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Lines on the Map

Meena Menon (meenamenon@gmail.com) is an independent journalist based in Mumbai and was the Pakistan correspondent for the Hindu in 2013-14 

It is tempting to think that a surgical strike was the only option left to tackle an intractable country. The sense of foreboding can only deepen with the directionless approach of the Indian government in resolving the Kashmir dispute and the terror question. India’s decision to inflict such an action against Pakistan indicates that the spirit of SAARC to work out things in a mutually agreeable manner had already taken a backseat.

 

Even before the surgical strike by the Indian Army along the Line of Control (LoC) on 28-29 September, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) meeting in Islamabad slated for 9-10 November became a casualty. India announced that cross-border terrorism by “one country” had “created an environment that was not conducive to the successful holding of the 19th SAARC summit” while Pakistan blamed India for trying to divert world attention away from Kashmir. The meet has now been postponed. Bangladesh, Bhutan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives too had announced that they would stay away from the summit.  

 

India’s decision to inflict a surgical strike against Pakistan indicated that the spirit of SAARC to work out things in a mutually agreeable manner had already taken a backseat. The decision to not attend the meeting in Islamabad seems to be another bid to isolate Pakistan which has accused India of delaying or deferring the meet in the past too. Already India’s most favoured nation (MFN) status to Pakistan is in danger of being revoked and there are similar noises being made about scrapping the Indus Waters Treaty.     

 

Many sections including the media in India have been clamouring for “action”, openly endorsing hostility over dialogue, and the attack on Uri cantonment on 18 September seems to have tilted the balance.  

 

India’s policy of strategic restraint gave way in the face of specific intelligence that armed militants were poised in “launch pads” to attack various locations in the country as Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) Lt General Ranbir Singh announced on 29 September.  

 

The celebrations post the surgical strike publicity were reminiscent of the drum- beating when India conducted five nuclear tests in May 1998, sparking off fresh tensions in the subcontinent and matching tests in Pakistan.

 

Dissenters who have been critical of the Indian Army’s surgical strikes are being frowned upon as peaceniks and even being stalked by jingoists. Already India’s action is being compared to the stealth operation by Navy Seals in Abbottabad in May 2011 which killed Osama bin Laden.

 

 

Hostility has been a constant leitmotif in Indo-Pak relations. The latest attack to avenge the death of 20 soldiers in the Uri cantonment only takes India and Pakistan to the next level of relations, a more ominous phase, even if diplomatic efforts are going on while we have “retaliated”.  

 

 

The new mantra seems to be a mix of retaliation and diplomacy which could prove to be as pretentious as the British gunboat diplomacy of the olden days. While Pakistan has dismissed the strike and called it another instance of unprovoked cross border firing and ceasefire violation, a day earlier its defence minister Khwaja Asif openly invoked the nuclear option.

 

Back to Square One

 

So we seem to be back to square one from a glimmer of peace and amity to enmity. Not even the so called low-hanging fruit like the Siachen glacier or the Sir Creek issues have been resolved. Since the Narendra Modi government took over in 2014, a series of events have had a cascading effect.  The comprehensive dialogue at the secretary level had a setback when on 2 January the Pathankot Air- Force base was struck allegedly by the Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorists. 

 

A Pakistani investigation team did visit India and the attempt at a joint investigation was a good move, but it only worsened the blame game to some extent and resulted in little concrete action.  Two months later came the arrest of Kulbushan Yadav who the Pakistani authorities claimed is a RAW agent. This set off a fresh series of accusations and counter accusations.

 

Another neighbour and key player in this regional game is Afghanistan where President Ashraf Ghani at first tried to make friendly overtures to Pakistan. He changed his stance later and accused Pakistan of harbouring terrorists on its land and launching attacks.

 

Pakistan has also been at the receiving end from the US which has repeatedly asked it to do more to tackle the Haqqani Network which is targeting its troops on Afghan soil. Pakistan steadfastly maintains it does not favour any terror group but the deaths of two key Afghan Taliban leaders on its soil points to the contrary.  

 

It is not only Kashmir and terrorism, but aspects of regional cooperation and water sharing which are mired in this Indo- Pak wrangling. The Indus Waters Treaty often held to be the only good news between the two countries, seems to be in trouble with Modi saying that blood and water cannot flow together. In despair, Pakistan has approached the World Bank, a signatory to the treaty.

 

The Treaty has worked in a spirit of cooperation but in 2005 Pakistan went for arbitration for the first time over the Baglihar Dam on the river Chenab. Since then Hafiz Saeed, founder of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, who has carte blanche in his country, has held several rallies accusing India of “water aggression”, an accusation that seems to be gaining ground.  

 

Pakistan once again looked to arbitration in 2010 over the Kishenganga Project (on the Kishenganga/Neelum river) and in 2013 the Court of Arbitration asked India to ensure a minimum flow of water into the river downstream of the project at all times.

 

The Indus Waters Treaty cannot be dismantled at whim. In the interest of river basin developmaent, it is a valuable resource for both India and Pakistan. A study released in May 2014 shows that the impression that India was stealing Pakistan’s share of water was not based on any real empirical evidence.  

