At the best of times, the relations between India and Pakistan have been shaky, unstable and abnormal. This week, they were rendered even more weak.
The massacre at Pulwama, Jammu and Kashmir, on 14 February where over 40 personnel of the CRPF were murdered by a brain-washed, radicalised, young Kashmiri suicide-bomber became the trigger for the current sequence of events. The Pakistani terror group, the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), claimed responsibility for the attack.
The JeM is a history-sheeter directly culpable of many terror-related crimes directed against India since 2001. Millennial India and Indians, with a government that places a premium on machismo, had decided that armed revenge was the best strategic response. Armed revenge that would show the world, and Pakistan, the grit and muscle of a new, avenging India. Armed revenge especially because Pakistan has refused through the years to act against the JeM whose leader Maulana Masood Azhar enjoys the unbroken nurture and protection of state patronage in Pakistan.
In a classically-ordained textbook scenario, raining revenge on Pakistan should not be difficult. The country is no match for India in terms of size, economic muscle, democratic strength, political stability and global stature. But its power structure, dominated by a powerful military, which sees itself as the guardian of the ‘idea’ of Pakistan, survives on the passionate urge to resist India even if it may mean the destruction of their own country. Pakistan, therefore, is by this definition no mean or ordinary enemy of India. It is India’s incubus, our nightmare. It is the neighbourhood stalker, lurking everywhere.
The problem of India-Pakistan tensions over Kashmir is the living embodiment of 70 years of bitterness and enmity between the two countries. The wound has festered and only got worse as it has turned Kashmir into a crucible of death, destruction, alienation, militancy and civilian unrest. The reality is that India has a problem in Kashmir, its catalyst being the dispute with Pakistan, and its oxygen being both the militancy, which is fuelled from across the Line of Control, and a strong sense of victimhood among many Kashmiris in this Muslim-majority state that the political class both at the state and national level has ill-served and short-changed them.
The Indian Army and paramilitary forces, who are present in large numbers to ensure the security of this sensitive border state, are often the target of the disaffection and anger of sections of the population, and increasingly many young Kashmiris. Militancy, oxygenated from within but mainly from Pakistan, moves in then to easily target military and paramilitary personnel in an atmosphere of popular resentment, radicalisation and fundamentalist, Islamic indoctrination. Pulwama was a manifestation.
On 26 February, Indian Air Force (IAF) planes struck at a terror camp deep inside Pakistan at Balakot in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, very close to the cantonment of Abbottabad where Osama bin Laden was taken out by the US forces in May 2011. The Indian planes flew unhindered into Pakistani airspace, bombed their target, and returned home (although the full details are yet to emerge). The Indian side claimed that they had eliminated the JeM terror camp at Balakot and there were initial reports that the strikes had killed more than 300 JeM terrorists. The Pakistanis have denied this. The fog of conflict camouflages everything.
Like in May 2011, the Pakistani establishment was left red-faced at the perceived lack of ability to intercept the Indians. Unlike with the United States, an India-obsessed Pakistan scrambled to hit back. The scale of escalation went up with the dog-fight across the Line of Control in Kashmir between the Indian and Pakistani Air Force planes the next day.
Both countries claimed they shot down a plane. An IAF pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, was captured by the Pakistanis and visuals of him were paraded on social media in what was interpreted as a contravention of the Geneva Conventions, after he ejected from his aircraft on the Pakistani side of the Line of Control. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan subsequently announced that he did not want a miscalculation-replete war with India and that his government would return the captured IAF officer to India. It is believed that Pakistan came under pressure from the governments of the United States, and its close friends, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, to be conciliatory towards India and not escalate tensions further.
Many in India also saw this move by PM Imran Khan as Pakistan having “buckled” and “blinked” to the advantage of India, which had “succeeded” in what was termed as a “non-military, pre-emptive” action taken against the JeM, inside Pakistan, in order to safeguard India’s national security.
There is no doubt that the world community, in large measure, sees India as the victim of terrorism directed against it from groups within Pakistan. There is also recognition of the fact that this terrorism is used by Pakistan as an instrument of state policy against India.
