India-Pakistan Relations : A new low

  • Modi unable to rein in hawks
  • Pak too is unfair to India
  • People along the border suffer

(Shujaat Bukhari)

Relations between India and Pakistan are again at a new low as hostilities across the International Border (IB) and the Line of Control (LOC) in Jammu and Kashmir have intensified. At least seven people including civilians have been killed in the renewed shelling and firing from either side. Amid an uneasy calm both New Delhi and Islamabad have been blaming each other for the provocation. Even unveiled threats have become part of a discourse that is shaping up now.

Shujaat Bukhari

Shujaat Bukhari, (The writer is a senior journalist and former Srinagar correspondent of The Hindu)

An “apparently empowered” Defence Minister of Pakistan Khawja Asif talked of the “language India can understand” and on January 4 he even tried to put India on defensive by saying “India wants to keep us busy in a low-intensity war or low-intensity engagement on our eastern border. They are pursuing the same tactics of keeping our forces busy on all fronts”. Earlier the Adviser on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz had protested to External Affairs Ministry Sushma Sawraj by saying that the Border Security Force had called the Rangers for a flag meeting but they instead opened fire. But Sawraj refuted the allegations saying “Pak commanders responded to our defensive fire by using higher caliber weapons, expanding conflict zone, targeting civilian habitations”. She also warned of consequences in case the mechanisms are not followed.

This acrimonious war of words not only brings to the fore the deep mistrust both the sides have developed but also the fact that the situation could take any turn. Even an incident of fishing boat casting off into Arabian Sea near Keti Bunder, 100 kilometers from Karachi became an issue of “Pakistan exporting explosives to India”. The incident, however, was caught in the controversy within India even as the boat that blew up was marked as “Terror Boat”. Two influential dailies Indian Express and DNA raised questions over the claims that it was meant to carry explosives to India. Leading security expert Ajai Shukla dissected the press release from Ministry of Defence as also the inputs from intelligence sources. “Questions also abound over the MoD’s contention that there was an explosion on board. In a fuel fire, any high explosive on board the vessel would simply have caught fire and burnt, not exploded” he wrote in Business Standard. Immediately dismissing the boat as a “Terror Boat” also put in the context the strand relations and the level of mistrust that exists on both sides. In this particular case the example of November 26, 2008 attack in Mumbai came handy to link it with terror.

With Prime Minister Narendra Modi not making any statement vis a vis this fresh spate of violence across the borders and no investigation launched to see what exactly happens on borders, it has shrunk the space for creating an atmosphere of reconciliation. It is not known what is happening on Pakistani side and why the Pakistan’s ISI, Army or Rangers are engaged in a renewed phase of hostility. But on Indian side it is steadily becoming clear that as of now the reconciliation with Pakistan is a closed chapter.

This all started in July last year when New Delhi took a major rather surprising step to unilaterally call off the Foreign Secretary level talks in view of Pakistan High Commissioner meeting separatists in Delhi. At that time it was seen as “fulfillment” of Modi’s electoral promise in which he had talked tough in dealing with Pakistan with regard to terror. . “Terror and talks cannot go hand in hand,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi had repeatedly said during the election campaign. But he had himself given a “pleasant” surprise when he invited all heads of the SAARC countries including Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharief to his swearing in ceremony. Diplomatic circles were taken aback as it was something different one would expect from a tough talking Modi. If the insiders are to be believed New Delhi was keen to see Nawaz Sharief being part of the tumultuous ceremony but it could be covered up under the larger outreach to all SAARC nations.

Political grapevine is that Modi has not been able to rein in the “hawks” within the establishment who are drawing inspiration from RSS agenda to adopt a tough posture vis a vis Pakistan. Pakistan has surely not given a fair deal to India as far as the trial of Mumbai is concerned or the latest drama about Zaki ur Rehman Lakhvi is one example. But New Delhi too is not clear about its policy. It seems that the hard-liners within BJP as also the RSS have so far succeeded in implementing their hawkish agenda. This was the case during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s tenure as well but he sidestepped the hawks and walked many extra miles. He crafted a mechanism of separating the party interests from the diplomacy. He showed that how political leadership could assert itself and work independent of jingoistic agency thinking. That is how he stood aloft among the Prime Ministers of India.

For Modi also it was an opportunity to use his mandate and power to do something different. But so far he has not left any imprint of departing from the traditional mindset that runs the establishment. While being leader of the largest democracy in the world and biggest power in South Asia, he could have easily moved forward on his “intent” to carry along South Asian countries, as he had indicated by inviting SAARC heads to his investiture ceremony. Moreover, the electoral achievement he had in recent Assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir, though no achievement in Valley, he could use the state’s unrest to open doors for reconciliation with Pakistan. After his stern message to his troops in November asking them to “Fire at will” in retaliation to Pakistani firing he has not made any major intervention in this phase of hostility. May be he is not happy with what is happening but he needs to come out of tutored situation and give a new hope to people using his power and mandate.

With the tension escalating on borders, the brunt of this renewed hostility will have to be borne by the people who live along the borders. What all stake holders fail to realize is the fact that the ceasefire announced in 2003 and followed up with more Confidence Building Measures on both sides of Jammu and Kashmir had yielded dividends for the general public. This bonhomie from 2003 to 2008 might have upset the hawks and vested interests on both sides, but it had done wonders on re-engagement of people across Line of Control and giving relief to lakhs of people living on the borders. Their lives had dramatically changed and they could live in peace after more than a decade.

While Pakistan needs to change its policy and not take any step that is provocative, the government led by Modi in Delhi also has to work for bringing peace to the region.

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