Early last year, a video surfaced on Youtube featuring an address by Ajit Doval, not precisely dated but certainly from the interval between his retirement as Director of the Indian Intelligence Bureau in 2005 and his appointment as National Security Adviser (NSA) in 2014. It was a time when Doval was often a featured speaker and TV talk show participant on national security issues.
Doval’s theme that day was the perfect strategy for countering the varieties of terrorism endemic in India. His immediate reference was the November 2008 terrorist attack and 60-hour siege of the western metropolis of Mumbai, for which Pakistan was held directly responsible. “How do we tackle Pakistan?” he asked, before spelling out the answers: “We engage an enemy in three modes. One is a defensive mode … One is defensive offence, which is that to defend ourselves we go to the place where the offence is coming from. … And the third is the offensive mode, where we go outright. The nuclear threshold is a difficulty in the offensive mode, but not in defensive offence. … When we change the engagement from the defensive mode … Pakistan’s vulnerability is many, many times that of India. Once they know that India has shifted gear from defensive to defensive offence, then they will find that it is unaffordable for them. You can do one Mumbai, you may lose Balochistan. There is no nuclear war involved, no engagement of troops. You know the tricks, we know the tricks better”.
The recording created a furore in Pakistan, where it fed the narrative of a sinister Indian game of subversion. Aside from its embassy in Kabul, India had set up four consulates in Afghanistan since the overthrow of the Taliban. Since these lacked a clear rationale in terms of the demand for visas from Afghan nationals, security analysts in Pakistan read a covert agenda into their very existence.
The Indian media made light of the whole storm. A neighbour’s strategic anxieties were of little consequence in the dominant discourse. And everybody easily bought into the story that any thoughts Doval may have entertained as a private citizen were cleansed out of his mind the moment he accepted a public responsibility.
Doval’s remarks soon slipped down the memory hole where they would have remained, had the Kashmir valley not erupted early in July, after security forces shot dead the leader of a separatist militia. The militant’s funeral was an occasion for a gathering of people from all parts of Kashmir, sloganeering in the cause of freedom and a panic reaction by massed security forces which claimed a number of lives. That set underway the cycle of protests, crackdowns and funerals that has ground on seven weeks, when most of Kashmir has been under unrelenting 24-hour curfew.
Perhaps seventy lives have been lost in Kashmir in the unrest, indicating a greater intensity of conflict than the four months of turmoil that took 120 lives in 2010. That was when the pellet gun was premiered as an instrument of crowd control, ostensibly because it would deter but not kill. The promiscuous use of that weapon in the current unrest has led to perhaps 400 injuries of extreme severity, including permanent loss of vision.
In testimony before the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir, which heard a petition seeking a ban on the pellet gun, counsel for the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) – which handles patrolling and crowd control duties in the restive valley – argued that the alternative would be conventional munitions which would likely take a much higher toll in life. Security forces, he said, had fired 1.3 million pellets at protesters during the first five weeks of trouble. That is roughly one for every six of the Kashmir valley’s 7 million people.
Statesmanship and the healing touch were called for from the highest political level. But as he wrapped up an all-party meeting on the crisis on August 12, conciliation seemed far from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mind. A litany of statistics on weapons seizures in Kashmir was the centrepiece of his speech, with clear intent to pin all the blame on Pakistan. Parts of Kashmir that Pakistan holds (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir or PoK in the Indian discourse), Modi warned, remained in India’s line of sight. And then came the game-changer: “The time has come when Pakistan shall have to answer to the world for the atrocities committed by it against people in Balochistan and PoK”.
This was not a barb hurled in pique. A strategic intent was underlined a few days later at the Prime Minister’s customary Independence Day address from Delhi’s Red Fort. Independence for India he said, was an occasion to acknowledge the “people of Balochistan, Gilgit, (and) Pakistan Occupied Kashmir” who had extended their thanks to him for advocating their cause. This was “an honour” for all Indians.
Public discourse in India has never set a standard of basic honesty in matters involving Kashmir. There has been even in relation to this appalling standard, a serious deterioration in the weeks since the current unrest began. The principal anchor of one of the country’s English news channels, an odious bully on the air at the best of times, went to a fresh low with the urgent demand that journalists who question the official security narrative on Kashmir should face prosecution. An apparatchik of the ruling party, writing on a widely visited news website, characterised today’s human rights campaigners as a bigger threat to the nation than Islamic militants, perhaps meriting harsher treatment.
Within this coarsened discourse, the Prime Minister’s rhetorical expedition into the troubled province of Balochistan led to some muttered remonstrance about diplomatic imprudence. But the reaction that was heard above these murmurs, merely because it was loud and free of all subtlety, was a call for active Indian intervention in Balochistan.
The official narrative in India is that India’s intelligence assets in Pakistan were dismantled during Prime Minister I.K. Gujral’s tenure of 11 months – four of them as caretaker — between 1997 and 1998. There is no pause to examine the credibility of this assertion, since the larger purpose is to discredit that period of reconciliation within the neighbourhood under what came to be called the “Gujral doctrine”. The narrative obviously leans heavily on public credulity since transparency and candour are not attributes one expects from intelligence agencies.
Early in 2006, Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, one of a handful of feudal “sardars” who have carved up Balochistan into personal fiefs, appeared in a blaze of publicity in the Indian media, in carefully orchestrated interviews with journalists known to have an intimate connection to the intelligence agencies. The war of liberation in Balochistan as Bugti called it, became an item on the Indian media agenda with that. A few months later, Bugti was killed in a rocket strike by the Pakistan military.
