Temperatures Rise Again
Relations between India and Pakistan have deteriorated sharply this year, especially after cancellation of the much-anticipated meeting between the foreign secretaries of the two countries. There has been a dramatic rise in cross-border firing along the Line of Control (LoC) that separates the Indian and Pakistani-held sections of Jammu and Kashmir. The cross-border shelling has resulted in many deaths and has terrorized villagers on both sides of the LoC. A meeting was held between the Pakistani High Commissioner to India, Abdul Basit and leaders of the All Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC), an alliance of Indian Kashmir separatist groups. This seemed to instigate the Indian government to announce that it was canceling the foreign secretaries’ meeting. They justified their decision on the grounds that the meeting constituted “gross interference” in Indian affairs. It needs to be remembered though that such meetings have long been accepted and even facilitated by the Indian government.
This time around, it seemed that India was trying to rewrite the “ground rules” for Indian-Pakistan relations. However, it was obvious that with a Modi-led BJP-government in New Delhi, it could not be “business as usual” between the two nuclear-armed states. When it was revealed after the Sharif-Modi meeting, the foreign secretaries of the two countries would meet, it was said that relations between the two countries would be revived and would lead to a comprehensive peace dialogue which had been stalled since 2008. It was also said that there were efforts afoot for a historic rapprochement with Pakistan. At one level, it can even be said that the Indian Prime Minister was himself instrumental in scuttling the meeting and in revving up the temperature at the LoC. On a visit to the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir, he accused Pakistan of waging a “proxy war” in Kashmir. It is also true that since coming into power earlier this year, Modi and the BJP had repeatedly said they would pursue a more aggressive foreign policy, which included highlighting India as the natural leader and regional hegemon of South Asia and accelerating the Indian military’s “modernization” program. The BJP government also seemed to be encouraged by Washington which had again started courting India after the earlier spat involving an Indian female diplomat. The Obama administration had responded to Modi’s election by intensifying its endeavours to woo India and involve New Delhi in isolating and strategically encircling China.
India’s new government has also been trying to exploit the grave crisis currently rocking Nawaz Sharif’s government, in the hope that concessions can be extracted from it when it is on the defensive. Encouragement can also be emanating from Pakistan’s military-security establishment, which resents Sharif’s attempt to assert greater control over the country’s foreign and national-security policy, Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and Allama Tahir-ul Qadri and his Pakistan Awami Tehrik have mounted weeks of protests challenging the legitimacy of Sharif’s 15 month-old government. The BJP government’s aggressive stance against Pakistan and its ratcheting up of the tensions on the LoC also seems to fall in line with its plans to instigate communal tensions in Jammu and Kashmir in the run-up to state elections. Under conditions where the separatist, pro-Pakistani groups are expected to urge an election boycott, the BJP believes that it is well-positioned to secure a majority in the state legislature. This would then enable it to realize a longstanding goal of the Hindu right to abrogate Article 370 of the Indian constitution which gives Jammu and Kashmir special status within the Indian Union. The US, which counts both India and Pakistan as important allies, has described the cancellation of the foreign secretaries’ talks as being unfortunate. But it has not criticized India for seeking to change the diplomatic ground rules. The US, in fact, seems to be urging New Delhi and Islamabad to take steps to improve their bilateral relations. It seems the Obama administration does not want to risk antagonizing Modi prior to his visiting New York and Washington in what will be his maiden US visit as India’s Prime Minister.
The flare up in Indo-Pakistani tensions is, nevertheless, a most unwelcome development for Washington. It further complicates the US effort to strategically and politically reconfigure Afghanistan, so it can withdraw most of its troops from the country while maintaining Afghan military bases from which it can project US power across energy-rich Central Asia and threaten China and Russia. The tension on the LoC also bodes ill for an India-Pakistan relationship which was slowly crawling towards some kind of normalcy. Can the two countries afford this kind of rise in border temperatures?