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India’s Modi mounts the Baluchi tiger

M.K. Bhadrakumar August 16, 2016 6:58 AM (UTC+8)
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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is sadly mistaken if he thinks that he gave a ‘tit-for-tat’ for Pakistan’s interference in Kashmir affairs by raising human rights violations in Baluchistan in his Independence Day address to the nation on Aug 15. Kashmir is an international issue, whereas Baluchistan is local. India’s friends like Iran will have reason to worry if the genie of Baluchi sub-nationalism is let loose. It seems Modi mounted the Baluchi tiger without realizing that he may find it difficult to dismount.

Narendra Modi earned a unique distinction this weekend as the first prime minister in India’s history to raise human rights violations in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan, where a separatist insurgency has been raging for decades.

Modi's I-Day address
Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing the gathering at the Red Fort in New Delhi on Monday.

Modi feels elated that Baluchi nationalists adore him for doing that. He chose his customary Independence Day address to the nation on Monday from the ramparts of Red Fort, seat of the Mughal dynasty in Old Delhi, to stage the theatrics rich in symbolism.

However, even as Modi was espousing the cause of the Baluchis on Monday, in his home state of Gujarat, a massive public rally was held by the Dalit community – ‘untouchables’ in Hindu caste hierarchy – with the support of Muslims, protesting against persecution and social and political discrimination.

To put matters in perspective, Dalit population in India is estimated to be in the region of 200 million; Baluchis of Pakistan number around 7 million.

Indeed, human rights and Modi government make an oxymoron. Political morality should have prompted Modi to steer clear of the human rights situation in Baluchistan. So, why did he decide otherwise? The short answer is – expediency.

Modi is a past-master in diversionary tactic. At a time when an Intifada-like movement is erupting in Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley seeking independence for the region from the rest of India, the specter of ‘Kashmir problem’ once again haunts Delhi.

Intimidation or use of brute force by the Indian state, compliant local government, corrupt political class, blanket deployment of security forces numbering over half a million – the hackneyed formula to keep control over Kashmir Valley may have exhausted its possibilities after over six decades of wear and tear. Fatigue is visible.

An exit strategy would mean ‘out-of-the-box’ solutions of the kind Britain found for Northern Ireland, for instance. But that would call for decentralisation and devolution of powers (which was also, by the way, the basis of the accession of the region to India at the time of independence in 1947).

However, that very thought is anathema for the Hindu fundamentalists who mentor the Modi government. The ideologues of Hindutva find it abhorrent that the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley could ever be conceded local autonomy.

The result is that Delhi finds itself between the rock and a hard place to quell the unrest in the Valley, which has been under curfew for over a month. There is some talk that regions of the Valley may be put under direct army rule. Delhi seems preparing for a massive crackdown.

At such a juncture, Modi government finds it expedient to stage a political drama by whipping up xenophobia and make it look as if Pakistani interference is fuelling the upheaval in the Valley – rather than the other way around.

Tirades against Pakistan help boost the sagging morale of the Hindu nationalist lobby and divert public attention away from the crisis in the Valley.

Of course, the television channels through the weekend have been dutifully conducting discourses regarding Baluchistan. Self-styled experts are digging into Baluchistan’s past history to weigh the chances of its secession from Pakistan.

The Hindu fundamentalists visualise Modi as the Iron Man of Indian politics. They are wedded to the belief that Modi will someday vivisect Pakistan and it will be the final nail on the coffin of the Pakistani state, opening the door for the undoing of the Partition of 1947 and the emergence of Akhant Bharat (a unified Hindu-dominated Indian subcontinent.)

All this may look to the outside world to be a bizarre notion – betwixt two nuclear powers in the second decade of the 21st century. But, make no mistake, a significant and vocal section of Modi’s starry-eyed followers anticipate Pakistan’s disintegration in all earnestness.

Evidently, Modi took to stage-acting on such a potentially explosive theme as human rights without thinking through the profound consequences. For a start, he is sadly mistaken in his estimation that this is ‘tit-for-tat’ for Pakistan’s interference in India’s internal affairs.

Kashmir is an international issue, whereas Baluchistan is on par with Chechnya or Xinjiang or Mindanao or Kurdistan – an entirely different category. The fact of the matter is that even friendly countries like Iran or Afghanistan would have cause to worry if the genie of Baluchi sub-nationalism is let loose.

Iran in particular will feel uneasy that India is destabilizing the hugely sensitive region of Baluchistan. (Iran’s sister province of Sistan-Baluchistan is already seething with militancy and separatism.)

Pakistan has been cautioning Tehran against allowing Indian presence in Chabahar Port, which is located in Sistan-Baluchistan province. Pakistan has also been propagating that India is fostering cross-border terrorism in Baluchistan, aimed at undermining the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

Modi may have unwittingly given credibility to these Pakistani allegations whose sole purpose is to malign India as a country that uses terrorism as an instrument of regional policy.

The point is, Modi’s tirade against Pakistan may only draw more international attention to the carnage in the Valley, which is after all the root cause of India-Pakistan tensions today. India’s interests lie in keeping things under wraps in the Valley.

Again, Pakistan will turn the table on India’s own abysmal human rights record. Pakistan may not have a lily-white reputation, but India too has many skeletons in the closet – such as the grotesque human rights dimensions of oppressive Hindu caste system or the alienation in the Christian-majority north-eastern regions of the country.

Suffice it to say, Modi has mounted the Baluchi tiger without the foresight that he may now come under compulsion to keep riding it. Pakistan won’t let him dismount easily, either.

Meanwhile, India’s other tiny neighbours – Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal Sri Lanka and the Maldives – are watching. They will be extremely wary of the perceived hegemonic intentions of Delhi. They will increasingly look toward China as a ‘balancer’ in the region.

On the other hand, tensions are steadily increasing in the India-China relations, too. The Sino-Indian ties are set to deteriorate even further as India lurches toward the US’ rebalance strategy in Asia.

One can easily foretell that the SAARC summit due in Islamabad in November has been effectively derailed. With that, India’s leadership role in South Asia is crumbling. Modi’s regional policies face a difficult future.

So long as Modi remains in power, normalization of India-Pakistan relations is simply out of the question. The probability is that tensions may cascade, and the two nuclear powers may be risking a war at some point. The Baluchi tiger with its rider has begun walking toward the dark and deep jungle.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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