Modi and Sir Creek: Why the PMO protests too much

If all’s fair in love, war and politics, yesterday’s spat between Narendra Modi and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) over Sir Creek is par for the course.

Modi, facing a tough election battle in Saurashtra-Kutch, raised the issue in a letter to the PM and warned that “any attempt to hand over Sir Creek to Pakistan would be a strategic blunder… the 1965 war began in the Rann of Kutch where Sir Creek lies,” says a Hindustan Times report.

To which the PMO replied that Modi was talking “without making any effort to ascertain the facts.” The statement also questioned the timing of the Modi letter: “The contents of the letter and the timing of its release to the public, even before it was formally received in this office, raise questions about the motive behind its issue. The writing and release of this baseless letter by the Gujarat CM in his personal capacity a day before elections in the state is mischievous.”

Surely, the PMO protests too much. While there is little doubt that Modi was trying to raise an emotive issue on the eve of the polls, the Congress is not exactly lagging in the dirty tricks department. It is also trying to find a way around the election code.

Are India's interests being jeopardised on Sir Creek? Reuters

Soon after the Gujarat elections were announced, the Congress announced direct cash transfers for the poor in lieu of subsidies. A few days ago – with Gujarat poised to vote – Petroleum Minister Veerappa Moily innocently announced that the six-cylinder cap on subsidised LPG will be raised to nine – and received a due rap from the Election Commission. Surely, the minister was not unaware of the mileage Modi was getting with women by harping on the six-cylinder limit?

More recently, we also had the Ajmal Kasab hanging – again intended to take the terror issue away from Modi.

Cheeky singles at this stage of the match are only to be expected.

However, there is a larger point to Modi’s message on Sir Creek, even if one disagrees with his timing. The issue is always more important than its timing.

The 96-km Sir Creek, which separates Pakistani Sindh from Indian Kutch, is one of the unresolved territorial disputes between India and Pakistan, Siachen being the other one. (Kashmir is a legal/ideological dispute, not a territorial one alone).

Unlike Siachen, which has a military-strategic value, the Sir Creek area also has huge economic value in that it is said to hold large untapped oil and gas reserves.

The Manmohan Singh government, which has been trying to artificially create a thaw in India-Pakistan relations, has always appeared over-eager to give more than take in talks. This trend began with the Sharm el-Sheikh agreement of mid-2009 between the PMs of the two countries, when Manmohan Singh unilaterally allowed two references in the joint statement that were adverse to India: we took on board Pakistan’s “concerns” over Balochistan (the allegation is that India is feeding the militants there), and allowed Pakistan to delink multi-level talks from 26/11 terror issues. In both cases, India “gave” without getting anything in return even on 26/11.

Modi is, therefore, well within his rights to raise the Sir Creek issue since the area involves Gujarat’s territory, and also access to future discoveries of natural gas or oil in the exclusive economic zone that comes with the territory.

The problem with Manmohan Singh is simple: as a Sikh who was born in pre-partition Pakistan, he wrongly believes that India-Pakistan peace impacts Punjab more than other states.

This, of course, is partially true, as Punjab is right there on the border shouldering a major part of the burden of any conflict. But it ignores the fact that in both Kashmir and Punjab, Pakistan has a vested interest in stoking terrorism in the hope that it can prise these two areas away from India.

This is why Modi is right to be suspicious. To seek peace in Kashmir and Punjab, it may be easier for the Indian government to play the Sir Creek card to buy Pakistani acquiescence in the other two hot borders. Gujarat is never going to be vulnerable to separatism like Punjab or Kashmir and hence it would be easier to barter its interests in the larger game.

Modi’s political twist to Sir Creek thus has a genuine domestic security dimension embedded in it. It is a warning to the centre not to use Sir Creek as a bargaining chip with Pakistan, just as Mamata Banerjee refused to barter West Bengal’s interest in the Teesta settlement proposed by the Manmohan Singh government.

It is high time the Union government realised that every Indian state has a right to be heard in foreign policy matters that involve its interests. Whether it is Kashmir, Punjab, Gujarat, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Assam and the North East, or Tamil Nadu, each one of them is a frontline state that has borders of neighbours whose interests may clash with theirs.

Even though foreign policy lies in the exclusive domain of the government of India, in a federal structure, the Centre cannot assume that the economic interests of states can be parcelled out like loaves of bread in the larger national interest.

Sir Creek has never been discussed in the media the way the McMahon Line has been with respect to China and the Line-of-Control in Kashmir, but the fact is the boundary is seriously disputed.

Pakistan says the whole of the Creek belongs to it, and cites a deal signed in 1914 between the government of Sindh and the ruler of the pre-independence princely state of Kutch. India says, the boundary should lie in the middle of the Creek – as is often done when rivers form borders between countries.

Which way the dispute is resolved will decide who gets to prospect for oil and gas in that resource-rich region.

Pakistan claims the international law on riverine borders does not apply to Sir Creek since it is not a river and is a marshland. India claims after the monsoon even boats can ply.

All this may sound like nit-picking arguments which can be resolved through honest give-and-take, but the problem is not that Sir Creek is difficult to resolve. On the contrary, it is easier to resolve than Siachen or Kashmir. Hence the fear that it may be thrown in free with a broader deal. Modi is right to insist that Gujarat should be heard on the subject.

By speaking up, Modi has ensured that the Centre’s eagerness to do a deal with Pakistan and enable Manmohan Singh to visit that country is not done at the cost of Gujarat.