Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves at the crowd after his address during the Independence Day function at the Red Fort monument in New Delhi, India, Monday, Aug. 15, 2016.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves at the crowd after his address during the Independence Day function at the Red Fort monument in New Delhi, India, Monday, Aug. 15, 2016. Shahbaz Khan/Press Trust of India via AP

India's Modi Pokes Pakistan Over Contested Afghan-Border Region

India's prime minister is making waves for claiming he's received warmly by folks in Balochistan, which Pakistan struggles to secure.

On Aug. 15, Narendra Modi’s speech at India’s 70th Independence Day celebration was unremarkable, except for one explosive word: Balochistan.

“The people of Balochistan, the people of Gilgit, the people of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir have thanked me in such a manner, from places that I have never been and never had a chance to meet, they have sent wishes to the people of India and thanked us,” the Indian prime minister said. “I am grateful to them.”

It was more than a tactical counterpunch in response to Pakistan’s raking up of the turmoil in Jammu and Kashmir over the past few weeks. After all, on Aug.14, Pakistan’s Independence Day, prime minister Nawaz Sharif dedicated the country’s independence to the “freedom of Kashmir” from Indian rule.

Read in line with a series of recent statements from the Indian government, it marks a bigger shift. For, this is the second time in the past week that Modi himself has mentioned Balochistan.

“Pakistan forgets that it bombs its own citizens using fighter planes. The time has come when Pakistan shall have to answer to the world for the atrocities committed by it against people in Balochistan and PoK (Pakistan-occupied Kashmir),” Modi said last week, referring to Pakistan’s purported role in the Kashmir unrest.

Earlier, India’s hawkish national security advisor AK Doval had almost issued a threat to Pakistan when he said that India’s troublesome neighbour could lose Balochistan if there was a repeat of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. “You do one more Mumbai, you lose Balochistan,” Doval had said in 2014, a few months before he became Modi’s top security advisor.

Yet, what matters this time is the stage from which Modi made his latest assertion.

“The larger message from the Indian prime minister to Pakistan is that those who live in glass houses should not throw stones,” said G Parthasarathy, a former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan. “What India is saying now is that we have long ignored the Balochistan issue. But that doesn’t mean we can’t raise the issue.”

This is a remarkable change for India, which has traditionally avoided getting tagged to the tumult in the Pakistani province. In fact, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party had cried “shame” in 2009 when an Indo-Pak joint statement signed by former prime minister Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Yousaf Raza Gilani, mentioned Balochistan during the Non-Aligned Movement summit in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

After Modi’s Aug.15 speech, many leaders-in-exile of the Balochistan movement predictably came out in support.

“I thank prime minister Narendra Modi saheb on behalf of the whole Baloch nation,” Brahumdagh Bugti, the founding chief of the Baloch Republican Party, said. “And we hope that the Indian government and Indian media and the whole Indian nation will not only raise voices for the Baloch nation but also strive to help practically the Baloch independence movement.”

So, what is it about Balochistan?

Like Kashmir, Balochistan, too, has a chequered history—one mired in military intervention and annexation.

At the time of British India’s partition in 1947, the Khan of Kalat, Mir Sir Ahmad Yar Khan Ahmedzai, a monarch who ruled Balochistan, chose to keep his territory an independent and sovereign state. In fact, Pakistan’s founding father Mohammad Ali Jinnah was instrumental in ensuring the state’s independence. However, Jinnah later decided to ask Balochistan to accede to Pakistan, a move strongly opposed by the Khan. In 1948, the Pakistani army moved in to enforce Balochistan’s accession

Since then, there have been five uprisings and reports suggest that thousands have been missing since the armed conflict began.

Islamabad’s reaction to Modi’s Independence Day speech was along expected lines.

“PM Modi’s reference to Balochistan, which is an integral part of Pakistan, only proves Pakistan’s contention that India, through intelligence agency RAW, has been fomenting terrorism in Balochistan,” Sartaj Aziz, a former national security advisor of Pakistan and an advisor to the foreign affairs ministry, said.

The government of Pakistan is particularly concerned over the region due to two main reasons. One, Balochistan is mineral rich. Second, it is building a huge port in the town of Gwadar in the province with massive investment from its all-weather friend China. Any turmoil in Balochistan, therefore, could set alarm bells ringing in Beijing.

Loud and clear

Modi’s mention of the war-torn Pakistani province is a shot across the bows that came following the recent turmoil in Jammu and Kashmir, in which more than 50 civilians have died and thousands have been injured. New Delhi has steadfastly maintained that the unrest was being fanned from across the border.

“If there is one thing that the Modi government has telegraphed over its two years in power, it is that it will not sit quietly amid provocations from Pakistan, and that it will not hold back from taking a harder line when the need arises,” Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for south and southeast Asia at the Washington DC-based Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, said.

This hardening of stance comes after Modi initially took a more conciliatory approach at the start of his term.

Changing ties

In December last year, India and Pakistan had seemed to bury the hatchet when the two governments agreed to resume a “comprehensive bilateral dialogue” that would broadly discuss and probably find solutions for issues between the countries.

Much of that cooperation was achieved at a meeting between the national security advisors of India and Pakistan in Bangkok, where they discussed issues ranging from peace and security, terrorism, and Jammu and Kashmir. The same month, Modi even flew down to Pakistan while returning from Afghanistan, a move that had raised eyebrows in India. Modi was the first Indian prime minister to visit Pakistan since 2004, a gesture that signalled an improvement in relations.

But in the wake of a terrorist attack in Pathankot in January this year, the short-lived friendship went into a downward spiral. By April, the secretary-level talks were suspended after Pakistan refused to give India access to Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar for the probe into the Pathankot attack.

By July, the talks seemed to go completely off the tracks after India blamed Pakistan for the crisis in Kashmir.

“The government must have good reasons to think Pakistan had stepped up its activity in Jammu and Kashmir,” Sanjaya Baru, a consulting fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and a media advisor to former prime minister Manmohan Singh, said.

“Pakistan has been unusually assertive about India’s current Kashmir crises,” said Christine Fair, an associate professor at Georgetown University. “I think reminding Pakistan to mind its own business is refreshing. I think Modi has been overly accommodating of Pakistani hijinks. Such a move is well overdue, in my view.”

So what happens to the relationship now?

“There is no way forward,” said Fair. “The Pakistan army does not want peace. Indian ‘mombatti wallah’ and ‘aman ki asha’ types need to understand this.”