In his Independence Day address on Monday, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi went on the offensive vis-à-vis neighboring Pakistan, suggesting that India could overtly support separatist groups in the Pakistani province of Balochistan and cause trouble in the regions of Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, claimed by India.
Modi’s salvo at Pakistan was driven by two main motivations: one, to deflect pressure on his government for the ongoing crisis in Indian-controlled Kashmir; and two, to project India as a regional hegemon capable of denying China access to economic trade routes through Pakistan into the Indian Ocean region. On both efforts, despite Modi’s braggadocio, India is likely to fail.
Kashmir in Crisis
On July 8, 2016, Indian security forces killed Burhan Wani, a young Kashmiri who joined the militant group Hizbul Mujahideen after witnessing Indian security forces harass his brother and beat him unconscious.
An estimated fifty thousand people attended Wani’s funeral in the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley controlled by India—a testament to the popularity of the young man and local disdain for Indian security forces. The funeral was followed by protests, which included rock pelting. But the response by Indian security forces has been heavy-handed. Over fifty civilians have been killed, and many more have been maimed, blinded or covered with pockmarks by indiscriminate pellet-gun fire . For over forty days, Indian-controlled Kashmir has been under curfew, which began with the shutdown of local newspapers and internet access. They have since resumed, but phone and internet access continue to face restrictions. And though the region’s Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti ordered the restoration of internet services, the police refused to implement her command, indicating that New Delhi is calling the shots.
Pakistan has offered strong diplomatic support to the Kashmiri protesters. The Indian prime minister has perhaps wagered that Pakistan can be dissuaded from its diplomatic offensive by more public pronouncements about Pakistan’s internal challenges. And he likely sees value in portraying the unrest as made not by his own hands, but by those of his neighbor and rival.
India has largely neutralized the Kashmiri insurgency. But rather than politically engaging popular separatist leaders, Modi prefers to arrest them—including eighty-six-year-old Syed Ali Geelani . And rather than engaging Pakistan on the issue of Kashmir, Modi has opted for a “defensive offensive” approach by vocalizing India’s support for separatist groups in Pakistan. But Pakistan has no hand in the Kashmir protests. They are an organic response to the abuse and injury of the local population by Indian security forces and New Delhi’s persistent attempts to whip them into submission. The Indian prime minister’s attempts to externalize the blame for the Kashmir crisis confirms to Kashmiri Muslims that Modi and his country’s hypernationalist commentariat covet their land, but not their hearts.
There is also a broader aim behind Modi’s Independence Day threat to Pakistan—and it has very much to do with India’s rivalry with China. Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan, two of the three regions in Pakistan mentioned by Modi in his address, are critical nodes along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a series of energy and infrastructure projects anchored by a road network that will connect China’s western Xinjiang region to the Arabian Sea port of Gwadar, located in Pakistani Balochistan along Persian Gulf shipping lanes and in the Indian Ocean region.
India has responded harshly since the formal launch of CPEC last spring. On the record, both Prime Minister Modi and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj have expressed to Chinese counterparts their opposition to CPEC projects, because of projects that run through Gilgit-Baltistan. But, off the record, New Delhi has also indicated that its opposition to CPEC stems from its belief that an economically empowered Pakistan will be more strategically emboldened.
At the same time, private Indian news channels, at the behest of their own government, have been engaging in a crude propaganda campaign against CPEC. Indian media outlets issue false reports of a massive Chinese military presence in Gilgit-Baltistan. They also willfully misrepresent local political rallies as separatist protests. For example, the pro-Modi ANI news service recently used old video footage of an election rally by a Pakistani leftist party in Gilgit-Baltistan and falsely portrayed it as an anti-Pakistan separatist protest. Indian news channels also regularly feature activists and polemicists based in North America who claim to represent Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan and seem to spend half of the year in New Delhi and at meetings in Geneva.
Pakistan has also claimed that India offers covert support for militants in Balochistan. In the weeks after CPEC was formally launched, parts of Balochistan and Sindh province were the targets of small IED blasts claimed by militant groups possibly supported by India. More recently, a May 2016 attack on Chinese workers in Karachi was claimed by the Sindhudesh Liberation Army, which is allegedly supported by Indian intelligence.