India-Pakistan relations in free fall

Posted in Afghanistan | 15-Aug-08 | Author: M K Bhadrakumar| Source: Asia Times

People carry the covered body of Sheikh Abdul Aziz, a senior separatist leader, outside a hospital in Srinagar.

Eleven months ago, the Indian army announced it had plans to open the 72-kilometer long Siachen glacier to regular civilian expeditions. On September 13, 2007, an Indian army spokesman claimed the move to make Kashmir's treacherous Siachen glacier a tourist attraction drew inspiration from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's call in 2005 to turn the glacier into a "peace mountain".

Things were looking up in India-Pakistan relations. Kashmir seemed edging closer to a resolution than at any time before. But it all seems light years away now.

Within the past few weeks, things have begun unraveling. A local controversy over the donation of government land in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) to a Hindu shrine snowballed into protests in the predominantly Muslim state. The government, which was taken aback by the fury of the protests, retracted its decision. In turn, that led to a Hindu backlash and more violence followed, leading to tensions between Muslims and Hindus, forcing the authorities to introduce a curfew.

The agitation in the Kashmir Valley has assumed in the meanwhile an old, familiar anti-India overtone, as Muslim protesters resorted to pro-independence rallies, the biggest the valley has seen in the past two decades. In police firings, over two dozen lives have been lost, with scores injured, which triggered further protests, with large numbers of Muslims ignoring the curfew and taking to the streets.

In the capital of Srinagar, tens of thousands of people defied the curfew to bury a separatist leader who died in police fire on a huge crowd of Muslims protesting against an alleged blockade - "economic blockade" - of the road linking the valley to the rest of India via the Hindu-dominated southern regions of Kashmir.

Kashmir is back on a razor's edge. Muslims say the "economic blockade" leaves them no choice but to resort to trade with Pakistan-administered Kashmir across the heavily guarded Line of Control dividing the Indian and Pakistani controlled parts of Kashmir. Enter Pakistan into the turmoil.

In a series of calibrated - and seemingly pre-planned - moves, Pakistan has swiftly waded into the situation in J&K. Last week, the Upper House of the Pakistani parliament passed a resolution condemning the Indian government's handling of the situation. On Monday, the Pakistan Foreign Ministry issued a statement expressing "deep concern" over the situation, which, it said, held "serious humanitarian implications", and called on New Delhi to "address the situation and prevent human-rights violations".

The same day, Islamabad dramatically raised the ante by several notches with Foreign Minister Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi issuing a separate statement. The minister's statement was couched in strong language expressing the condemnation by the Pakistan government of the "excessive and unwarranted use of force against the people of Indian-occupied Kashmir". Qureshi also expressed deep concern over the "deteriorating situation" and called on the Indian government to take "immediate steps to end violence against innocent Kashmiris".

Most important, the Pakistani minister linked the prevailing situation in J&K to the India-Pakistan bilateral dialogue and the larger issue of the "long-standing dispute of Jammu and Kashmir". New Delhi has taken exception to the Pakistani statements, terming them as "clear interference" in India's internal affairs and cautioning that such rhetoric wouldn't help the bilateral dialogue move forward.

Then, hardly 48 hours into the diplomatic spat, after sensing that New Delhi's efforts to evolve and "all-party" solution to the crisis in J&K failed to make any meaningful headway, and making a careful assessment that the crisis was not going to dissipate any time soon, Islamabad took a long jump by launching a diplomatic offensive against India.

A Pakistan Foreign Ministry spokesman announced in Islamabad on Wednesday that Pakistan had begun approaching international bodies like the United Nations and the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC). The spokesman ignored an earlier Indian warning and repeated that Islamabad was "deeply concerned over the deteriorating situation" in J&K, which, he said, was "resulting in loss of life and property of the Kashmiri people".

The swiftness with which Islamabad crossed the red line to internationalize the issue implies a calculated readiness on the part of Islamabad to endanger the climate of relative calm and good-neighborliness that has characterized India-Pakistan discourses in recent years.

Qureshi's statement, in particular, is intended to disabuse any notion on the part of Delhi to make a distinction between the Pakistani political leadership under the coalition led by the Pakistan People's Party and the Pakistani establishment (including the military and the intelligence apparatus) as regards what Pakistan calls the "core issue of Kashmir". This is a calculated riposte to Delhi's recent attempts to differentiate Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence as the villain of the piece in the sub-continent.

