The Narendra Modi government’s decision to revoke the special status of Kashmir by abrogating Article 370 is a major dent to India’s democracy and regional conflict dynamics. In the short term, it has brought tremendous pressure on Pakistan to maintain its ownership of the issue and keep it alive effectively. The shock generated by the move is lesser than what was felt in 1971, but greater than in 2011. In 1971, Pakistan lost its eastern wing after a war with India, and May 2011 is when the American military carried out a surprise operation to capture and kill Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The worry is not about Pakistan’s own security but to an issue central to its imagination.
Despite the eagerness to agitate the matter internationally, there seems to be little interest in encouraging domestic protests. In fact, the demonstrations in Pakistan are very deliberate and lack the ferocity that was expected. This is despite the fact that people are feeling genuinely hurt at the development. After all, the public narrative for the last 72 years was tied to the resolution of the Kashmir dispute in Pakistan’s favour. Repeatedly people were told that Kashmir flows in Pakistan’s blood. But some of the political workers that I spoke with were of the view that the current Imran Khan government would like to see the matter being agitated abroad and not in Pakistan.
Military reaction no longer an option
Allowing mass protests in the country run the risk of bringing out a cast of characters that Pakistan doesn’t want associated with its image at the moment. Controlling protests may also be to avoid the pressure that is likely to mount domestically on the military to respond to India militarily. While reassuring support to Prime Minister Imran Khan during his recent visit to Muzaffarabad, the prime minister of Pakistan’s Kashmir Farooq Haider got emotional and stated that there were “lakhs of Kashmiri people in Azad Jammu and Kashmir waiting to cross the LoC” to push back the Indian military and claim the Kashmir valley.
Haider’s emotional outburst depicted a sense of loss and disappointment felt by people expecting change in the status quo for so many decades. While Haider tried to prod the military to take action, the fact remains unspoken that the Army GHQ may not be able to use the military option as it did in the past. Pakistan’s military has gradually realised, especially after the Kargil operation, that direct military response is not an option. This was never explained to the ordinary man, who is now struck with shock, dejection and a sense of betrayal at the realisation that the military is out of options. Even worse, Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi admitted to the lack of capacity to pull the world together to push India to revise the decision.
Pakistan military’s capacity to finish the unfinished business of Partition has diminished dramatically. The commitment to reign in the jihadis, which was given to the UK and the US by army chief General Qamar Bajwa, brought a major shift in the military’s capability to pursue the matter. After Kargil, in particular, in which the Northern Light Infantry was used, the army has never directly tried to change the status quo. After 1999, the jihadis played a greater role. With the threat of jihadis substantially diminished (this will become clearer by the summer of next year depending on the nature of violence in Kashmir and ability of jihadis to respond from across the border), Islamabad more than Rawalpindi will have to take the lead on the issue by pleading the matter diplomatically. But more importantly, the initiative is now very much in the hands of the Kashmiri people. The media clampdown and oppression in the Kashmir valley is being noticed by the world.
Conflict no longer an option
There is already a lot of criticism internationally of the Modi government’s decision. While New Delhi hopes that all these noises will eventually subside, from now on Pakistan mainstay in keeping the Kashmir issue alive will be the international media or diplomatic means. A battle at the diplomatic front, however, will depend on how hot is the political temperature in the Valley. Not to mention Pakistan’s ability to juggle international support diplomatically.
The shift from military to diplomacy may have brought a subtle and inadvertent change in Pakistan’s civil-military balance as it is tantamount to a major shift of responsibility from Rawalpindi to Islamabad.
Notwithstanding the fact that under the present PTI government the military is effectively in charge, the bulk of the responsibility to plead the case on the diplomatic front will be the civilians’. Although the army has a heavy presence in the committee formed by Prime Minister Imran Khan to highlight the Kashmir issue internationally, the actual work will have to be done by the Foreign Office. The military will continue to play a covert role in supporting the Pakistani diaspora to flag the Kashmir issue abroad, but sustaining the protest in the medium to long term is a huge challenge. Unless violence in Kashmir or India, in general, increases to levels that makes people look, Pakistan requires an entirely new methodology than what the military was used to.
In the past, conflict was used as a tool to internationalise the Kashmir issue. Raising the spectre of possible nuclear exchange would draw international attention towards the matter. The country’s financial constraints have seriously challenged its capacity to use conflict as a tool (this precludes ability to defend itself when required). At this juncture, the likelihood of using the Afghanistan peace process for political barter is also very low. Now, it is a different ballgame – drawing attention of the international community towards a human rights issue in which a lot will not only depend on the Kashmiris, but also the extent to which the Indian government provides fodder in the form of committing human rights atrocities.
Diplomacy back on the block
This seeming shift of emphasis from conflict to diplomacy may not result in a drastic shift in the overall civil-military imbalance in the country.
The political parties appear to be divided, and their capacities washed too out to benefit from the moment and expand the space for themselves. The political parties have failed to come together to demand an answer from the military for failure of the Kashmir policy. The behaviour of the bulk of the elected Parliament and all political parties across the ideological divide indicates institutional crowding out. There seems to be little capability to frame a new policy, which will be informed by an internal inquiry on if the turn of events regarding Kashmir ought to be treated simply as poor intelligence, as senior journalist Mariana Babur believes it to be, or the military getting blindsided due to its inability to listen to multiple or alternative voices. This problem, as was obvious from the foreign minister’s press conference unveiling a new policy on flagging the Kashmir issue, remains. A new approach revolves around creating an additional bureaucratic structure to plead the Kashmir issue or telling those that question the government with the threat that they are being watched.
Maryam Nawaz Sharif being arrested soon after she questioned the Kashmir policy publicly has shut the door on the much-needed introspection by the Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz leadership. As for the other national party, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), its leadership seems to have confined itself to the role of suggesting ways to create additional bureaucracy, which may not necessarily strengthen Pakistan’s position to agitate the matter effectively.
Pakistan would either have to wait for a very long time and wait for the moment when the Western world needs Pakistan again to return to its older policy framework. The alternative is to work doubly hard to re-build its relation with China to the level of where it was during the Nawaz Sharif days. Visionary and imaginative diplomacy that could negotiate the complex global geopolitics of modern times may be the only way forward. Of course, the success of Pakistan’s diplomacy will depend on the human rights scene in India.
Ayesha Siddiqa is author of Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy and research associate at SOAS, University of London. She tweets: @iamthedrifter. Views are personal.