With what might have sounded like a simple, throwaway comment in the middle of a speech, India's prime minister opened a geopolitical Pandora's box.
Narendra Modi's remark came as he stood on the ramparts of a 368-year-old fort, addressing the nation on its 70th independence day. And it really came down to just one word: Baluchistan.
Baluchistan is a Pakistani province that has been plagued by an unending cycle of violence and underdevelopment since India and Pakistan were partitioned upon gaining independence in 1947. The two countries have been each other's greatest adversaries since then, fighting war after war and destabilizing each other through covert intelligence operations. For years, Pakistan has alleged that India's intelligence agency, known by its acronym RAW, supports and even trains separatist militants from Baluchistan.
India vehemently denies the claims, but in the past has been extremely careful not to publicly mention the Baluchistan issue or express any support for any of the political movements there that are fighting the Pakistani state. Doing so might imply that India is involved in Baluchistan in exactly the same way that it has long accused (and more or less proven) Pakistan to be fomenting insurgency in Kashmir, a region claimed by both countries.
But last Friday, at a meeting with his political party's leadership, Modi broke that taboo and denounced what he called Pakistan's "atrocities" and human rights abuses in Baluchistan. And on Monday, at Red Fort in Delhi, he extended an unprecedentedly public overture to people from across Pakistan who had taken to social media to thank him for his outspokenness.
“I am grateful to the people of Baluchistan, Gilgit and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir who have thanked me in the past few days," he said, citing two areas controlled by Pakistan that India claims.
The Pakistani government immediately jumped on Modi's comment as "proof" that India is meddling in Baluchistan. In a statement, Sartaj Aziz, a cabinet minister in charge of foreign affairs, said, "Prime Minister Modi’s reference to Baluchistan, which is an integral part of Pakistan, only proves Pakistan’s contention that India, through its main intelligence agency RAW, has been fomenting terrorism in Baluchistan."
Furthermore, according to Aziz, Modi was "only trying to divert world attention from the grim tragedy that has been unfolding in the Indian-occupied Kashmir over the past five weeks."
After the killing of a popular anti-India militant by Indian armed forces, riots broke out in Indian-occupied Kashmir, and the region is now well into its second month of tense days and curfewed nights. More than 60 have been killed and hundreds injured.
Meanwhile, in Baluchistan, Taliban offshoot groups have ramped up a campaign of violence that has targeted lawyers in particular. Last week, while dozens of lawyers were at a hospital mourning the death of a colleague, a Taliban bomb attack targeted them and killed 70 people in all. Pakistani government officials blamed India for that attack, too, even though extremist groups including the Islamic State quickly claimed responsibility.
Baluchistan's chief minister, Sanaullah Zehri, said the attack was simply the result of "a handful of miscreants" who were "playing into the hands of Indian intelligence agency."
At the very least, Modi's remarks signal a tit-for-tat mentality regarding Pakistan: If it openly supports anti-Indian elements in India, then we will do the same in Pakistan. This is a significant escalation of rhetoric and a major policy turnaround for Modi. India's posturing in the international community has portrayed Pakistan up to now as the conniving member of the Indo-Pak duo.
The only previous time an Indian prime minister mentioned Baluchistan publicly was in 2009, when Modi's party was in opposition. At a meeting in Egypt, the Indian and Pakistani leaders at the time released a joint statement that noted Pakistan had "some information on threats in Balochistan and other areas." Modi's party fumed out of Parliament and lambasted the mere mention of Baluchistan as playing into the hands of Pakistani paranoia.
Pakistan used that moment in ways that seem to mirror how Modi wants to use Monday's as political leverage. Notably, Pakistan was able to depict a domestic insurgency as a conspiracy supported by India — giving Islamabad an easy retort for when India would inevitably protest Pakistani support for separatists in Kashmir.
With Modi's independence day mention of Baluchistan, that mutual acknowledgment of meddling now seems to be out in the open. And it didn't just stop with Modi's comment. The Indian government's Press Information Bureau retweeted posts by an exiled leader of Baluchistan's movement for political autonomy five times.
This time around, in the carousel that is Indian politics, the party that made the first Baluchistan reference in 2009 is now the one protesting Modi's doing the same.
“PoK [Pakistan-occupied Kashmir] is our right. Our entitlement. We will support it. But by bringing in Baluchistan, you are ruining our case. ... We are going to ruin our own case on PoK,” Indian National Congress leader and former foreign minister Salman Khurshid said.
It would appear that Modi is banking on the exact opposite. In a way that will certainly appeal to the hawkish electorate that brought him to power, he is telling the world that India can use its influence in Baluchistan, and may already be doing so, as a bargaining chip for Pakistani acquiescence on Kashmir.