Early this month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi while addressing an all-party meeting to discuss the volatile situation in Kashmir vowed to take up the issue of alleged atrocities by the Pakistani government on the people of Balochistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) to the global community. It hinted at tactical shift in India’s positioning on Indo-Pak relations.
Again during his Independence Day speech on 15 August, Modi expressed his concern for the people of Balochistan, Gilgit and PoK. Was this a one-off response to Pakistan’s meddling in Kashmir issue, following the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen’s Burhan Wani or was it long-term shift in India’s strategy in dealing with Pakistan?
During the tenure of former foreign secretary Shyam Saran, India had given two statements on Gilgit Baltistan. It was when the Pakistan army was conducting military operations against Baloch rebels and had killed the tallest Baloch leader, Akbar Bugti. The idea, in Saran's words, was “to build some pressure points”.
Firstpost spoke to Shyam Saran to understand the reason behind this shift and its long-term implications. Saran also dwelled on other important aspects of India’s foreign policy.
Below is the excerpt of the interview:
You recently stated that PM’s remark on Balochistan “aims at changing the strategic calculus”. At the same time, you also posed an important question as to whether it was thought through. Can you please elaborate on that?
For the last several years, we have not really been able to find an answer to the use of asymmetrical warfare by Pakistan, which is engaging in cross-border terrorism against India; something which Pakistan thinks is ‘low-risk and high gain’ strategy. Now, as they have nuclear weapon capability, they believe that the threat of retaliation with India is far less and that it has inhibited India from reacting to such provocation from Pakistan.
In a situation like that of the Mumbai terror attack, the leadership appears to have only two options: One is military retaliation which has a danger of escalating to nuclear war or two, not doing anything at all, except calling off dialogue and condemning the attack. This is not deterrence at all.
You need something between the two ends of this spectrum: One being only a rhetorical response and two being a risky and potentially dangerous military response. So you should have a number of pressure points which used singly or in combination can be used to deter the other side in engaging in provocative behaviour and to make it clear to them that there will be a cost of following such a policy.
The idea is that you should have a more diversified kind of diplomatic toolkit that is placed between these two extremes. There should be a number of pressure points that could be deployed to change the strategic calculus in Pakistan.
These pressures points may act as a kind of deterrence against Pakistan. Therefore, you have to look at what can be the possible vulnerabilities on Pakistan's side.
Balochistan (where there have been very serious human rights violations) or PoK can be built as pressure points against Pakistan by drawing international attention to it. This is what I meant by saying why we should try to change their strategic calculus. But of course, there is a difference between the Balochistan issue and PoK issue. PoK issue is a sovereignty issue. It is about this territory that belongs to India and should be returned to India and should be under Indian sovereignty. So this is a different situation. Since 1971 there seem to have been an assumption that the LoC could eventually become an international boundary. We have not actually pressed our claim to PoK with any degree of vigour or any degree of application because at the back of our minds there has been this thought that we are going to settle for LoC as an international boundary.
This has not been changed, despite the assurance given in 1971 by Bhutto, which was never kept. Soon it became clear that there was no such intention on part of the Pakistan leadership. But even after this became clear we did not go back to our original stand. Even though formally our stand is that the whole of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of India, but in our practical diplomacy, we have not been assertive that this territory must return to India. We did not take practical steps to assert our claim to this region. This is a sovereignty issue and can very well become a pressure point. Now we can begin with the process of highlighting our claim to this region, reaching out to the people of this region who in a sense are Indian citizens. The other aspect is that in Balochistan we are not questioning the territorial aspect, but drawing attention to human rights violations which could be another pressure point.
How effective this assumed equivalence between Kashmir issue and that of Balochistan will be for India?
The point is how consistent you are with this particular part of your policy in the future. If it is a one-off response, then obviously it would not have much impact. This is an important step forward if this is something which becomes part of your projection in the future. We have made statements regarding Balochistan earlier, but we did not follow up on that, therefore it has not been effective. It should not be that if relationship with Pakistan improves we drop it. After all when relationship with Pakistan improves, Pakistan does not drop Kashmir issue. So this is a question of how consistent we are in this respect.
What can be the major ‘pressure points’ that can be used in relation to Pakistan?
