Covid offers India-Pakistan a chance to fight common enemy, bury hostility over Kashmir

Covid offers India-Pakistan a chance to fight common enemy, bury hostility over Kashmir

The magnitude of the coronavirus pandemic allows India and Pakistan to gracefully alter their rigid attitude and sell the idea of an agreement to their emotional citizens.

A deserted Wagah-Attari border on 15 March, over a week before the Covid-19 lockdown kicked in

The man returned via the Wagah-Attari border | ANI

Both India and Pakistan are engaged in a grim battle to prevent the coronavirus pandemic from affecting their citizens on a mass scale. But this crisis also offers the two countries an opportunity to review their strategies and commence negotiations to cease hostilities, and arrive at a ‘maintenance of status quo’ agreement with respect to ‘unsettled borders’.

India and Pakistan’s grossly inadequate medicare infrastructure, both in terms of quantity and quality, can bring about a catastrophe for their poor populations. Amid such a crisis, it’s a concern then that both nations continue engaging in a conflict along the Line of Control driven by primordial perceptions and perceived ownership of Kashmir.

With the onset of summer, the “campaigning season” in Jammu and Kashmir, ceasefire violations both north and south of Pir Panjal Range  have increased manifold. “Fire fights” between troops manning the LoC and encounters with infiltrating terrorists since the beginning of April have caused a number of casualties on both sides. Both countries must respond to French President Emmanuel Macron’s call for a worldwide ceasefire, days after UN Secretary-General António Guterres made a similar appeal.

Despite four conventional wars — 1947-48, 1965, 1971 and 1999 — and 30 years of low-intensity conflict in Jammu and Kashmir, neither India nor Pakistan has decisively been able to achieve its political aims. Their current security strategies are offering diminishing returns. And so, can the threat of a common enemy — Covid-19 — make the two countries review their political aims and military strategies and pave the way for a rapprochement?

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Pakistan’s flawed strategy 

Pakistan’s political aim is to annex Kashmir, or at least its Muslim-dominated areas, and seek parity with India in the comity of nations. Since it is much weaker than India economically and militarily, Pakistan perpetrates a fourth generation proxy war exploiting the perceived grievances and religion of the population to achieve its political aim. To cater for India’s military superiority, Pakistan relies upon irrational brinkmanship with its nuclear deterrent and maintains sufficient conventional capability to stalemate India in a short conflict of 10-15 days.

Having defeated an erstwhile superpower USSR, and the impending defeat of America after 20 years in Afghanistan, Pakistan perceives that it has perfected the strategy of fourth generation proxy wars. However, this strategy has not made much headway against India in J&K.

India is a secular nation, which defends its own territory and conducts sustained people-friendly operations to neutralise the proxy war. Pakistan’s proxy jihadi terrorists wore down the resilience of Western powers in Afghanistan. However, the resilience of the Indian state and its armed forces has done the opposite. Despite grave provocations, the Indian Army never gave up its time-proven winning strategy.

Pakistan is following a flawed strategy, which burdens its failing economy because it is forced to keep pace with India’s technological and military prowess to prevent decisive defeat in a limited war.

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Limits of India’s strategy

India has a very simple political aim — safeguard its territorial integrity and prevent Pakistan from interfering in its internal affairs. While earlier governments kept the door open for negotiations, over the last six years, the Narendra Modi government has adopted a clear policy: talks and terrorism cannot go together.

Indian military has adequate capability to ensure its territorial integrity. Pakistan is hardly in a position to challenge it considering that in J&K, terrorists-initiated violence has never been this low. In fact, it would not even make news, but for the emotions of neo-nationalists, which includes an ideology-driven government and large sections of  media.

The failure of India’s strategy has been that it has been unable to compel Pakistan to stop interfering in our internal affairs, particularly in J&K. Additionally, we have failed to win the hearts and the minds of Kashmiris to find a lasting political solution in the troubled Valley.

Nuclear weapons preclude a full scale conventional war where India’s quantitative superiority will prevail. But we lack the technological military edge to force compellence on Pakistan through operations below the threshold of war, as was evident after the surgical strikes in 2016 and the Balakot air strikes/skirmishes in 2019. The same is true for a limited war lasting 10-15 days. Stalemate is defeat for a bigger power.

To compound the problem, India’s national priorities do not allow us to increase the defence budget beyond the present levels, unless the GDP takes an exponential jump to $5 trillion. The fact is that our security strategy vis-a-vis Pakistan, too, is giving us diminishing returns.

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Covid 19 crisis offers an opportunity

In such a scenario, it helps India and Pakistan to see the Covid-19 crisis as an opportunity to move forward towards ending hostilities and come up with an agreement with respect to ‘unsettled borders’ akin to the arrangement that exists between India and China, which even withstood the test of a grave crisis like the 73-day Doklam standoff in 2017. Control of trans border terrorism can be part of the agreement.

The magnitude of the coronavirus crisis allows both countries to gracefully alter their rigid attitude and sell the idea to the emotional population and other stakeholders without giving up their perceived self-righteous stands. We already have the example of Prime Minister Modi virtually reviving the SAARC by holding a video conference for cooperation in the fight against the Covid-19  pandemic.

We also have the precedence of back door diplomacy of the post-Operation Parakram era (2003-2008), which  brought about the November 2003 unwritten ceasefire agreement. The relative peace along the LoC allowed us to construct the border fence and break the back of the insurgency in J&K. There was even a glimmer of hope based on the “four-point formula” for a final settlement of the Kashmir issue.

Given the current ideology-driven rigidity that dominates India’s approach towards Pakistan, it would be easy to rubbish this idea. But then, realpolitiks is not driven by emotions but by national interests.

Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.