SOUTHERN EYE: Back to Insurgent Crossfire!

SOUTHERN EYE: Back to Insurgent Crossfire!

Subir Bhaumik,
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(SouthAsianMonitor Exclusive):From atop the Red Fort on Indian Independence Day last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his speech to the nation strongly raised the cause of Balochistan and “Pakistan Occupied Kashmir”. Many Indian prime ministers, from Indira Gandhi to her son Rajiv to Manmohan Singh, had quietly supported contacts with Baloch separatists and anti-Islamabad elements in Pakistani Kashmir , but none had come out openly in open support of these causes.

No wonder, Baloch separatists and similar elements in Pakistani Kashmir have welcomed Modi’s support .  Hammal Haider Baloch, who is spokesperson of the Baloch National Movement (UK), made a major point when he said : “It is for the first time that an Indian Prime Minister has expressed his wish to support the Baloch people. And, I think it is a very crucial decision made by the Indian government.”

Modi did not support the cause of secession as brazenly as some over-enthusiastic Indian media outlets reported , but he did promise to internationalise the Baloch and the POK causes, specially the Pakistani ‘atrocities’ there .

What did Modi exactly say ! “I want to speak a bit about the people in Balochistan, Gilgit, Baltistan, and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir,” the Prime Minister said . “The world is watching. People of Balochistan, Gilgit and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir have thanked me a lot in the past few days,” Modi said. “I am grateful to them.”   Modi went on to ask Islamabad “why it has been committing atrocities on people in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Balochistan”. This is as blunt as it could get.

In a way, Modi was following up somewhat on  what his National Security Advisor Ajit Doval had said in an university lecture a year ago . Pointing to Pakistan, the former IB chief and a known hawk said: You do another Mumbai (26/11 terror attack), you lose Balochistan.”
It is interesting that Doval said this when he was already National Security Advisor and not just a retired IB chief in charge of a pro-RSS think tank. Doval reminded Pakistan of its many vulnerabilities like former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had once done after his Lahore initiative had misfired to end up in his icy heights of Kargil.

Modi and his hawks did , like Vajpayee, give peace a chance in the initial days but now they are keen to indicate they will not back off from the hard options. Apart from the rhetoric of ‘surgical strikes’ and Defence Minister Manohar Parikkar’s proposed review of India’s ‘no first use ‘ nuclear policy, the reference to Balochistan and Pakistani Kashmir in Modi’s Independence Day speech was the one real policy option that India’s current leaders believe they have to bleed Pakistan for all the trouble India faces in Kashmir.

In 1990s, I had detailed the cobweb of mutual state-supported insurgencies in South Asia as the redeeming feature of its post-colonial landscape. India backed the Bengali insurrection after
Pakistan’s two failed attempts to whip one in Kashmir in 1947-48 and 1965 (Operation Gibraltar and Grand Slam) . China started backing the separatist rebels in India’s Northeast after the 1962 border war , before which the Indo-US backing for the Tibetan rebels considerably upset Mao’s China. India backed the Shanti Bahini guerrillas in Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts, as Dhaka started to support the rebels from northeast India. This reciprocal backing of insurgencies in each other’s backyard has been a recurring feature of South Asia’s post-colonial ‘Insurgent Crossfire’ ( the title of my book) .

But after 1990s , that began to change . Vajpayee and later Manmohan Singh explored options to achieve durable peace with Pakistan , coming close to a breakthrough during Musharaff’s last days. Delhi and Dhaka’s bilateral relationships , post-2008, have been going from strength to strength. Despite suspicions that Chinese intelligence maintain links with northeast Indian rebel groups, there seems to be no concrete evidence of Beijing’s meddling in India’s troubled backyard. Indian patronage of Dalai Lama does upset China, but there is no evidence of Indian backing for armed Tibetan rebel groups or their presence in Indian soil.

But if Indian agencies start arming and supporting Baloch rebels and back their groups in internationalizing their cause, a new phase of South Asia’s “ insurgent crossfire” will surely start. Unlike in 1971, when India waded into the East Pakistan crisis with much initial reluctance  , the Modi administration’s Baloch thunder seems to follow a conscious decision.  Indian strategic gurus have backed the move because they think Pakistan – and China – stands to lose much more with an intensified Baloch insurgency than India will in Kashmir.

Balochistan is one of the four provinces of Pakistan. It is the largest province in the country, covering 44 percent of the total area. The population is 1.3 crore, which is merely 7 percent of the total population of the country.

The province is rich in natural resources like oil, gas, copper and gold; the economy is dominated by its natural gas fields. Its location is extremely strategic as the province shares borders with Punjab, Sindh, FATA, as well as Afghanistan and Iran. Gwadar Port in Balochistan is of immense importance to Pakistan.

But if India finally decides to totally back the Baloch insurgency, it  may lead to more intense Pakistani backing of Kashmiri separatism and Chinese support to Northeast Indian insurgencies , specially after India allowing the hosting of a secret conclave at Mcleodganj , a Himalayan town, last summer .  Tibetans, Uighurs, Falungongs and other anti-Beijing elements congregated for the conclave and though Delhi somewhat distanced itself by denying a visa to a top Uighur leader, the Chinese have made no secret of their intense displeasure.

If Delhi, Islamabad and Beijing fail to come to grips with this ‘crossfire’ element in their relationship and decide to mutually needle each other on obvious vulnerabilities , South Asia may be looking at a fresh phase of ‘insurgent crossfire’ , of a relentless phase of conflict conducted through duplicity , deniability and doublespeak,  that will undermine peace and stability so crucial for economic growth .

Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC Correspondent and author

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