Balochistan is itself a pressure point. Having a more assertive position on return of Gilgit-Baltistan and what Pakistan calls Azad Kashmir can be the pressure points. We already have a very close relationship with Afghanistan, strengthening that relationship; giving it a higher security dimension, can be a pressure point too. Raising the issue of terrorism in international fora can be another. There are number of things, each may not be a big thing, but taken together can have an impact.
You have also talked about the existence of many imponderables. What are the most pressing ones?
When we are talking about Balochistan or talking about the return of PoK to India and if we intend to raise it to a higher profile in terms of our diplomacy, then it also has implications beyond just the bilateral. There would be no China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) if there is no PoK. If we go beyond the articulation of support for the people in Balochistan who are being persecuted, if we offer some kind of political or other support to those people, then it will also have an impact with regard to the China-Pakistan economic corridor which is a long-term project. Therefore, there is a dimension beyond bilateral.
Then there is the question of what will be the reaction of the international community, for example, the US or Europeans or what impact it will have on our relationship with Iran which also has a stake in Balochistan as it has a large Balochi minority in its country. There are parts of Balochistan that are claimed by Afghanistan, as there are Pashtuns also in Balochsitan. There are a number of other stakeholders who also will be impacted by a significant departure in our posture on these issues. All I am saying is that these dimensions must be thought through.
How do you see the United States reacting to this whole issue?
I would say that the general interest that the US has is that there should not be the heightening of tensions between India and Pakistan. That has been the record in the past as there has been fear that rising tensions between Pakistan and India might escalate to the nuclear level. That will not be in the interest of the US or the international community. They would not like any increase in tensions between India and Pakistan.
During your tenure as foreign secretary, India had given two statements on Gilgit-Baltistan when the Pakistan army was conducting military operations against Baloch rebels and had killed Akbar Bugti. The idea was in your words “to build some pressure points”. Why was it not followed?
It was not followed because soon after we had a peace process going between India and Pakistan. Pervez Musharraf had taken certain initiatives to improve relations between the two countries. There was also talk of some possible understanding on Jammu and Kashmir. At the time, there may have been a feeling that if we continue with such statements this might not be conducive to the ongoing peace process.
Do you think that once again with the normalisation of relations with Pakistan this issue will become redundant?
These things require certain kind of consistency or otherwise it becomes just one-of-a-kind move which is not very effective. A statement has been made this time and that too at a very high level. It has been made by the Prime Minister so the expectation is that this posture would continue. If it is a mere reaction to Pakistan meddling in Kashmir, then later when the situation in Kashmir becomes normal again, we might forget it and it will be of not much use.
Do you think it is just a reaction to Pakistan’s meddling in Kashmir issue?
I don’t know what the thinking behind this is. As I have mentioned, since the statement has been made by the Prime Minister on Independence Day, I feel the intention appears to be to send the message that this is something that we attach a lot of importance to.
Former US President Bill Clinton once called that LoC as the “the most dangerous place in the world.” In the existing situation, with such shift, do you think it will bring Kashmir again to the spotlight. What ramifications it can have for India.
This has always been the case. Any sort of unrest in Kashmir, like reports of alleged human rights violations because of security operation being carried out by the Indian forces, leads to international focus on Kashmir, whether we like it or not. Pakistan will make as much of this as possible in the international fora. It is in our interest that Kashmir does not become a serious case of internal turmoil. What we can do is to energise political process, so that this level of violence and disaffection that we are seeing currently among a section of populace, is reduced. There may be some genuine grievances of the people that need to be addressed. More peaceful the situation is in Kashmir, there will be less likelihood of external meddling in Kashmir
In what way India’s recent gambit will define the relations with countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia and other Islamic states?
Whatever be our intention and whatever be the motivation behind what we are saying now needs to be made clear. At least, we need to take these countries into confidence. There is a need to engage with countries like Afghanistan and Iran and with the US, to give them a sense of what is driving us to signal this shift in our position. It should not come as a surprise to our friends who are not certain as to what this means. It might create an atmosphere of uncertainty. We should separate these two things. One is PoK, which is a sovereignty issue and this has been our formal position. We should be able to articulate that this is not a new position, but that this is something that we need to bring to the attention of the international community. This is a part of India which is illegally occupied by Pakistan that should be returned to India.
There is a perception that Prime Minister Modi lacks consistency in his foreign policy that is reflected in the way he dealt with Pakistan ever since he assumed office. Do you see this inconsistency as part of diplomacy?
