For years, India accused Pakistan of fomenting unrest in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir by orchestrating cross-border terrorism through Islamic militants.
But by openly supporting a separatist insurgency in Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan Province, New Delhi now seems to confirm Islamabad’s accusations that it sponsors unrest in the resource-rich region, where Baluch nationalist factions are engaged in a decade-old struggle.
India’s initiative appears to be in high gear since August, when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi mentioned Pakistan’s alleged atrocities there. New Delhi is set to offer asylum to an exiled Baluch separatist leader and thousands of his followers, and is beefing up a state media campaign in the Baluch language while encouraging private media coverage.
In a departure from its previous cautionary approach, India has officially raised the issue at the United Nations Human Rights Council by accusing Pakistan of human rights abuses in Balochistan.
But these measures are unlikely to translate into reshaping an insurrection that has seen thousands of soldiers, rebels, and civilians killed in the vast desert region bordering Iran, Afghanistan, and the Gulf.
“India's steps on Balochistan are largely a tactical move to deter Pakistan from raising Kashmir,” said Shashank Joshi, a fellow at London's Royal United Services Institute. “New Delhi also want to hint at the possibility of more extensive support for Baluch rebels should Pakistan not reduce its support for anti-Indian militants.”
Unrest has been ongoing in Indian-administered Kashmir, where more than 80 people have been killed in a government crackdown on protesters following the killing of a separatist commander in July.
New Delhi blames Pakistan for fomenting the violence that has seen thousands of civilians and soldiers killed in insurgent attacks and a government crackdown since 1988.
The two neighbors have fought three wars over Kashmir since their independence from Britain in 1947. They now control parts of the region but each claims it in full.
Another war between the two archrivals, however, resonates in New Delhi’s current approach to Balochistan. Last week, a leader of the Baloch Republican Party, whose founder, Brahamdagh Bugti, is set to receive Indian asylum, called on India to militarily intervene in Balochistan as it did in Bangladesh in 1971.
Forty-five years ago, an Indian Army intervention resulted in the emergence of Bangladesh after the defeat of Pakistan’s military, which was engaged in a counterinsurgency campaign against a Bengali nationalist uprising in what was then called East Pakistan.
In New Delhi, Praveen Swami, an editor at The Indian Express, said he sees slim chances of India repeating such an intervention in Balochistan.
“I do not think there is any question of a Bangladesh-type intervention for two reasons,” he said. “First, the Indian Army does not have the military capacities involved, and second, in a nuclearized environment, it would be catastrophic for India.”
Indeed, New Delhi has resisted a full-fledged war with Islamabad after the two countries tested nuclear weapons in 1998. In 1999, Indian forces resisted crossing the Line of Control in Kashmir’s remote Kargil region after fighting off what it called a Pakistani incursion.
India also showed restraint in the aftermath of a militant attack on its parliament in 2001 and a series of attacks in commercial hub Mumbai in November 2008. New Delhi blamed the Pakistan-based Jaish-e Mohammad and Lashkar-e Taiba for the attacks.
“The rhetoric and asylum steps seem more about deterrence than large-scale intervention,” Joshi said.
There are no indications that New Delhi’s backing will win the Baluch separatists wider international support. Ironically, it is reminiscent of Islamabad’s failure to generate support for Kashmiri separatists.
“I think India realizes that even covert support for Baluch militants runs the risk of alienating Iran and China, and backfiring,” Joshi said.
Beijing is investing more than $46 billion in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). This road and rail network is aimed at connecting its northwestern Xinjiang region to the Arabian Sea Port of Gwadar in Balochistan.
Baluch separatists have attacked Chinese engineers in the region and oppose Chinese investment in Balochistan’s mineral, hydrocarbon, and coastal resources.
While Islamabad and Beijing are skeptical of New Delhi’s motives regarding CPEC, Joshi said, India is not ready for a new conflict with its western neighbor.
“India will proceed with caution. India doesn't want to pick a fight with Beijing,” he said. “If anything, India is eager to persuade China it should do more to restrain Pakistan, for instance by designating [Islamist militant leader and] Jaish-e-Mohammed founder Masood Azhar as a terrorist.”
He said New Delhi’s budding relations with Iran and Afghanistan will compel it to even be more cautious. A majority of the population in Iran’s southeastern Sistan and Baluchestan Province are Baluch. Like in the Pakistani province across the border, there is resentment against Tehran, and the region has reeled from attacks by Sunni extremist factions opposed to Iran’s Shi’ite clerical rulers.
In May Tehran, Kabul, and New Delhi signed a transit trade agreement on the Chabahar Port in Sistan and Baluchestan. India is investing $500 million into the port, which will eventually cater to Afghanistan and its Central Asian neighbors.
“The Indian government will be aware of the risk of alienating Tehran. India will have sent messages to Iran to underscore it has no intention of destabilizing Iran's Baluch territories,” Joshi said. “India views Chabahar as extremely important in outflanking Pakistan. It will not do anything that could jeopardize that.”
Equally significant is the reluctance of Western powers to endorse Baluch separatism. Swami said most Western nations are focused on stability in South Asia.
“There is a general realization that the age of cartographic change in South Asia is over,” he said. “No one wants actions that enhance instability in a volatile region.”
Despite the United States’ budding bilateral relationship with India and declining military aid to Pakistan, Washington has not endorsed New Delhi’s initiative.
“The U.S. government respects the unity and territorial integrity of Pakistan, and we do not support independence for Balochistan,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said on September 12.
In recent years, however, some U.S. lawmakers have condemned Pakistan’s alleged atrocities in Balochistan while questioning Islamabad’s sincerity in going after Islamic militant factions operating from its territory.
Balochistan’s fate will perhaps be decided in its deserts and dry mountains, where the crackdown against the insurgents has considerably weakened separatist militant factions, political parties, and student groups.
Islamabad has periodically targeted key separatist leaders and field commanders. Baluch activists maintain that thousands of their comrades are victims of forced disappearances and that the discovery of more than 1,000 corpses in the region showcases the scale of extrajudicial killings among Balochistan’s estimated 10 million residents.
The crackdown has forced an estimated 250,000 Baluchis to leave their homeland since the 2006 killing of Brahamdagh Bugti’s grandfather, Nawab Akbar Bugti, in a Pakistani military operation.
Last year, Balochistan’s former chief minister Abdul Malik Baloch said the government-sponsored militias, locally called death squads for their kidnapping and killing of separatists, are no longer active.
"What we had known as the death squads or counterinsurgency forces had a major [negative] influence on the law and order situation in Balochistan," he said. "[After assuming office in 2013,] we talked to the military hierarchy about this, and they changed their policy [of supporting such groups].”
Hard-line separatists have not helped their cause with infighting and leadership struggles, which alienate moderate Baluch politicians and weaken their guerrilla formations. The June 2014 death of Nawab Khair Bakhsh Marri, the most senior Baluch separatist figure, provoked an acrimonious succession struggle among his sons.
Joshi said India will be unable to provide much support from within Pakistan and will be mainly dealing with exiled Baluch leaders and diaspora communities in Iran, Afghanistan, Europe, and the Gulf.
“This limits the kind of support India can provide. Most of it is probably financial and political, as arms would be difficult to provide and would carry greater risks should they be diverted or discovered,” he said. “There may well be some cooperation with Afghan intelligence, but Iran is likely to be far more careful.”
Swami said Indian support might help Baluch separatists to tie down a sizable number of Pakistani troops, which will inflict greater costs on Islamabad.
“[This will be] in retaliation for those it [Islamabad] imposes on India in Kashmir,” he said.