In revisiting memories of a 50-year-old war, G Parthasarathy examines the once again escalating tensions in Indo-Pakistan relations.
September 2015 was marked in both India and Pakistan with memories of a war they fought precisely a half a century ago — a war that ended with both sides claiming victory. But that conflict was to have huge implications for the very future of Pakistan. It established that Pakistan could not militarily prevail over a much larger India and that sending irregulars into Kashmir with army backing would not lead to a popular uprising that would end India’s rule of the State. The war also proved costly for Pakistan internationally. It ended the alliance with the USA, which had given it access to huge economic and military aid. It also led to India turning decisively to the Soviet Union for military supplies and neutralised Pakistani ambitions of seeking conventional military parity with India. These developments were to have profound implications six years later, when well-equipped Indian armed forces overran Pakistani forces in what was then East Pakistan, taking 93,000 prisoners of war.
With matters steadily deteriorating over the past year, the two neighbours are again experiencing a downward spiral in their relations. Pakistan largely attributes this downturn to what it believes is the ‘hawkish’ approach of India’s recently elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Islamabad has levelled allegations of Indian covert involvement in escalating violence in three of its four Provinces-Sind, Baluchistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, bordering Afghanistan. India, in turn, alleges that Pakistan’s ISI is facilitating attacks across the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir and the international border in Punjab, by using international terror outfits such as Lashkar-e-Taiba. There was considerable optimism that India’s relations with Pakistan, like its relations with other neighbours including China, would improve after Mr Modi assumed office last year. Like other South Asian leaders who were invited, Mr Nawaz Sharif attended Mr Modi’s swearing in as Prime Minister and met the Indian leader on his very first day in office.
While relations with India’s other South Asian neighbours have improved significantly following Mr Modi’s election, relations with Pakistan have remained jinxed. The Indian Consulate in Herat in western Afghanistan was attacked by Pakistani terrorists from Lashkar-e-Taiba on the day Mr Modi was sworn in. Efforts to resume dialogue ran into a barrier, with New Delhi objecting to visiting Pakistani dignitaries spending time with separatists from Kashmir, even before speaking to Indian counterparts. Matters came to a head with escalating exchanges of fire between the two armies across the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir, with India claiming that the violence was being triggered by the infiltration of terrorists across the LoC. The infiltration and ceasefire violations soon spread to the international border, with Pakistan-based terrorists affiliated to Lashkar-e-Taiba attacking Gurudaspur in Punjab.
Seeking to end the escalating violence, Prime Ministers Modi and Sharif met in the Russian town of Ufa in August and agreed to early meetings between their National Security Advisers, Paramilitary Chiefs and the Directors General of Military Operations (DGMOs) of both countries. The meeting between National Security Advisers was aborted because of differences over the agenda. While it was agreed in Ufa that the national security advisers would discuss terrorism-related issues, Pakistan insisted that the talks should be broadened to include all issues, including Jammu and Kashmir. Talks between the paramilitary forces have taken place, with both sides enunciating their concerns. There was, however, agreement on improving communications between paramilitary forces, to ensure that the situation does not escalate, leading to further deaths of civilians living close to the border. Pakistan has not yet committed itself to dates when the DGMOs could meet to discuss issues of cross-border infiltration by groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and measures to end violations of the ceasefire.
It will take considerable effort and time to resume comprehensive diplomatic engagement. While India would like issues of terrorism to be sorted out first before resuming a comprehensive dialogue process, Pakistan wants all issues to be discussed simultaneously. India notes that marginalising issues of terrorism in the past had led the two countries to the brink of war, after the attack on the Indian Parliament on December 13, 2001 by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed. The dialogue process was resumed only after a categorical assurance from then President Pervez Musharraf in January 2004 that ‘territory under Pakistan’s control would not be used for terrorism against India’. President Musharraf honoured his assurance and relations between the two countries improved significantly between 2004 and 2007.
There is clear recognition in New Delhi that while Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif may genuinely want to mend ties with India, the elected government he leads has steadily lost and ceded authority on foreign policy, domestic and security issues to the Army Chief, General Raheel Sharif. This was most noticeable internationally by the manner in which General Sharif has actively occupied centre stage during visits of foreign dignitaries ranging from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to American National Security Adviser Susan Rice. The army today controls law and order and conducts military operations in three of Pakistan’s four Provinces-Sind, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa bordering Afghanistan, and Baluchistan, where military courts can try civilians. General Raheel Sharif has made no bones about his antipathy towards India. His brother, a much-decorated military hero, was killed by Indian forces during the Bangladesh conflict in 1971. The Army Chief is known to have opposed measures to promote trade, energy and economic ties with India and remains insistent on a Kashmir-centric dialogue, which marginalises India’s concerns on terrorism and runs contrary to what his former boss and his acknowledged mentor, General Pervez Musharraf, agreed to in 2004.
In these circumstances, even resumption of a comprehensive dialogue, which Pakistan formally asks for, can achieve very little, as the elected government and Prime Minister are in no position to move ahead, even on developing trade and economic relations. This Pakistani approach is also leading to moves for increasing regional economic integration being stalled across South Asia. Recognising this, India is now moving for closer economic interaction and promoting regional connectivity and energy ties bilaterally with South Asian countries such as Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, or through groupings across the Bay of Bengal, which include Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka. Dealing with Pakistan in order to promote regional economic ties and connectivity is, however, going to be a long haul, requiring patience and perseverance.