Clearly, Islamabad perceives that the ground situation in J&K is acute and Delhi's efforts to ease the tensions will be a long struggle and now a window of opportunity has opened for re-opening the Kashmir file at the international level.

Islamabad is probably right in making such a judgment. No doubt, the Hindu-Muslim angle to the ground situation is an altogether new political dimension, which New Delhi has worked hard to avoid in all the past 60 years of the Kashmir problem. Indeed, India always maintained that the Kashmir problem was not a Hindu-Muslim problem. In the longer run, arguably, the current tensions assuming the contours of a communal divide will undercut and weaken the basic Indian stance.

Yet, the available indications are that there are interested parties who are precisely ensuring that such a Hindu-Muslim communal divide crystallizes in J&K, a region which historically enjoyed a composite ethnic culture. While extremist elements among Kashmiri separatists have always stoked the fires of religious passions, for the first time in a major way, Hindu nationalist elements have jumped into the fray. They seem to anticipate that a communal polarization would not be a bad idea for making electoral gains in polls in J&K slated for November and to get embedded as a "factor" in the Kashmir issue in the medium term.
Indeed, part of the problem is that the Indian political scene is hopelessly muddied, to a point that it has become virtually impossible to evolve a consensus on any national issue. The drawn out acrimony over the India-United States civilian nuclear agreement has taken a heavy toll in Indian politics. The ruling coalition's controversial attempts to divide the opposition political parties by reportedly bribing their members of parliament to defect to its side over the issue of the nuclear deal, has generated a lot of bitterness.

The paradox is, whereas India has reached a stage of coalition politics in which governance has become difficult, except on the basis of consensus, and consensus involves political tolerance and accommodation, the Congress party which heads the government in Delhi still behaves as if it is rooted in the political culture of single-party rule.

Given the Congress party's obscure, highly centralized nature of functioning, it boils down to a small coterie of people in central Delhi taking all major decisions and most minor ones. This is a recipe for political confrontation.

The national mood of political polarization is not helping matters in J&K. The elections in November in J&K would have been a watershed in Kashmir's tortuous journey toward peace and tranquility. Holding the elections successfully would have upheld Delhi's claim that "normalcy" has returned to J&K. Precisely for that reason, there are elements within J&K which are working toward postponement of the elections. Unfortunately for India, these elements seem to be slowly but steadily gaining the upper hand.

Needless to say, Pakistan would have a use for these elements. It is interested in keeping the Kashmir cauldron boiling. Logic dictates that Delhi's best hope would have been to shore up the gains of the India-Pakistan "composite dialogue" and to incrementally hedge Islamabad away from any propensity to create problems in J&K.

Under President Pervez Musharraf's leadership, Pakistan showed itself to be capable of responding to a constructive engagement with India. But it is here that Delhi has faulted on the diplomatic plane. For one thing, Delhi began resorting to megaphone diplomacy, pointing fingers at Islamabad for a spate of terrorist violence, including the attack on the Indian Embassy in the Afghan capital Kabul. A stridency crept into Indian pronouncements, including at responsible levels. Islamabad is now paying back in the same coin.

Not only that. It has taken the move of "internationalizing" the Kashmir issue, which India always found highly objectionable. Significantly, this is not happening in isolation. It is happening against the background of the growing propensity on the part of Delhi to work in tandem with the US to put pressure on Pakistan on the issue of Islamabad's commitment to the "war on terror".

Also, Pakistan increasingly feels cornered by a Washington-Kabul-Delhi axis on the issue of terrorism. Islamabad's message to Delhi is that the latter is mistaken if it thinks it can get away with such a regional, international campaign against Pakistan by drawing encouragement from the current unprecedented "pro-India" tilt in the US's South Asia regional policies.

Washington has not revealed its line. There is a deafening silence at the moment. The passage of the nuclear deal is at a critical stage and Washington and Delhi are closely working in tandem to ensure that the deal gets "operationalized" within a tight calendar. The period from now until mid-September, therefore, becomes particularly crucial.

