FEELING the heat from the continuing uprising in India-held Kashmir and the failure of his security forces to contain it, the Indian prime minister used his Independence Day address to try and deflect attention from his woes by saying: “People of Balochistan, Gilgit and PoK [Azad Kashmir] have thanked me a lot in the past few days, I am grateful to them.”
In his address, Narendra Modi also accused Pakistan of committing human rights violations against its own people and backing terrorism. Pakistan has consistently accused India of fomenting unrest in Balochistan and in Mr Modi’s statement it saw a reinforcement of its position.
The Indian media described the Independence Day statement as Mr Modi’s attempt to up the ante in order to pile the pressure on Islamabad. Across the border, the Pakistani media said it was outright interference in the country’s internal affairs and a sign of confirmation of Delhi’s involvement in Balochistan.
However, the most interesting insight was provided by India’s former foreign affairs minister Salman Khurshid, himself a suave diplomat, who appeared horrified at his prime minister’s stance. “He must have meant Baltistan as he also referred to Gilgit and PoK and not Balochistan.”
Mr Khurshid, who is a senior leader of the opposition Congress, also warned that if, Mr Modi was, indeed, referring to Balochistan then he will have opened the door for other countries including Pakistan to criticise India and comment on its internal affairs.
He explained that since Azad Kashmir and Gilgit and Baltistan were part of an internationally recognised dispute between two countries, the Indian prime minister would be well within his rights to talk about these areas. But Balochistan, according to him, was another story.
Whatever the Indian prime minister meant, soon after his statement Brahmdagh Bugti, the Baloch rebel leader who currently lives in self-imposed exile in Switzerland, told the media he wanted to thank Mr Modi for the latter’s support on Balochistan.
Up until a month ago, Brahmdagh Bugti, whose exile followed the 2006 killing of his grandfather Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti in a military operation in Balochistan, was expressing his readiness for talks with the Pakistan authorities in order to seek an end to bloodshed in the province.
One hopes Modi’s remarks do not spur our security apparatus to the point where it journeys out of the pan and into the fire.
Mr Bugti’s statement which came on the heels of Mr Modi’s declaration was indication enough that his peace overtures did not elicit the kind of response from Pakistan, particularly its military, which he was hoping for.
The authorities must feel confident about crushing the separatists by force and, therefore, did not appear interested in dialogue. Brahmdagh Bugti’s statement, following as it did Narendra Modi’s, was seen by many security sources as part of a choreographed move.
Away from Balochistan, the Indian media picked up on their leader’s Gilgit remarks by airing footage of supposed ‘anti-Pakistan’ protests in Gilgit-Baltistan. Their main news service, ANI, which describes itself as an independent corporate entity, released the footage.
It showed a public gathering and slogans being raised. A closer look showed the footage from an election rally organised by the Awami Workers’ Party in support of its candidate Baba Jan from the last elections of the Gilgit-Baltistan Assembly.
The Awami Workers’ Party, which is fast earning a name for itself as a fighter for the rights of the oppressed, issued a rejoinder setting the record straight about the footage. While it said it would continue to struggle for the rights of all oppressed, it categorically denied its rally was, in any way, anti-Pakistan as suggested by the Indian media.
It was not surprising this rebuttal didn’t feature in any of the Indian news channels/sites that carried the initial ANI footage as, largely, the media on both sides these days prefers to parrot official positions rather than follow the principles of independent journalism.
The situation in the Kashmir valley since last month’s killing of iconic separatist militant leader Burhan Wani, whose social media exploits are said to have created a far greater impact than any of his known militant activities, shows no signs of improvement.
The death toll so far stands at 75 with several thousand injured. The number of young men, women and even children with shotgun pellet injuries runs into hundreds with dozens blinded as the pellets pierced their eyes.
With thousands of demonstrators defying the security forces every day a further spiral of charges and counter-charges between the two countries is likely. India may attempt to refer to Balochistan again to embarrass Pakistan but since it is not an internationally acknowledged dispute between the two, New Delhi’s capacity to bring pressure on Islamabad via this route will remain limited.
One likely consequence would be a renewed reliance on brute force by the Pakistan authorities as Mr Modi’s remarks will have provided a justification for a no holds-barred policy in the province. Any prospects of a dialogue will, tragically, recede fast.
As it is, the security establishment was ‘inserting’ religiously motivated activists belonging to LeT-JuD into Baloch areas seen as secular and nationalist (both descriptions take you to being one step away from being stamped a traitor) to counter the separatist sentiment. One earnestly hopes the Indian prime minister’s remarks do not spur our security establishment into a situation where it lives up to its reputation of journeying out of the pan and into the fire.
Kashmir will remain the principal bone of contention between the two countries. In order to move forward India must stop deluding itself that the scale of the uprising in Kashmir is ‘foreign-engineered’. It has tried repression for long but failed. It will need to think out of the box and reach some accommodation with the people of Kashmir. Pakistan will also have to agree to a solution such as the one proposed by former army chief Pervez Musharraf.
On all fronts only dialogue and accommodation can deliver workable solutions. The question is how soon the leaders of a billion and a quarter South Asians are able to see this.