 

The report, “Pakistan’s Water Discourse, Attitudes on Water Management Practices,” by the Jinnah Institute and Chatham House, based on interviews with experts indicate broad- based support for the efficacy of the treaty.

 

Experts from all over Pakistan felt that India was entitled to its share of water, including the building of dams under the treaty. However, what was of concern was the unverifiable water flow data provided by India and a joint mechanism to measure water was missing.  Only a few felt that India was engaging in “water aggression” and not obeying the treaty in letter or spirit.

 

In the absence of an informed political debate on the treaty and water sharing, it was easy to misguide people about water terrorism or aggression. Many felt it offered “a broad scope for cooperation between Pakistan and India,” and also helped in successful arbitration in the two cases involving Baglihar and Kishenganga. In the background of the usual hostility, this was a welcome voice which rooted for debate and cooperation.  

 

Similarly in terms of trade, despite all the controversy over the MFN status, informal trade between the two countries accounts for $ 4.2 billion, according to a study by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) in Islamabad.  Clothes, medicines, alcohol and a host of items, ---even betel leaves--- are taken from India through informal couriers or khepias and many shops sell Indian goods in Pakistan. However the informal trade affects the local automobile parts industry negatively and Pakistan loses considerable revenue as no customs duty is paid for most of these goods, says the study.

                                                  

Mutual and Assured Destruction?

 

These crucial issues find little place in the discourse of hostility that overpowers Indo-Pak relations and as Stephen Cohen rightly said, “mutual and assured destruction is alive and well in South Asia” (p 55 Cohen, 2013 Shooting for a Century). That alarming statement rings true now, with the threat of nuclear weapons being bandied around casually in the name of revenge. The dynamics of regional cooperation seems to be fluid more than ever, with the US and India coming closer in terms of military cooperation.

 

It is difficult for Modi’s isolationist policy to be effective in a world where polarisation begins in the subcontinent itself with big powers like China and Russia not wanting to keep Pakistan out of the way. When push comes to shove, few will back an all-out aggression by India or Pakistan, as history has shown us in the past, and that cannot be a solution to the tensions.

 

 

Before he was elected, India’s Prime Minister Modi had said on television that Pakistan needs to be tackled in the language it understands. There was also the recurring theme of “terror and talks” not being a harmonious mix.  While the language was friendlier in the beginning when Modi had just taken over the reins as prime minister, things soon seem to fall apart.

 

Earlier however, even before he assumed office, feelers of goodwill had been sent in the form of an NRI friend who visited Islamabad. In 2013 Pakistan installed a democratically elected government for the second time running and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was careful not to indulge in India-bashing while campaigning. He extended an open hand of friendship to his neighbour. There was great hope that Modi, if elected, would do one better than the seemingly dilly-dallying Congress.

 

Pakistan’s Expectations from the BJP

 

After former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee who is fondly remembered for his bus ride to Lahore, it is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to which most people in Pakistan looked to for peace and a solution in Kashmir. In the television debates on this issue in Pakistan then, the discussions largely favoured Modi.  

 

The invitation to Sharif to attend his swearing-in ceremony in New Delhi, and subsequent events only buttressed that feeling of warmth.

 

Sharif, expectedly, was not enjoying a smooth run at home. In mid-2014 Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and cleric Tahir ul Qadri’s party Pakistan Awami Tehreek jammed a high security area in Islamabad for days, demanding that Sharif step down for his various acts of omission and commission. Khan had mounted a sustained campaign against Sharif for rigging the general elections.

                     

The Pakistani Army was said to be behind these democratic protests, something it has strenuously denied. Democracy seems to have its limits in Pakistan and there is always the uniformed oversight committee to check it does not go overboard. So while the Pakistan cabinet was set to approve the most favoured nation (MFN) status for India in early 2014, there was a dampening announcement by Sharif that it was going to be deferred since India was going in for elections and Pakistan did not want to be seen as favouring any party.

 

Furious debates followed in the Pakistan National Assembly and Senate over granting India the MFN status. There was even a proposal to change the term to “non- discriminatory market access (NDMA)” in order to mollify the opposition. Farmers, traders and their political leaders were dead set against India being given trade access as the balance of trade was already in India’s favour and they could not compete on a level playing field, especially with India’s agricultural subsidies.     

 

Jugular Vein of Pakistan

 

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had pitched for “Confrontation, confrontation, confrontation,” as the key to the India-Pakistan dispute in his Lahore speech of December 1970. Subsequent leaders, however, favoured negotiation and dialogue. Indeed, Sharif too has spared no effort to show his goodwill for India but unfortunately, goodwill alone cannot make peace.  

 

In his first address to the nation after he took over (in August 2014), he made it clear that Kashmir was indeed the jugular vein of Pakistan. That was not a major departure in foreign policy or a conciliatory statement but the need for friendship and cooperation was emphasised. 

