External Affairs

What Indira Gandhi's Sindh Gambit Can Teach Modi About Balochistan

In 1983, while India was tackling crises in Punjab, Assam and Sri Lanka, growing instability in Pakistan's Sindh province and Movement for Restoration of Democracy gave her an opportunity to put General Zia on edge.

MRD activist demonstrating against President Zia-ul-Haq in 1985 in Punjab. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

MRD activist demonstrating against President Zia-ul-Haq in 1985 in Punjab. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

New Delhi: When Prime Minister Narendra Modi raised the Balochistan issue in his independence day speech on August 15, 2016, he was treading a path first walked by Indira Gandhi. This is not the well-known route that led to the creation of Bangladesh, but the time she rattled Pakistan by supporting a Sindh-centred pro-democracy movement tinged with shades of nationalism, just a year before her assassination.

General Zia-ul-Haq. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

General Zia-ul-Haq. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In August 1983, General Zia-ul-Haq had already been in power for six stable years after seizing power in a military coup. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had been a godsend – giving him strategic space to manoeuvre regionally, as US and Saudi cash flowed in to prop up Pakistan’s economy.

However, Sindh – the stronghold of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), whose leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had been executed by Zia – was in ferment.

Led by Bhutto’s widow Nusrat and daughter Benazir, the PPP initiated a mishmash alliance of left, centrist and Islamist political parties to form the Movement for Restoration of Democracy (MRD) in 1981.

Just two days before that, in anticipation of the MRD’s launch, Zia had announced his “new political structure” – a presidential form of government with partyless elections.

As Pakistan marked 36 years as a new state on August 14, 1983, the MRD announced the launch of its mass movement with a large slogan-chanting gathering at Mazar-e-Quaide-Azam in Karachi and Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore.

From the first week, protests began to spread across the Sindh province – clashes took place in Karachi, public infrastructure was targeted, bombs went off and thousands were arrested in a massive crackdown.

Across the international border, Gandhi was juggling multiple bushfires that were inexorably building up to crises in Punjab, Assam and Sri Lanka. With the next parliamentary election (1984) round the corner, the stakes were raised for the Congress (I) government.

Incidentally, August 1983 was also when Delhi hosted a meeting of the foreign ministers of Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, which led to the Declaration of South Asian Regional Cooperation, paving the way for the first SAARC summit in 1985.

Indira Gandhi. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Indira Gandhi. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

But it was mainly a time of anxiety and insecurity in India. The term ‘foreign hand’ had entered the popular lexicon after repetitive pronouncement in news bulletins on All India Radio (AIR) and Doordarshan, especially on reports on Punjab. Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale had walked into the Golden Temple and turned it into his headquarters in the first half of 1983.

As Pakistan’s Sindh became a battleground, Gandhi found a way to put Zia on the edge, which also played well to a domestic audience.

India raises an issue

Gandhi’s opening gambit was a ministerial statement at a parliamentary debate on Pakistan on August 25.

“We have been watching with uneasiness and distress the recent happenings in Pakistan and the sufferings of people who have been demanding restoration of democracy in the country…As a nation we are committed to democracy,” said the statement read out by external affairs minister P.V. Narasimha Rao in the Lok Sabha and finance minister Pranab Mukherjee in the Rajya Sabha.


India’s first statement of support for the MRD came out of concern for Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The statement expressed concern over the health of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (Bacha Khan) due to his detention by the Pakistan government after he allowed his supporters to join the MRD protests. The statement was delivered with a disclaimer that India did not want to interfere in Pakistan’s own affairs.

The next day, Gandhi picked up the threads at the meeting of the Congress parliamentary group. The message was very clear.

“The people of Pakistan have been struggling for democracy of which they had known only a brief spell,” she declared, adding “We have to fight injustice everywhere. We want that there should be democracy everywhere.” (India Today)

A Dawn report recapping the Indian statements claimed Gandhi had said that she “could not shut her eyes” to these developments as “such events might affect India as well”.

With 1971 still a fresh wound, there was immediate reaction in Pakistan.

Pakistan retaliates

The archives of Dawn’s overseas edition, a weekly compilation of newspaper articles, show how the Pakistani media meticulously tracked utterances by Indian leaders over Sindh and interpreted them as per government sanction.

The first mention of the August 26 statement by Gandhi in Dawn’s overseas edition was actually in an article headlined “Charan and Vajpayee term Indira’s remarks ‘unfortunate’ “. The attribution for this dispatch was AIR.

There was also additional information from the Associated Press of Pakistan (APP) that the All India Students Federation had demonstrated in front of the Pakistan’s ambassador on August 27 in response to Gandhi’s remarks.

The Pakistan embassy in New Delhi issued a statement the same evening accusing India of meddling in internal affairs, which the APP report noted was carried by the Indian press. However, it also pointed out that most Delhi newspapers “blacked out” the statement of Lok Dal leaders criticising Gandhi’s remarks.

The Pakistani wire agency also noted that Hindustan Times had published an approving editorial on August 28: “Prime Minister Gandhi has done well, as she did in case of Sri Lanka, to make it clear that India cannot remain unaffected”.