Meanwhile, there is a sizeable body of opinion in the US foreign policy and strategic community which is underscoring that a successful waging of the "war on terror" in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to Pakistan's participation, which in turns means Washington should reciprocate by showing sensitivity to Islamabad's legitimate security dilemma in its region, especially in its relations with India.

They argue that Washington must therefore play an active role in resolving Pakistan's differences with India, at the core of which lies the Kashmir issue. Last month, during the visit of Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to Washington, influential figures in the US strategic community pointedly raised the appropriateness of the White House appointing a special envoy on the Kashmir issue.

It is unlikely Islamabad will easily dismount from the high horse it mounted during the past 48 hours on the Kashmir issue. It has a receptive audience within the OIC. With "Euro-Atlanticism" as the cornerstone of foreign policy - especially the US-centric approach - Delhi has in recent years neglected its relations with Islamic countries. Delhi's accent on strategic ties with Israel has also not helped matters. Delhi routinely ignored the OIC. But it becomes extremely awkward that all this is happening on the eve of the annual United Nations General Assembly session and in the run-up to a possible meeting between Manmohan and US President George W Bush in late September.

The problem is Delhi has hardly any leverage over Islamabad, which is where it made a mistake by failing to sustain the momentum of the "composite dialogue". In diplomacy, the importance of timing and a judicious reading of the compulsions working on the opposite side become critical. On both these counts, Delhi faulted.

There is no conceivable explanation why, despite the manifest keenness on the part of the Musharraf regime, the Manmohan could not reciprocate by paying a visit to Pakistan during the past two-year period when the composite dialogue still possessed verve and a sense of direction. Again, sufficient efforts haven't been made to ensure that at least on a few "doable issues", the India-Pakistan composite dialogue took strides. At the very least, given political will, two major issues - Sir Creek and Siachen - could have been led to a solution.

And these are two issues of direct interest to the omnipotent Pakistani military. Again, Delhi should have had the foresight to estimate that the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project was a unique opportunity to make Islamabad a "stakeholder" in regional security. But Delhi dragged its feet lest Washington took umbrage. Also, Delhi could have taken grater care - through words and action - to ensure that an impression didn't gain ground in Islamabad that India was taking advantage of the closeness of its relationship with the US to gain unilateral advantage with regard to Pakistan.

It shouldn't have been particularly difficult for Delhi to anticipate the acute Pakistani sensitivities about India's role in Afghanistan. Perceptions always matter in India-Pakistan relations, especially when there is an entire backlog of historical evidence about misperceptions breeding mutual suspicions, which could lead to antipathies that might easily degenerate into hostilities. It is unclear to what extent lines of communications were kept open to clear up misperceptions. What is visible is that Delhi cozied up to Afghan President Hamid Karzai even more in the recent period, even though his political future, leave alone that of his regime he heads, is far from certain - with elections looming in October 2009.

Somehow, a gung-ho attitude, which is historically uncharacteristic for an Indian, has begun creeping into his mindset lately. Perhaps the headiness of economic progress has hijacked level-headedness and moderation. Or, his new sense of well-being, his confidence that an enduring US-India partnership is underway; his comfort level that India is finally poised to pull away from its moth-eaten neighborhood of South Asia and venture into a brave new world; his cockiness that the world community will be averse to treading on Indian sensitivities; and, least of all, the resurgence of Hindu nationalism, paradoxically, even amid the culture of Western middle-class consumerism - all these have contributed to an unrealistic degree of swagger in Indian attitudes.
It may seem ludicrous, in retrospect, that sizeable sections within the Indian strategic community did fancy as recently as three or four months ago that India indeed held a "Tibet card" as Beijing Summer Olympic Games drew closer, and that India must use Afghanistan as a springboard to bleed Pakistan. The only good thing to come out of the present crisis in J&K is that it is a wake-up call for these strategic thinkers.

A full circle seems to have been taken and India-Pakistan relations are getting perilously close to ground zero. It underscores that there is no alternative but to give primacy to the neighborhood in a country's foreign policy, and, secondly, to ensure that foreign policy is at any given time an extension of a country's national policy. What generates uneasiness, though, is that given the high volatility of the domestic political situation in both India and Pakistan, the likelihood is low that either side takes any creative initiatives at this juncture.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.