War of words

The glimmer of hope of bilateral talks between India and Pakistan resuming was extinguished within 24 hours after the two sides made the announcement on talks in late September. The newly elected Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan, signalled his willingness to open a new page by stating that he was willing to take “two steps” if India took “one step” forward to restore the bilateral dialogue process. Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrote a congratulatory letter to Imran Khan after he took over as Prime Minister. Imran Khan’s letter in reply reiterated the offer “for constructive engagement” with India. It said that his government was willing to hold talks on all contentious issues, including “terrorism”, along with Kashmir. Surprisingly, the Modi government accepted the offer. It was announced that the Foreign Ministers of the two countries would meet on the sidelines of the annual meet of United Nations General Assembly in New York in the last week of September.

The two countries’ decision to restart talks at a high level was immediately welcomed by the United States. The Donald Trump administration, which is now more closely aligned with India, has been urging the two nuclear-armed neighbours to hold talks as it strives to make an honourable exit out of Afghanistan. The U.S. State Department described the proposed meeting as “terrific news”. The U.S. is also interested in weaning the new government in Pakistan off its “all-weather friend”, China.

Imran Khan is known to be wary of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project. He has said that he wants Saudi Arabia to be involved in it. Pakistan’s Commerce Minister, Abdul Razak Dawood, said that the “CPEC should be put on hold for one year” as Pakistan has been put in a “disadvantageous position”. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told the media in New York in the last week of September after a meeting with Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi that plots to sabotage China-Pakistan relations “will not succeed”. The opposition in Pakistan alleges that Imran Khan is going out of his way to please the Trump administration despite the shabby way the country has been treated by its oldest ally.

China too, like the rest of the international community, wants India to resume the dialogue process with Pakistan. Virtually no country supports the Indian government’s adamant “no talks” stand that has led to a diplomatic impasse between the two countries and the fast deteriorating situation in the Kashmir valley. The Indian government called off the scheduled meeting between Sushma Swaraj and Qureshi, citing, among other things, the “mutilation” of a paramilitary officer along the line of control (LoC) and the brutal killing of three policemen by militants in the valley.

The Indian government also took umbrage at the Pakistan government releasing 20 commemorative stamps honouring separatist “freedom fighters” in Kashmir and the current hero of the militants in the valley, Burhan Wani. The killing of the 21-year-old Wani in 2016 gave the insurgency in the Kashmir valley a new lease of life. The stamps were released more than a month before Imran Khan became Prime Minister. However, the Indian government spokesman said that Imran Khan’s offer of talks was a sham and “that the evil agenda of Pakistan stands exposed and the true face of the new Prime Minister of Pakistan has been revealed to the world”.

The Modi government’s initial agreement to the Foreign Ministers’ meeting immediately came in for criticism from the Congress party. Its spokesman Abishek Manu Singhvi said that it was a sign of weakness in the face of continuing ceasefire violations and acts of terrorism by Pakistan. He claimed that his party played a role in the cancellation of the talks, saying that the Congress deserved “some of the credit” for the achievement. It is clear that meaningful talks with Pakistan can be expected only after the formation of a new government in India next year.

Meanwhile, villagers living on both sides of the LoC and ordinary citizens continue to bear the brunt of the violence triggered by the crisis in the valley and the escalating insurgency. There are reports that cross-border shelling increased after the war of words erupted between the two governments after India’s abrupt cancellation of the Foreign Ministers’ meet. A civilian helicopter carrying the Chief Minister of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, Raja Farooq Haider, was shot at by Indian forces as it was flying near the LoC.

While initially accepting Imran Khan’s offer, the Indian government had made it clear that the proposed talks would be a one-off affair and that it was not a commitment to restart the stalled dialogue process involving the Foreign Secretaries. This dialogue was called off abruptly by the Modi government three years ago and that had derailed the dialogue process.

Political weapon

The “Rafale” controversy erupted, and the attention of the public had to be diverted. The Modi government’s decision to renege on the talks offer, according to many commentators, was dictated by the exigencies of domestic politics as general elections are scheduled for next year. Pakistan-bashing has brought the Bharatiya Janata Party electoral dividends in past elections, and the BJP government revels in playing the nationalism card. The BJP also seems determined to “polarise” the electorate on sectarian lines. A war of words with Pakistan and a “hot border” along the LoC could come in handy during the elections as the government is unable to boast of any meaningful achievements during its tenure so far.

