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A necessary shift in India’s stance

Harsha Kakar |

In his Independence Day speech from the ramparts of the Red Fort, the Prime Minister publicly criticized Pakistan for human rights violations in Baluchistan, Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. He had raised this issue in the all party meeting on Kashmir a week earlier. Rarely has any international leader publicly declared such a radical shift in his nation&’s foreign policy, adopting an offensive stance as compared to an earlier defensive one. Under normal conditions, nations pursue aggressive foreign policies covertly, while officially advocating a defensive approach. The timing of the broadcast was aimed at conveying a strong message to India&’s two close adversaries, Pakistan and China.

Modi on assuming premiership commenced his foreign policy with a risky outreach, inviting leaders of all SAARC nations to his swearing-in, an event attended by the Pakistan Prime Minister. Subsequent attempts to re-establish relations and commence talks with Pakistan included their meetings in Ufa and Lahore. Pathankot, almost immediately after Lahore, came as a rude shock and pushed talks into the background. It eventually became clear, that the Pakistan political leadership has no say in talks or Indo-Pak policies. Talks if any can only be fruitful if held with the military, an action the Indian democratic government can never resort to.The lowest ebb in Indo-Pak relations was the result of open support by Pakistan and its terror groups to the ongoing agitation in Kashmir. The defensive foreign policy approach taken by the government so far had pushed it against the wall and a clear message was required to be conveyed.

The message came directly from the Prime Minister, in his Independence Day speech which is followed across the globe as it indicates the government&’s stand. Though the words remained guarded, with no mention of any aspect beyond the unacceptable level of atrocities by Pakistan, it clearly meant that levels of support could increase and go beyond what was stated if the situation so warrants. It was a rude and clear warning to the rulers in Pakistan, the military and civilians, that their internal scenario can be made difficult if they do not stop meddling in Kashmir. It was a re-run of Ajit Doval&’s comment, “If you do one more Mumbai, you may lose Baluchistan.”Gilgit-Baltistan has a deeper meaning. Though originally a part of J and K, with majority Shia residents, hence now persecuted in Sunni-majority Pakistan, it became independent due to a revolt led by British officers commanding the Gilgit Scouts who then acceded to Pakistan. The instrument of accession of J and K was signed on 26 October 1947, while the revolt commenced on 1 November. Hence legally, it remains a part of disputed J and K. Pakistan knowing this fact, gave the region limited autonomy by a presidential decree in 2009. Officially it was never made an integral part of Pakistan, though completely controlled by it, as it could come under the ambit of the UN mandate on Kashmir.The Prime Minister&’s speech indicated India&’s decision to re-raise the inclusion of the area into the illegal occupation of Kashmir by Pakistan, adding to their woes.The speech was also a clear message to China. Here again, due to his regular visits to China as the Chief Minister of Gujarat (since the US had banned his entry), he had a soft corner for the country. His personal relations with Chinese President Xi Jinping did initially indicate a thawing of relations between the two nations; however, China clearly stated its priorities. It was Pakistan which came first and also that India could not be permitted to sit at the same table in international bodies where China presently is.China refused to open doors for India&’s entry into the NSG as also blocked India&’s attempt at the UN to ban the JeM chief Masood Azhar. This compelled the government to change its foreign policy stance. India is now powerful enough to flex its muscles. It has done so by openly opposing the China-Pakistan Economic corridor (CPEC), passing through disputed areas.The CPEC transits through Gilgit-Baltistan and POK and terminates at the Baluchistan port of Gwadar. By raising the issue, India now firmly objects to any construction through disputed territory.

There are agitations in the states against the corridor, as the benefits would only flow to Punjab and Sind while exploiting their region. Chinese workers are being targeted and the progress of work is tardy. The fear of militant strikes is such that Pakistan is compelled to raise a separate infantry division to provide security to the corridor and Chinese workers. India has indicated that it can support the freedom struggle in both the states, by more than just moral means.Domestic criticism on the change in policy would always flow from traditionally weak-minded political parties. These political parties should realize that unless gloves come off, India would continue to react to Pakistan&’s misadventures supported by China. India has been bearing them for too long. If a nuclear threat dilutes military options, then a covert option supported by a strong military is the best alternative. For Pakistan, only the threat of increased insurgency on their soil, threatening the fabric of the country, would compel them to alter their Kashmir strategy. They may never openly announce a change but when cornered and threatened, a perceptible change would be clearly visible.Comments from Pakistan on the Prime Minister&’s speech have been on standard lines, continuing support to Kashmir, re-raising the UN plebiscite bogey and alleging Indian interference in the Baluchistan freedom struggle, something we are used to hearing. For India, which for decades pursued a defensive policy, such a shift is a welcome step. In the world today, only strong nations are respectedThe importance of the announcement is in continuing its pursuit, rather than mere rhetoric from the ramparts of Red Fort.

The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army.