Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s sharp initial focus on improving relations with countries in the neighbourhood, evident when he invited South Asian presidents and prime ministers to his swearing in ceremony, was reinforced once again when India launched the South Asian satellite with much fanfare recently. But there was a difference. At his swearing-in, Modi had invited the Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif and Sharif had come despite much reservation back home. At the launch of the South Asian satellite, Pakistan was absent.
Modi may not have given up on track two diplomacy with Pakistan but his national security team seems keen on isolating Pakistan in South Asia — a strategy that they adopted with some success during last year’s SAARC Summit at Islamabad which did not take off due to the India-inspired boycott with strong backing from Bangladesh and Afghanistan and with Bhutan and Nepal later falling in line.
Despite being in a very tight spot in Kashmir, where the protests are getting very violent and widespread, Delhi may feel encouraged by the recent clashes on Pakistan’s borders with Iran and Afghanistan. Both the western neighbours of Pakistan are not only accusing Islamabad of supporting terrorism against them and Iran’s military chief has threatened retaliatory surgical strikes like India claims to have done after the Uri attack. Bangladesh has already accused Pakistan and its intelligence of encouraging jihadi terrorism in the country and expelled ISI officers operating under consular cover in Dhaka. India has already backed Bangladesh’s efforts to get recognition for 25 March as “Genocide Day” that doubtlessly will add to Pakistan’s embarrassment.
Indian intelligence had tried and somewhat succeeded in cooperating with Afghan and Iranian intelligence in the past against Pakistan to thwart Sunni/Wahabi extremism, but the escalation on the borders have never been so serious and simultaneous. If Pakistan fails to control the extremist groups and its own deep state, the day may not be far off when intelligence agencies of India, Iran and Afghanistan will be cooperating with each other to hit Pakistan hard. Bangladesh and Indian agencies are already cooperating to thwart the ISI in the east. Even Indian, Bangladesh and Myanmar agencies are sharing intelligence on the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s (LeT) nexus with Rohingya militants.
Iran can join India and Afghanistan in backing the Shias in Gilgit and Baltistan who are very upset with Islamabad’s backing of Sunni Wahabi extremists in the area. The Afghans can unsettle the entire North Western Frontier Province. Proposals to step up on ground intelligence cooperation between the RAW and Afghan intelligence were finalised during the time of a former RAW chief Ashok Chaturvedi but were blocked, according to intelligence insiders, by former Indian National Security Adviser M K Narayanan, who was not kindly disposed to RAW. Narayanan also did not heed RAW’s warnings on a possible terror strike on Mumbai — so after 26/11, he and Home Minister Shivraj Patil were unceremoniously removed.
The present NSA Ajit Doval comes from a similar background as Narayanan, both having headed the Intelligence Bureau. But Doval has worked abroad under consular cover and he is close to ‘operationally minded’ RAW officials and perhaps not averse to stepping up the heat on Pakistan by closer operational liaison with Iranian and Afghan agencies to generate enough tit-for-tat response.
Though an Iranian-Afghan-India covert operational front can make things real difficult for Pakistan, that may not find much favour either in Washington and surely not in Beijing. The Iranians also may be less than encouraging of any Indian attempt to unsettle Balochistan, because two million Baloch live in its Sistan province and Tehran is uneasy with any azadi-seeking Baloch in its own territory. The Afghans may be more obliging to India but they have much trouble back home to handle and their capability for tit-for-tat operations against Pakistan may be limited. India also has much trouble in Kashmir and the Maoist-dominated central provinces and one may expect its focus to remain internally focussed.
But one should not forget India took the initiative to dismember Pakistan in 1970s just when it was pushed to a very tight corner by Pakistani and then Chinese backing of the insurgencies in Northeast India. I have detailed them in my books Insurgent Crossfire and Troubled Periphery.
The Pakistani and Chinese backing to the Naga insurgency was followed by their backing to the Mizo and then many other insurgencies in Northeast. The left- wing uprising at Naxalbari posed the worst nightmare for the security planners in Delhi — the severance of the Chicken Neck and ultimately the loss of the Northeast. That is when India’s great spymaster P N Banerji came up with the ‘either-us-or-them option — either India breaks up Pakistan by aiding the Bengali uprising or it loses its Northeast to a Sino-Pakistani pincer.
History has a bad habit of repeating itself — specially in South Asia. The more India looks like losing its grip on Kashmir, the greater would be the temptation to join up with Iran, Afghanistan and anybody else to unsettle Pakistan. For Doval’s team in Delhi, the temptation to unleash a multi front covert war against Pakistan may be a way of saving Kashmir for India — much as liberating Bangladesh was a way to save India’s Northeast. Whether that works now, as in 1971, is a different question.
Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC Correspondent and author.