 

The Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan met in Paris in November 2015. Later, in Bangkok there was a meeting of the National Security advisors and foreign secretaries. At the Heart of Asia conference in Islamabad in December 2015, the   two countries agreed to a comprehensive bilateral dialogue substituting for the earlier composite dialogue.

 

This was a step ahead of the earlier eight-point composite dialogue during Vajpayee’s time which was wrecked by the November 26, 2011 terror strike.  The topics discussed were  peace and security, confidence building measures (CBMs), Jammu & Kashmir, Siachen, Sir Creek, Wullar Barrage / Tulbul Navigation Project, economic and commercial cooperation, counter-terrorism, narcotics control and humanitarian issues, people-to-people exchanges and religious tourism.

 

The national security advisors of the two nations were supposed to meet and discuss Terrorism while the foreign secretaries too were scheduled to work out the details of the Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue in January.

 

In a surprise gesture Modi, on his way back from Kabul, made a stopover at Lahore to meet Sharif on his (the latter’s) birthday. This was unprecedented. The bonhomie ended when soon after, the Pathankot strikes in January were blamed on the Jaish-e-Mohammad. That put a hefty spoke in the comprehensive dialogue. 

 

Bilateral relations between the two countries move in fits and starts and get stalled for a while. This has been the pattern over the years and peace talks are quickly jettisoned following a heinous attack. This is followed by the usual speculation that India engineered these attacks. For instance, one of the unfounded statements made is that the Uri incident was an accidental blast in the oil depot, and that India was passing it off as a terror attack by Pakistan and so forth.

 

 

Difficulty in Establishing the Truth

 

 

The lack of a third party investigation, by the UN for instance, is a lacuna in this context and India has always resisted this approach. In the face of denials and accusations, it is very difficult to establish the truth behind some incidents and even in the 26/11 attack, doubts have been raised during the on-going trial in Pakistan of the veracity of the Indian charge that it is the Lashkar-e-Taiba which masterminded the entire terror strike.

 

Pictures of the terrorists, the confession of Ajmal Kasab and the two visits by the Pakistan Judicial Commission are yet to convincingly nail the case which is meandering since 2009. Every time India rakes up the need for closure in this attack, Pakistan has a counter demand in the form of the Samjhauta Express blasts in 2007.

 

Evidence in the Uri attack shared with Pakistan too has been dismissed as “a piece of paper”. In the face of recalcitrance on both sides, peace has a rather slim chance and statesmanship has not often come to its rescue from either side.

 

On Kashmir, the huge outpouring of grief following the killing of the young  Hizbul Mujaheedin commander Burhan Wani  on 8 July and the subsequent use of pellet guns to staunch protests has given India’s image a beating that will not fade away soon.   

 

Even if there are repeated allusions to the number of  Indian security personnel who were injured or killed in the protests in Kashmir, the  overpowering  images and stories of people (especially the young) blinded and maimed by a crude technology that should never have been used in the first place, takes precedence.

                                                                      

What is India’s Policy on Kashmir?

 

 

The BJP has always wanted to be in the driver’s seat in Kashmir but the coalition government’s actions and the tears of chief minister Mehbooba Mufti cannot wash away the monumental failure in handling the situation. What is the Modi government’s policy towards resolving the Kashmir dispute? The answer is: status quo, much like the preceding governments, a generous dose of oppression, and repeated statements that Kashmir is an integral part of India, capped by a complete lack of dialogue.

 

With no policy in sight, the situation has gone out of hand as was witnessed.  

 

 

Not only is there no policy on Kashmir but for the first time India dropped her restraint in another direction- Balochistan. Previously, the only time it was mentioned was in the joint statement in 2009 issued by then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Yousaf Raza Gilani on the sidelines of the Non Aligned Movement summit in Sharm el-Sheikh.

 

Singh was criticised by the BJP for paving the way for Pakistan to accuse India of fomenting trouble in Balochistan. Since then Pakistan has stepped up the accusation of India’s involvement there and more recently it  has submitted a dossier to the United Nations outlining India’s alleged subversive activities in that province.

 

The arrest of Yadav in March 2016, has given Pakistan what it thinks is the necessary evidence to nail India’s dubious role. India has denied Yadav is a RAW agent while Pakistan claims it has uncovered a network of RAW spies acting to destabilise Balochistan.     

 

It is tempting to think that the surgical strike was the only option left to tackle an intractable country but India has fallen back on dialogue and not moved from the status quo situation over Kashmir which has proved costly. The alienation in Kashmir has been left unresolved and instead of putting our own house in order, there is an attempt to intensify the blame game by dragging in the human rights violation in Balochistan.

 

The sense of foreboding can only deepen with the directionless approach of the Indian government in either resolving the Kashmir dispute or the terror question in a way that will not lead to more attacks, surgical or not. At the same time, no one can question the need for an end to terror and loss of life and a solution to the festering “Kashmir problem”. 

 

The action of the US and the Navy Seals is not worthy of emulation at any cost. Taking out the enemy in a selective way could have consequences which India might find difficult to sustain in the long run. But in the wake of near universal endorsement of his actions, Modi will rest content that he has found an appeasing formula to keep his legions content for now.                

  

 

 

 

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