Bugti’s sons remained in Balochistan, one of them assuming the hereditary chieftainship of the tribe. A grandson, Brahamdagh Bugti, fled to Afghanistan from where he vowed to continue the war of liberation under the banner of the Balochistan Republican Party.
Unsurprisingly, the strongest voice speaking up for India’s rhetoric on Balochistan, was Brahamdagh Bugti’s. Balochistan’s interior minister Sarfraz Bugti, who shares the tribal affiliation but lacks a feudal lineage, denounced this response and underlined that the Balochistan Republican Party is a terrorist organisation. Whether the irony was intended is unclear, but this was very much in the spirit of the stern lecture delivered by India’s Home Minister Rajnath Singh, during his recent visit to Islamabad: one nation’s terrorist could not be celebrated in another as a freedom fighter.
Balochistan has figured before in diplomacy between India and Pakistan, though not with hostile intent on either side. The setting was the 2009 Non-Aligned Summit in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm al Sheikh. Expectations were low as the Indian and Pakistani prime ministers prepared for their first direct encounter on the sidelines. The Mumbai attacks were just eight months past and Pakistan’s Yusuf Raza Gilani, in office for just over a year, was yet to find his bearings in relation to the country’s army and security establishment. It was a surprise in itself that a joint statement was released, and the effort at compromise was evident. Both sides agreed that they faced a common threat of terrorism and vowed to share real-time intelligence to facilitate the struggle against the shared menace. Pakistan vowed to bring those guilty of the Mumbai attacks to justice and Prime Minister Gilani was recorded in this context, to have put forward “some information on threats in Balochistan and other areas”.
Within hours, that statement was ricocheting through the echo chambers of India’s strategic affairs specialists, eliciting a collective groan from a fraternity that earns its meal ticket from endless hostility to the neighbour. The BJP, then the main opposition party, was incensed at the supposed loss of moral advantage on terrorism. With Parliament paralysed, the explanation when it came from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, was feeble and apologetic. The promise of Sharm al Sheikh, the mutual resolve to push the structured dialogue forward without allowing terrorists a veto, was effectively stifled at birth.
Since then, brief effusions of goodwill – as with Modi’s surprise visit to Islamabad last December to partake of a family celebration with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharief – have alternated with prolonged rancour and mutual recrimination. Every effort to begin talks flounders when India insists on due recompense for terrorism and Pakistan’s responds with demanding that Kashmir be brought to the table as the best remedy.
In March, an Indian national, Kulbhushan Jadhav, was said to have been arrested by Pakistan agencies in Balochistan province. Details were scarce then and remain so, but the Indian authorities have admitted that Jadhav was a naval officer commissioned in 1991, who later acquired a specialisation in electronic surveillance. Since taking early retirement in 2005, Jadhav was engaged as a consultant in the Iranian port project in Chabahar, just a couple of hundred kilometres upstream from Pakistan’s showpiece port of Gwadar in Balochistan.
India claims that Jadhav was snatched from his legitimate place of work in Chabahar and delivered to Pakistani intelligence in Balochistan. Pakistan insists that he was caught intruding into Balochistan from Iranian territory. India’s demand for consular access to the captive has been denied. Media reports, again appearing under bylines familiar for their proximity to the Indian intelligence establishment, suggest that Iran has requested a period of diplomatic quiet while it conducts its own investigations.
At one level, Modi’s bombast from the Red Fort puts Jadhav in greater jeopardy. At another, it takes away the fig-leaf of deniability that India sought over its covert activities. At still another, it creates a degree of scepticism within Iran about the true intent behind India’s involvement in the port at Chabahar, announced with much fanfare during Modi’s Iran visit in April. Iran has had problems with a Baloch insurgent group called the Jundullah, based in Pakistan and believed to enjoy western patronage in its effort to stir up trouble within its own Baloch minority.
If the muscular response – or “defensive offence” in Doval’s typology – is not the appropriate answer to the current turmoil in Kashmir, what possibly could be? There have been urgent calls for talks from civil liberties groups in India, but the official response has been that these are impossible in a vacuum. No political constituencies in Kashmir would step up for talks without preconditions. At the minimum, their demands involve a rapid and visible thinning down of the armed presence on the streets and the withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which is a lawless law that authorises any man in uniform to shoot to kill.
The peace constituency in India has long been making precisely these demands, but the urgency of the human tragedy in Kashmir leaves no room for long deliberative processes. The demand now is for a bold initiative in declaratory diplomacy, such as Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s visit to Srinagar in early 2003 when he held out a hand of friendship to Pakistan and declared his unconditional willingness to open talks. The paradigm of humanity would frame the talks when queried about the Indian Constitution setting the parameters of dialogue.
That inaugurated a phase of engagement between India and Pakistan that was mostly carried out in discrete, informal channels, beyond the glare of publicity, where the veto of extremists on both sides was rendered inoperative. Informed observers believe that the few years that followed were the first when the people of Kashmir actually began to harbour a sense of hope of recovering the dignity and identity that had been torn to shreds in the jealousy between two powerful nation states. That brief interlude of hope ended when President Pervez Musharraf was swept aside by a wave of popular disquiet on the streets of Pakistan. And since then, the mutual concessions have been blown away in gusts of nationalist extremism and paranoia.
The least India owes to the people of Kashmir is the reopening of that brief chapter of reconciliation, to consolidate rather than reverse any conceptual progress achieved. It takes courage from the highest political leadership to come up with that clear declaration of intent to do the fair thing. That courage is grossly lacking. To raise the pitch of hostile intent and threaten an adversary with dire consequences is the easy way. And the entrenched culture of India’s political institutions, its security and intelligence establishments, is to push further along that pathway to endless turmoil.
Sukumar Muralidharan is a freelance writer based in the Delhi region