External Affairs

Balochistan and the 'India' Factor in Pakistan’s Civil-Military Equation

Pakistan’s pursuit of actions to confront and counter India will likely gain momentum in the face of New Delhi's evolving policy on Balochistan.


Nawaz Sharif and Narendra Modi. Credit: PTI

“The spirit of independence in occupied Kashmir [sic] is on its peak. The new generation of Kashmiris has raised the flag of freedom with new vigor,” declared Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in his Independence Day speech last month.

Sharif’s speech came shortly after home minister Rajnath Singh – who visited Islamabad for the SAARC Home Minister’s conference – left the country in a huff, allegedly as a result of less-than-cordial treatment meted out to him by his hosts. Since then, Pakistan has attempted to rally its diplomatic corps to call the world’s attention to India’s response to the large-scale rioting in Jammu and Kashmir.

Sharif also dispatched 22 parliamentarians from Pakistan to world capitals to “shake the collective conscience of the international community.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on his part, assailed Pakistan for its continued use of terrorism as an instrument of foreign policy and made references to Balochistan in his Independence Day speech to the nation. More recently, India’s representative at the United Nations Human Rights Council unequivocally raised the issue of human rights violations in Balochistan on September 14.

While there has been debate on the wisdom – or the folly – behind Modi’s statement on Balochistan, it is important to anchor our analysis on the current state of civil-military relations in Pakistan, which might help in gauging Pakistan’s potential reaction to the Indian government’s new policy.

First, the context.

Sharif has found himself in an unenviable position and under unrelenting attack from opposition parties for his family’s alleged offshore holdings, which were brought to light during the Panama Papers leak. Earlier this month, Imran Khan, Tahirul Qadri and Sheikh Rasheed launched an Ehtesab (accountability) march in Lahore and Rawalpindi, laying out its demands, which include an independent investigation into the Panama leaks. Should Sharif not acquiesce to the demands, Khan and company intend to take their dharna to Raiwind, Sharif’s residence.

It is no secret that the shadow of Pakistan’s powerful military looms large over these protests against the government. The dharnas primarily serve the purpose of attenuating Sharif’s political power and maneuverability. Indeed, the dharnas of 2014 (the tsunami march), which targeted Sharif’s government, considerably circumscribed its ability to chart independent policy objectives pertaining to counter-terrorism operations, the Musharraf trial and India. The protests this year aim to further diminish Sharif’s political support and credibility.

Pakistan’s military itself is poised for a change in leadership. General Raheel Sharif, under whose leadership the much-heralded Zarb-e-Azb counter-insurgency operation was launched, will be retiring in November this year. The prime minister will have the unenviable task of appointing General Sharif’s successor.

Sharif has a mixed record in this department. When he last sought to bypass the army’s seniority list in favour of someone he thought was not a threat to him, he was duly rewarded by the new appointee with a coup d’état and a one-way ticket to Jeddah. Sharif’s aides have subsequently impressed upon him the need to respect the army’s chain of command and not fall prey to the apna banda (my guy) mindset. However, regardless of who becomes the new army chief, the nature of civil-military relations is not likely to dramatically change in Pakistan.

In this context, Sharif is likely to find it difficult to do anything that goes against the military’s wishes.  The military itself continues to view India as an existential threat and will likely continue to pursue aggressive action vis-à-vis India. The civilian government – with its authority circumscribed – will have little mandate or capacity to advance its stated policy agendas.

Indeed, this is as true of Sharif’s government as it was of the previous Pakistan Peoples Party government, which came into power seeking better relations with India. It is in this context that we must place Sharif’s recent towing of a harder line on India and J&K. It is a tone meant to allay domestic hardliners and critics, who often deride Sharif for being soft on India owing to a perceived “friendship” with Modi.

The civil-military balance in Pakistan today has swung decisively in favour of the Pakistan army. In the short term, this effectively rules out the possibility of Sharif seeking a modus vivendi with the Indian government to arrest the downward trajectory of the relationship.

It is therefore quite likely that Pakistan’s responses will include greater diplomatic activism on J&K and the promotion of the narrative that Modi’s statements on Balochistan are tantamount to an admission of Indian interference in the troubled province. It is possible that Pakistan could resort to producing “evidence” of Indian involvement in Balochistan, as it did in March of this year, when it arrested Kulbhushan Yadav in Balochistan, claiming that he was an Indian spy.

Pakistan could also pursue military and quasi-military actions, including increased infiltration, ceasefire violations along the Line of Control or the international border, or acts of terrorism in India (such as Pathankot or Gurdaspur), or against Indian interests (including in Afghanistan).

Domestically, Pakistan might see the benefit of conceding some ground to Baloch separatists, including offering negotiations with domestic and self-exiled Baloch leaders, even as it aims to bring the insurgency to an end. Islamabad will of course seek to leverage China’s assistance in pursuit of these actions.

Pakistan’s pursuit of a wide set of actions – direct and indirect, covert and overt – available to it to confront and counter India, will likely gain momentum in the face of India’s evolving policy on Balochistan. The Indian government will need to consider these potential actions and evolve countermeasures to mitigate and manage Pakistani retaliation.

Rohan Joshi and Pranay Kotasthane are with the geostrategy programme at the Takshashila Institution.