WASHINGTON: The United States has unambiguously distanced itself from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s attempt to internationalise the Baloch issue and in the process has also assured Pakistan of its continued support to the country’s territorial integrity.
“The US government respects the unity and territorial integrity of Pakistan and we do not support independence for Balochistan,” US State Department spokesman John Kirby told a recent news briefing in Washington.
The Baloch issue came up at the State Department’s regular news briefing during the Eid holidays, when an Indian journalist asked Mr Kirby to explain the official US policy on “human rights violations and the fight for freedom” in Balochistan.
The journalist reminded the US official that the Indian prime minister also was championing the Baloch cause and had raised it at various international platforms.
Apparently not satisfied with Mr Kirby’s response, the journalist informed him that there were “persons and groups” in the United States who were working for Balochistan’s freedom. “Do you support – do you tolerate them (who are raising this issue) from US soil?” he asked.
“As I said, the government policy is that we support the territorial integrity of Pakistan and we do not support independence for Balochistan,” said the US official, repeating his earlier stance.
“So do you have any reaction to the Indian prime minister’s statements on that particular subject?” the journalist asked again.
“I think I just gave you our reaction to events there,” Mr Kirby retorted.
The US position on Balochistan is a clear setback for New Delhi, which plans to use the UN General Assembly in New York next week to stop Pakistan from raising the current situation in India-held Kashmir.
Despite the Indian pressure, Pakistan is expected to focus on Kashmir inside the General Assembly, as well as in other sideline meetings, such as that of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is expected to arrive in New York on Sunday to attend the UN session and so far Kashmir is high on the list of issues he is likely to raise in his address to the General Assembly on Sept 20.
Mr Modi will not attend the General Assembly this year. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj will represent him.
As foreign minister, she will speak days after Nawaz Sharif, giving India sufficient time to respond to the issues Mr Sharif will raise in his speech.
“So if Mr Sharif talks about Kashmir, he should be ready to see Balochistan raised inside the UN General Assembly,” said an Indian source familiar with the official Indian position on this dispute.
In an address to the nation on India’s independence day, Mr Modi talked about the situation in Balochistan and later urged Indian diplomats and media to highlight this issue in world capitals.
Pakistan reacted angrily to the speech, calling it a breach of international norms and intrusion in the country’s sovereignty.
Pakistani officials said the Indian prime minister was trying to hide the atrocities committed by Indian security forces in occupied Kashmir by bracketing the situation in the Valley with Balochistan, which, unlike occupied Kashmir, was not a disputed territory.
They pointed out that Kashmir was an internationally recognised dispute and there were UN resolutions supporting the right of self-determination for Kashmiri people.
But last month, Bangladesh and former Afghan president Hamid Karzai supported the Indian position, encouraging Mr Modi to continue his campaign against Pakistan.
The situation has raised alarms in Washington, where officials are urging both India and Pakistan to resume their dialogue for reducing tensions in South Asia.
“We strongly support all efforts between India and Pakistan that can contribute to a more stable and prosperous region, and that includes meetings at any level between Indian and Pakistani officials,” said the State Department’s deputy spokesman, Mark Toner.
In reply to a question about renewed tensions between South Asia’s two nuclear armed neighbours, Mr Toner said at a news briefing that the United States had always encouraged direct talks between the two countries.
“Our long-standing position has always been that India and Pakistan stand to benefit from a normalisation of relations and practical cooperation,” he said.
Published in Dawn, September 16th, 2016