But India’s efforts to see the Pakistani terror groups internationally proscribed across-the-board have yet to see complete fruition. The listing of Masood Azhar on the UN Security Council sanctions list has been held up because China, a close ally of Pakistan, has sacrificed responsible international conduct and action against terrorism at the altar of its so-called obligations to Pakistan. This matter also casts a lengthening shadow on India’s relations with China, a relationship that India has sought long and hard to normalise and carry forward in a spirit of pragmatism, cooperation and peaceful dialogue.
While there may be takers for Pakistan PM’s seemingly conciliatory offer of dialogue with India and readiness to return the IAF pilot, Pakistan’s global credentials are tainted by its identification with terrorism as an instrument of state policy. Its friendship with the United States has significantly depleted with the Americans having understood the damage done by Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy to American interests and American lives in that country (although the current peace talks with the Taliban again point to what the US sees as the substantive role that Pakistan has to play in ensuring a satisfactory settlement).
The Narendra Modi government’s outreach in building closer, substantive bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates has yielded dividends. The quotient of mutual trust in these relations is significantly higher today than ever before. The invitation to the Indian foreign minister to be the guest-of-honour at the conference of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) is also a measure of this. Indian presence at the OIC is being marked after an interregnum of almost half-a-century. Pakistan played the spoiler in ensuring India was kept out all these years. This time, it has boycotted the conference in a sulk about India being invited to the gathering. This is a diplomatic setback for Pakistan and clearly a substantial diplomatic victory for India.
All this, however, cannot mitigate the very real problems in India-Pakistan relations and the tangled web of problems in Kashmir. While war between two nuclear-armed nations lurks at the bottom of this abyss, it is in the interest of both countries to draw back from that brink and climb down the escalation ladder in a conflict. A war of nuclear proportions is not a video-game or a ball to be casually bounced back and forth in television studios and on Twitter. It is in the interest of both the countries to be rational and mature in their handling of bilateral relations. Otherwise, the threat of mutual destruction is no longer a theoretical construct.
India is on the right track as it seeks to augment diplomatic capital for its cause in the fight against terrorism. Military pressure will not bring Pakistan to its knees. A diplomatic global coalition that partners with India to seek an end to Pakistan’s sponsorship of terror has to grow, develop and strengthen. International organisations like the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) are particularly important theatres of action where the struggle to isolate Pakistan and impose sanctions for its support to terrorism and violation of laws on global financial good conduct must intensify. India has to be a much more active player in the region in convening this coalition against terror.
Neutralisation of Pakistani capacity to cause mischief and damage has to also entail a more active role in engaging Afghanistan and, if needed, the India-ostracised Taliban (engaging the Taliban does not mean supporting their ideology but just building channels of two-way communication) as well as the regional players involved, as the US prepares to disengage from that country. Support for terrorism must become a globally sanctioned activity as much as the proliferation of nuclear weapons is.
Simultaneously, our own domestic capacity to deal with terror threats and prevent further terror attacks on the homeland must be improved significantly. Loopholes and intelligence lapses can be lethal.
A post-election government that comes to power later this year in India must also turn its close attention to how relations with Pakistan must be transacted. Unlike President Donald Trump with Mexico, we cannot build a high wall between Pakistan and us. As much as we improve our security preparedness and the military wherewithal to defend our democracy and our people, we must have a diplomatic strategy that engages the enemy face-to-face, oxymoronic as that may sound.
The point is that while India can certainly win the support of the global community of nations on its struggle against terrorism, even a partially-blown military conflict is another matter. We cannot expect our foreign friends and partners to rally around us in such a scenario however much we may believe that we fight a good fight for all that is right. The terrain of conflict is a lonely, and barren place. Soldiers and ordinary citizens pay the cost. Our leaders across dividing lines and frontiers must realise that they hold these lives in trust. It is an awesome responsibility.
The author is a former foreign secretary, and was India’s ambassador to the US. She tweets @NMenonRao
This article has been updated to include the latest developments.
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