The statement by the Indian Army chief, Gen. Bipin Rawat, following the abrupt cancellation of the talks and Imran Khan’s response have only further queered the pitch. Rawat, thankfully, did not once again talk about the readiness of the armed forces for a war “on two and a half fronts”. This time, his threats were exclusively aimed at Pakistan. Rawat, who is prone to giving his opinion on political and diplomatic issues, said that the government’s decision to call off the talks was justified. “I think that our government’s policies are quite clear and concise,” he told reporters. “We’ve made no bones that talks and terrorism cannot go hand in hand. Pakistan needs to curb the menace of terrorism.”

He went a step further and threatened retribution for the Pakistan Army’s alleged acts of terror. “We need to take stern action to avenge the barbarism that terrorists and the Pakistani army have been carrying out. Yes, it’s time to give it back to them in the same coin, not resorting to similar kinds of barbarism. But I think that the other side should also feel the pain,” Rawat told the media. Pakistan has denied that its troops had a role in the “mutilation” incident. The Pakistan government’s spokesperson said that the Indian Army Chief was speaking “like a BJP functionary”. Its Army spokesman, Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, said that his country preferred dialogue over war but, at the same time, was prepared for any exigencies. “Pakistan is a nuclear-armed country and is ready to respond to Indian misadventures.”

Imran’s responses

Imran Khan reacted to the abrupt cancellation of the scheduled talks in a very undiplomatic way. “Disappointed at the arrogant and negative response by India to my call for resumption of the peace dialogue. However, all my life I have come across small men occupying big offices who do not have the vision to see the big picture,” he said in a Twitter post. This was an insult aimed directly at the Indian Prime Minister. Imran Khan said that if there was peace between the two countries the entire subcontinent would be able to thrive and that Pakistan’s offer of talks should not be seen as a sign of weakness. “Our people are ready, our tanks are ready,” he said after the rebuff from India. There is no love lost between Imran Khan and Modi, but to the Pakistan Premier’s credit, at least he made an attempt to restart the dialogue process with India.

Instead of talking, the two sides are exchanging insults and threats now. The meeting of Foreign Ministers of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) on the sidelines of the General Assembly meet in New York witnessed amateurish diplomatic behaviour. Sushma Swaraj, after delivering her speech, chose to walk out before her Pakistani counterpart’s turn to speak came. In his speech, Qureshi blamed India for the failure to make SAARC a viable regional grouping. He specifically mentioned India’s failure to attend the SAARC summit in Islamabad in 2016. No SAARC summit has taken place since then because of India’s refusal to attend the summit, which is to be hosted by Pakistan.

During the election campaign, Imran Khan labelled Nawaz Sharif as “Modi ka yaar” (Modi’s friend). Modi, unlike previous Indian Prime Ministers, has very few admirers in Pakistan. Amit Shah, the BJP president, said recently that Pakistan’s aim was similar to that of the Congress party. Both wanted Modi to be defeated in the next general election. The BJP reacted angrily after Navjot Singh Sidhu embraced the Pakistan Army chief, Gen. Qamar Bajwa, when he was in Pakistan to attend Imran Khan’s swearing-in ceremony. Sidhu is a Minister in the Congress government in Punjab and was the only Indian dignitary present at the ceremony.

From September 28 to 30, the BJP government commemorated the so-called “surgical strikes” that the Indian military carried out across the LoC in 2016. The Ministry of Human Resource Development ordered universities and schools to also commemorate the event. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the chief guest at a function to celebrate the second anniversary of the strike. Nirmala Sitharaman, the Defence Minister, gave a belligerent speech stating that the Indian armed forces had “adequately punished” those who sought to spread terrorism in the country. Pakistan continues to deny that such strikes ever took place. At any rate, surgical strikes of the kind claimed by the present government were carried out by previous governments too.

Responding to criticism from Pakistan’s opposition, Pakistan’s Minister for Information and Broadcasting, Fawad Chaudhry, said that Imran Khan’s offer to India was prompted by his desire to end the conflict between the two countries, which had lasted more than 70 years, and his vision to uplift millions of people from poverty in the subcontinent. Peace between the two countries, according to Imran Khan, would give Pakistan access to the two huge international markets of West Asia and Central Asia, Chaudhry said. In a recent study, the World Bank estimated that there was a trade potential of $37 billion between the two countries if peace prevailed.

Pakistan offers the cheapest transit route for Indian goods to the lucrative Central Asian market, and pipelines passing through Pakistan would make the import of oil and gas easier. Peace between the neighbours would help make the world safer. Talks between the two countries would have at least lessened tensions along the LoC. Since September 2016, guns have been booming on both sides without respite. And given the speeches made by Sushma Swaraj in the General Assembly and the Indian Prime Minister in his “Mann ki Baat” programme on October 1, tensions along the LoC will only escalate further.

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