In Sri Lanka, of course, India was giving covert assistance to the Tamil Tigers through Indian intelligence.

The Pakistani foreign office spokesman’s statement on September 10 listed more instances of “provocative statements” by Congress leaders.


“For instance, on Sep 3, the Indian Minister for industry, N.D. Tiwari, made unwarranted and propagandistic comments in a message to meeting held in New Delhi to discuss the situation in Pakistan,” he said, adding that the “message by a ministry of the government of India constituted official encouragement to a hostile campaign against Pakistan”.

“Also, a general secretary of the ruling Congress-I, C.M. Stephen, issued a statement on Aug 31 which was tantamount to support for anti-government agitation in Pakistan,” he added.

The foreign office assertion was in response to a statement from the MEA the previous day, which was characterised as an effort to “transfer responsibility for the recent setback to the process of normalisation of relations between the two countries”.

Incidentally, all official Pakistani statements during that period on Indian interference always mentioned the Simla agreement. However, when it comes to the Kashmir issue, India has always kept the 1972 pact as part of all its dealings – as evident in the recent spate of statements over the current furore from the foreign ministry.

dawn-clipping4Zia stated on September 5, 1983, that “proof of some foreign hands in the situation could be found in the supporting statements by India and some other countries”. “Addressing the people of Pakistan, the president said that there should now be no doubt left in any mind who was backing certain elements who were crying hoarse for restoration of democracy,” said the report, which was headline, “Foreign Hand in Sind disturbances, says President”.

However, he demurred from naming the “foreign hands”, stating that he could not elaborate. “Anyway, he said, it was for the country’s Press and people to identify them”.

With the Pakistani media following the official line, the Indian embassy issued a press release on September 15 “which denied that there is a large-scale dumping of Indian money and arms in Sind”.

After a month, it was Pakistan’s turn to deny “baseless allegations of arms assistances from Pakistan to militant agitators in the Indian Punjab”, which was apparently given as argument in the Indian media for the imposition of President’s rule.

“The allegations of arms assistance from the Pakistan side is also manifestly absurd as it is well-known that the relevant sector of the international border between Pakistan and India is well guarded and India maintains a large number of observation towers on it,” said the foreign office in Islamabad in October as per a APP report.

Meanwhile, there was a small, but important, report about nonagenarian Bacha Khan being detained at Kheshi rest house in Nowshera.

dawn-clipping5While the Pakistani government viewed Bacha Khan with suspicion, he had stayed aloof from the democracy movement at first. Instead, his daughter-in-law joined the MRD protest and was promptly arrested. He was also put under house arrest.

The report said that Bacha Khan asked authorities to shift him to “a prison or some hospital as he has been undergoing a great mental torture because of isolation”. “He said that he had no one even to talk to,” it added.

He also suggested that being shifted to the house of daughter-in-law Begum Nasim Wali Khan.

The welfare of Bacha Khan, often called ‘frontier Gandhi’, had been the sole subject for Gandhi’s letter to Zia written on August 26, in which she said: “our parliament was greatly agitated at his detention”.

His reply, sent two weeks later, was also released to the media. The two letters were published verbatim in the inside pages, while the cover story for the Dawn overseas edition for 6-12 October was an ‘reading between the lines’ analysis by its political correspondent.

Citing unnamed “observers”, the report – “Interference can obstruct the normalisation process” – claimed that Gandhi’s letter was “an indirect admission of the dichotomy in New Delhi’s position on the question of non-interference”.

“The President’s letter put the issue unto perspective when it pointed out that the reaffirmation of the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of Pakistan was virtually negated, in this case, by the extraordinary interest shown, in the same letter, in regard to Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who undoubtedly was a citizen of Pakistan and whose welfare was nothing if not a domestic concern of Pakistan,” it said.

“Political analysts are of the firm opinion” that expressing concern for Bacha Khan was only a “cover” and the “real purpose was to indicate support for anti-government elements and their activities in Pakistan and to influence the course of events in this country”, the report asserted.

“The significance of the Indian remarks, observers point out, could hardly be lost on a people who had not yet forgotten the loss of East Pakistan in 1971 and the pattern and degree of the Indian involvement in that bizarre scenario,” it noted, referring here to Indira Gandhi’s words on August 26.

The report claimed that “leading Indian political figures like former Prime Minister Ch. Charan Singh and former Foreign minister Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpayee seriously questioned the propriety” of the Indian government’s remarks. Giving another example of Indian domestic criticism of Gandhi’s remarks, Dawn’s political correspondent asserted that RSS mouthpiece Organiser, in its 11-18 Sept issue, “openly wondered whether these unwarranted remarks were not a “pre poll ploy”, a “diversionary problem” that could affect the Indo-Pakistan relations.”

India’s interference, it claimed, was in contrast to Pakistan’s “correct position” maintained vis-à-vis “multiplicity of problems that India has been facing from the beginning on political, religious and social mores”. The contention that India as largest democracy had natural sympathy for any democratic forces makes “queer reading”, since human rights issues were involved in “Sikh unrest in Indian Punjab and the turbent (sic) Assam”.