To be fair to the Prime Minister, when he assumed office he made it very clear that he would attach the highest priority to our relations with neighbours and that includes Pakistan. There is recognition not just at political leadership level here, but also among foreign policy professionals that if India needs to play any credible regional or global role, then unless it has a peaceful periphery, unless it has positive relationships with its neighbours, it cannot do so. Modi cannot be faulted for making an effort to reach out to our neighbours and to establish a positive kind of relationship. At least one can say that with Pakistan, he has shown a willingness to take initiatives even if those initiatives seemed unconventional, like his visit to Lahore. I think he wanted to change the parameters of our relationship with our neighbourhood. There is no inconsistency in that. One can say that having tried that and not received a constructive response, what he is trying to signal is that if we cannot move in that direction then we are left with no other option but to confront what is an adverse challenge . As I said, what we have to watch out for is to see how consistent this will be. Therefore, I cannot say that there has been inconsistency.
Continuity has been a major defining feature of India’s foreign policy? Do you observe any rupture in this continuity?
No, in fact, what we see in the unfolding of Modi's foreign policy, there has been remarkable continuity. It may be that he has taken up certain aspects of India foreign policy and has pursued them with greater vigour. There is, for instance, not much change in pursuing a much closer relationship with the United States. That has been the policy of previous governments and remains same for the Modi government. What you can say is that he is pursuing it with greater vigour than what has been done in the past. What you see is not so much a departure from the past, but may be a change in emphasis and nuance.
Saarc is a forum which did not work well. Pakistan was one of the big impediments. Can there be Saarc without Pakistan?
In a sense we already have sub-regional cooperation which have been far more successful like BBIN which has Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal as its members. There is already an energy grid which is being put in place. India is selling power to Bangladesh and Nepal and buying power from Bhutan. India has also agreed that Bhutan’s energy can flow to Bangladesh through India. We have motor vehicle and railway agreements which have been signed among Saarc countries with only Pakistan holding out on implementation. Sub-regional cooperation among countries that are willing to engage is taking place. Even bilaterally a lot is happening. There is an actual process of economic integration that is taking place like the one between southern states of India and Sri Lanka. While the Pakistan dimension is disappointing, other sub-regional dimensions within Saarc have been successful.
In one of your articles you talk about how the setting for managing India-China relations has become more complex and risky. You write that "With Mr. Modi now explicitly committed to the return of PoK including Gilgit and Baltistan to India, how would the Chinese react?" In this context how do you see India-China relationship shaping up?
Essentially, so far in India-China relationship we have been able to work on those areas where we have convergences, areas where we can see constructive cooptation. We have encouraged trade between the two countries; we have focused on investment relations. There have been international issues on which we have similar positions, like we have worked together in G20 and we are part of BRICS. We are a member of SCO. There are number of fora where India and China have been working together. Wherever we have been able to work together constructively, we have not hesitated to do so even though there are areas where we have major differences. This has helped us to keep the relationship on an even keel. Regular summit meetings between our leaders have helped us to ensure that this relationship does not deteriorate.
There has been a new vigour in foreign policy in the last two years. What areas do you think have been ignored or did not receive the required focus?
It is now not so much policy, but execution that is an issue now. The state does not have delivery capacity that it needs to have so that commitments we make are fulfilled. So one area which we have to try and strengthen is delivery. Secondly, human resources that are available are not adequate. For a much more expanded international engagement, those human resources are very small as we have very small foreign service. We don't have as much specialised skill as required since you have to deal with energy issues, climate change issues. There are a number of complex issues. The subjects of international negotiations have multiplied. We don’t have the kind of expertise that is required to deal with a very much expanded international agenda.
And if there are certain gaps we should try and fill them. We are not investing as much as we should in our relationship with Russia. Also, we have invested a great deal in Africa, but need to see how to maintain and expand this as it is going to be a critical factor.
2009 India-Pakistan joint statement in Sharm el-Sheik which has the reference of Balochistan is being compared to PM's reference. Do you find the comparison valid?
These are two completely different things. The statement, which was made in Sharm el-Sheik was a joint statement in which Pakistan’s PM remark that they are concerned about what is happening in Balochistan was included with an oblique, therefore pointer to India's interference. That is very different from the current situation. Here we are drawing attention to the human rights violations by the Pakistani state against its own citizens in Balochistan.