed through the lens of a nascent Balochistan strategy.
The contours of this strategy will be drawn using diplomatic as well as intelligence assets. It will range from being vocal about Pakistan’s excesses in that region, to creating sub-conventional space in order to deter Pakistan’s nefarious Kashmir policy. But it is exceedingly important that this strategy be sensitive to the region’s geopolitics. Principally, there are two other states India will have to deftly handle when it comes to using Balochistan to pay Pakistan using its own coin: China and Iran. Each of these states have a convoluted relationship with both India and Pakistan, and how they are handled will largely determine the success or failure of India’s Balochistan strategy.
But it is also important to have a clear goal in mind while crafting the more thrusting parts of the same. To be blunt: it is not in India’s national interest for a Bangladesh redux with Balochistan. For one, the Balochis are politically fragmented with no single charismatic leader like Mujibur Rehman to rally around. Their vision for an independent Balochistan ranges from breaking away from Pakistan to a Balochistan that also includes (small) parts of Iran as well as Afghanistan — there is no consensus on what an independent Balochistan ought to look like.
Finally, as analysts Ashok Malik and Samir Saran recently wrote, “international appetite for experiments with self-determination is at its lowest since World War I.” This applies to Balochistan as much as it does to Kashmir — Malik and Saran’s context. It also goes without saying that a dismembered revisionist state with nuclear weapons has the potential to wreck havoc in the region. India’s goal should be the acquisition of credible yet deniable ability to disrupt Pakistan’s control over Balochistan, without actually exercising the option to do so. In other words, India’s strategy there should be one of deterrence and not of punitive retaliation.
Even so, Chinese presence in Balochistan exceedingly clutters India’s operational space even at the diplomatic realm. The China-Pakistan axis is quickly becoming the key geostrategic wild-card in South Asia. As “China’s Israel”, in the words of Chinese general Xiong Guangkai, Pakistan increasingly looks to that country as an ‘insurance policy’ in countering Indian muscle. China — through its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor — is keen on developing the Gwadar port in Balochistan with the benign idea of mitigating its Malacca dilemma (whereby in any event of hostilities, China’s energy supply could be brought to a halt by choking off the Malacca Strait).
Gwadar could also serve as a dual-use naval base for China in order to complicate India’s naval strategy. It is therefore unlikely that once the Gwadar port is operational, China would look to greater Indian covert-power projection in Balochistan with a kind eye. American diplomats posted in this region — who have been following the growing bonhomie between China and Pakistan with interest — have privately told this writer that Gwadar has been a non-starter till date, despite the hype around it in both Beijing and Rawalpindi. That, of course, does not preclude the Gwadar port from becoming functional at a later date. Therefore, the opportunity window for India to establish a covert presence in Balochistan is between now and the moment the port facilities become operational. After that it would be too late, and too dangerous.
In this window of opportunity, India’s sub-conventional strategy should be such that it convinces the Chinese that their return-on-investment in Balochistan in general, and Gwadar in particular, would be too low given the rising volatility in that region. Any plausibly-deniable and selective application of force — and without this even deterrence strategies are not credible — must be directed towards attrition of Chinese investments. At the diplomatic level, by internationalising the instances of human-rights violations in Balochistan, India should seek to portray a picture of China as an irresponsible party, promoting its selfish interests over all other considerations. These measures should be coupled with India addressing China’s legitimate economic interests in Gwadar.
India will also have to cleverly navigate Iranian interests in Balochistan. Balochis have long blamed Iran for much of their misery — the periodic crackdown on Balochi rebels almost always have had Iranian sanction. Pakistan and Iran, despite the Sunni-Shia chasm, are generally on good terms; the Pakistani embassy in Washington, DC, Iran’s interest section in the US since Iran and the US do not have a formal bilateral diplomatic relationship. However, all is certainly not always well when it comes to Iran and Pakistan. In the past, the latter’s closeness to the US had been a source of concern for the Iranians. Pakistan also sided with the Americans when it came to opposing Iran’s nuclear-weapons programme.
The Iran-India dynamic is equally complicated. While the Iranians appreciate the growing economic ties between the two countries — the Iranian port of Chabahar has been billed as India’s answer to Gwadar — Iran will be very uncomfortable with a full-scale India-backed insurgency in Balochistan. The game when it comes to managing Iran will, therefore, have to be long. India’s support for any Balochi proxies should be conditional on their steadfast refusal to act against Iranian interests. Depending on how the Iran-Pakistan relationship evolve (as Iran becomes closer to the West, and Americans lose interest in Pakistan), that country’s exceedingly competent intelligence and other covert services could become a valuable ally for India as it prosecutes its Balochistan strategy.