Pakistan had resisted “fishing in troubled waters,” the report said, “even though some elements are exercised by events in India”.

Enter Swamy

An interesting sidelight in India-Pakistan ties was a visit by then Janata Party leader Subramaniam Swamy, whose press conference at the end of his three-day visit on October 16 resulted in a big article in Dawn. “If Pakistan is strong, India will be strong. If Pakistan is weak, India will be weak,” he is quoted as saying in the article.

The report said that Swamy was “satisfied” by the reply given by Zia to his raising the matter of Pakistan’s interference in Indian Punjab during their meeting. “The Indian government had so far failed to produce any concrete evidence of such interference, he said,” noted the Dawn report.

Deliberate “provocation” 

However, what really seemed to have got Pakistan’s goat was the organising of a World Sindhi Sammelan in Delhi in October, which was seen as a deliberate provocation.

APP reported that Gandhi herself inaugurated the conference on October 18. It noted that the convenor of the conference was a ruling party member of parliament from Ajmer, Acharya Bhagwandev.

An eight-page supplement was published by the Indian Express, which had a “detailed map of Sind with a caption Jiay Sind Sada: Sukya Sata Baheen Sindhi”, reported the Pakistani state-run wire agency.

“According to the supplement, the conference aims at identifying the problems faced by the community by the Sindhi community and setting up a permanent centre for the community in Delhi,” it added.

But, the neutral tone in the wire report was belied by the article on the Sindhi Sammelan splashed as cover story in the October 27-November 3 edition of the Dawn. “Blatant interference in Pakistan’s internal affairs,” said the headline of the article authored by “our diplomatic correspondent”.


“Although the Sammelan had been planned much before the trouble broke out in Sind in August, the moot (sic) when it was held acquired a political dimension. More so because it was projected as an expression of Sindhi nationalism,” the article said.

It claimed that the conference convenor had allegedly stated “the time is ripe for this part (Sind) of Pakistan to become a part of India so that the Sindhis of both Pakistan and India could work for their common good”. The report, however, did not mention Acharya Bhagwandev by name, thought it described him as having “chauvinistic views”.

The presence of Indian President Gaini Zail Singh and Gandhi was seen as deliberate “provocation” at the conference, which was apparently “condemned by the leaders of opinion in Pakistan who interpreted it as an Indian move to harm the territorial integrity of Pakistan”.

The presence of Gaini Zail Singh and Indira Gandhi at the World Sindhi Sammelan was seen as "deliberately provocative" Credit: rashtrapatisachivalaya.gov.in

The presence of Gaini Zail Singh and Indira Gandhi at the World Sindhi Sammelan was seen as deliberate “provocation” Credit: rashtrapatisachivalaya.gov.in

“In that context, they also spoke of the failure of the Indian leadership to reconcile itself to the creation of Pakistan,” said the report, though it didn’t give any examples of such statements.

It mentioned that Gandhi had apparently “brought up the issue on several occasions” during her foreign tour preceding the United Nations General Assembly.

Claiming that the Indian prime minister was just motivated by domestic concerns in needling Islamabad, the Dawn article repeated that “Mrs Gandhi might be seeking to divert attention of the Indian public from the agitation in the Punjab to the developments in Pakistan is not ruled out”.

The report pointed out that the new-born SAARC could be a victim of India-Pakistan ties being on the edge. “Even regional cooperation is expected to come under strain”.

dawn-clipping19The front page of the edition, which carried this cover story, also included another recurring sidelight of bilateral relations – the confrontation between Indian and Pakistani diplomats at United Nations.

All these points had been mentioned in an editorial published on October 20 in Dawn’s Karachi edition. It was the only editorial included in the weekly edition.

“The great majority of the Sindhi-speaking people lives in the Sind province of Pakistan. Is it not a little strange that what is pompously called the World Sindhi Congress should have its venue outside Sind? In any case, the timing of the conference, as early reports have indicated, its avowed message are ominous,” said editorial.

Cutting to the heart of Pakistan fears, the editorial said, “As the name and context of the congress suggest, the purpose in invoking Sindhi ethnic unity is to foster divisiveness by encouraging extraterritorial loyalties among the people of a Pakistani province”.

The sequence of events in the Pakistani mind with regard to the Sindhi conference was clear. “The holding of the congress following the launching of the MRD agitation in the country leaves no doubt in any neutral observer’s mind as to the motives of the sponsors”.

It even claimed that the Sindhi conference was a “manoeuvre calculated to heighten that impression” of Indian leaders talking “of the danger of war”.

Within a week of the conference ending in Delhi, the Indian ambassador to Pakistan was summoned to the foreign office in Islamabad. The protest conveyed was not over the organising of the conference, but against the “highly offensive and objectionable remarks” of Bhagwandev.

“The ambassador was told that such activities by a member of parliament belonging to the party in power and the official encouragement given to these activities clearly violating the norms and principles of inter-state relations”.

This was the high point of Indian activities related to the MRD, which did not get any more space in Dawn overseas editions. The uncoordinated MRD movement also subsided after its eruption in August-September as the army moved into Sindh and suppressed its leaders.

The archives of Dawn were accessed at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi

Join The Discussion