For several weeks, India’s top security officials were in a huddle, evaluating options and analysing the possible fall out of various approaches to Pakistan in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speech.
Led by the National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, a team of officials including the Research & Analysis Wing Chief, the Director of Intelligence Bureau and the Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar and his ministry's top Pakistan experts kept meeting regularly to evaluate a possible change in strategy.
According to senior officials in the government, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, much of the deliberations were led by a feeling of frustration on how to push the ritual impasse that dogs India’s bilateral parleys with Pakistan.
The political inputs for the decision would come from Union Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, Home Minister Rajnath Singh, Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office Dr Jitendra Singh and the National General Secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Ram Madhav, who also happens to be a former member of the National Executive of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
These two teams eventually took the call to specifically mention Balochistan in the speech, as August 15 approached.
Cold War Veterans
The bulk of the security team were people who had spent the better part of their careers tackling the so-called cold war with Pakistan.
The NSA had been sent to strife-torn Punjab in the late 1980s to carry out special operations against the Khalistani militants and members of the Pakistani establishment who supported their cause. He also headed the Subsidiary Intelligence Bureau in Srinagar and spent a lot of time, till the Kargil War, taking on the Hizbul Mujahideen and the Lashkar-e-Toiba in the last 1990s.
The R&AW chief, a counter-terrorism specialist for a large part of his career, had also spent most of his time tackling threats from Pakistan.
These two top officers had the usual suspicions about the Pakistani military’s ability to nix any peace proposal that could have found a favourable response from the civilian leadership in Islamabad.
The intelligence chiefs were also worried about the fallout of a statement on Balochistan by the prime minister.
For years, Indian intelligence had maintained a close eye on Pakistan’s west, watching the growing insurgency in Balochistan and its implications for Pakistan’s security and economic progress.
They had also maintained links with Baloch leaders across the world, meeting them in state capitals like London, and keeping track of events. However, most of these meetings and discussions had been kept secret and were mostly used to gain insights into the Pakistani military operations being carried out in the region.
Any public statement by Modi, the intelligence chiefs cautioned, could be used by Pakistan as an admission of India’s role there. While it is well known that R&AW had wound up its operations capabilities during the tenure of Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral, it had continued to stay in touch with Baloch leaders across the world.
The intelligence chiefs were also worried about the impact it would have on the Americans, and the intelligence relationship between New Delhi and Washington. The Central Intelligence Agency had deep roots in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and had frequently passed on intelligence about possible attacks in India or Indian assets in Afghanistan. A more overt role by India in support of Balochistan, they felt, could jeopardise this cooperation.
This view found support from the ministry of external affairs, which had consistently built a narrative around India as the victim of terrorism, which believed in maintaining a distance from Pakistan’s internal strife. The ministry’s top Pakistan experts also expressed their concern about a public statement on the bilateral equation with the United States.
According to officials privy to some of the discussions, there was some concern over whether the India’s support could be construed as encouragement for Balochistan’s secession from Pakistan. However, this concern was overruled on the grounds that the support would only be political and on “humanitarian grounds”, a government official said.
The political heavyweight
The dominant voice among the political team was Dr Jitendra Singh, the BJP’s MP from Udhampur in Jammu who happens to be a Minister of State with several portfolios. An old advocate of abrogating article 370, which gives special autonomous status to the state of Jammu & Kashmir, Singh insisted that raising the Balochistan issue would be a game changer.
Traditionally, India has raised the issues of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, part of the undivided state of Jammu & Kashmir, before the Indo-Pak war of 1947-48 cleaved the state into two halves.
The political discussions did contemplate the relevance of Balochistan to the current stalemate between India and Pakistan and how it would help up the ante and force Pakistan to re-think its position on Kashmir.
However, Singh’s logic about raising the question of Balochistan and Pakistan’s track record in the region prevailed over the few concerns that were aired in the discussions.
There were a few concerns about the impact this would have on the Kashmir Valley. One minister did raise the point that India’s overt support for Balochistan could be used by the Kashmiri separatist leaders into raising allegations of human rights abuse in the state, as the death toll continued to grow and the protests continued unabated.
However, the prevailing argument within the group was that Islamabad had ratcheted its campaign on Kashmir and New Delhi needed to counter it quickly.
The argument prevailed and Modi agreed with the general consensus that the gains from the new strategy far outweighed the concerns that had been expressed by the two groups.