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The Baloch bluff

Sunday, 2 August 2009 - 2:23am IST | Place: New Delhi | Agency: dna

Though politically Balochistan will become an issue in Indo-Pak talks, we must ensure that it is kept out of bureaucratic exchanges.

At the heart of Pakistan’s complaint about Balochistan, is India’s growing influence in neighbouring Afghanistan. Pakistan had invested heavily in Afghanistan and put the Taliban government in power to gain strategic depth. But it lost much of its influence when the Taliban was pushed out of Kabul in 2001. The northern alliance leaders who form the core of President Hamid Karzai’s government had no use for Pakistan.
Islamabad’s diplomatic thrust in the coming months and years will be to get the international community’s help to force the roll back of the four Indian consulates in Afghanistan, which have been in place since 2001.

Pakistan Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, now regarded as closer to the military establishment than President Asif Ali Zardari, was under pressure to somehow get Balochistan into the joint statement. He succeeded perhaps because Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sincerely believes India has nothing to hide. That is fair enough, but the Prime Minister should have known that the move is aimed at dislodging India from Afghanistan.

Pakistan has been saying over the years that Indian consulates operating from Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif, Kandhar and Jalalabad are funding and arming Balochi separatists fighting for autonomy from Pakistan. Kandhar incidentally is just across the border with Balochistan. Since 2001, this has been Pakistan’s constant refrain. New Delhi had constantly denied this.

Now however, with Balochistan cast in stone in the joint statement, Pakistan’s spin doctors will use it to the hilt to point a finger at India and insinuate on the activities of the consulates in Afghanistan. The western media and western diplomats will be flooded with “material” on Indian meddling in Balochistan.

Little wonder why Indian analysts and former diplomats are disappointed with the joint statement’s reference to the B-word. “Balochistan is now permanently embedded as an agenda in India-Pakistan dialogue. It will play out for long, even after Manmohan Singh is no longer the Prime Minister,” said former secretary in the foreign ministry K C Singh, who headed the first two rounds of anti-terror talks with Pakistan. What can New Delhi do to minimise the damage? “Make sure it does not become part of the composite dialogue when it is revived,” warned Singh.

Retired foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal agreed with Singh. “At the political level probably Balochistan will be on the table, but at the bureaucratic level we must keep it out, such as in the anti-terror mechanism exchanges,” Sibal said. “The joint statement gives Pakistan an opportunity to deflect attention from themselves, and point a finger at us, saying Indians have acknowledged Balochistan as an issue.”

Analyst K Subrahmanyam, a firm supporter of prime minister Manmohan Singh, said, “It is a blunder all right,” but pointed out that because Islamabad’s credibility in the international community is so low, it may not be too hard to minimise the fallout. “India, the US and the rest of the international community, all have an understanding on Af-Pak, and Pakistan’s constant murmurs on Balochistan are not new. Nobody gives it much credit. We must highlight what special envoy for Af-Pak Richard Holbrooke said recently, that Islamabad had not given any credible evidence of an Indian hand in Balochistan.”

Defending the PM, former foreign secretary Salman Haider said, “He extended the canvas of diplomatic exchange. It is nothing more than that: Balochistan worries you, and we are willing to listen to your problem. Frankly, we have nothing to hide. Our consulate in Kandahar is a small little place from where such operations of training and funding Balochis cannot be done. The Pakistanis know it as much as we do.” Haider does not believe that Islamabad can use the B-reference against India except domestically.

Former RAW chief A S Dulat, who served as adviser in Vajpayee’s PMO, too is not worried. “Big deal. What difference will it make? Pakistan has been saying this for years. You heard what Richard Holbrooke had to say. That’s exactly how most international diplomats will take Pakistan’s accusations on Balochistan. I don’t understand the fuss being made over the joint statement. Personally I think the Prime Minsiter’s stature has gone up in the region.”

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