The past week a heightened war of words marked the developments between India and Pakistan after an attack on the army’s base in Uri near the Line of Control (LoC) in which 19 soldiers were killed. If the war-mongering section of the media had its way, an armed confrontation was imminent. The way pressure was being applied on the government to go all guns blazing against Pakistan to avenge the Uri attack, it seemed as if nothing could stop such an “adventure”. However, it was Prime Minister Narendra Modi who put a break on this with a “restrained” speech from Kozhikode in Kerala. He did not mince words in attacking Pakistan, taunting it as “exporters” of terrorists in comparison to India’s “pride” of exporting software engineers to the world. He asserted that India would not forget Uri. Instead of talking to the Government of Pakistan, Modi addressed its people, inviting them to fight a war against poverty. This changed the direction of the debate and if it did not move towards peace building, at least war talk receded into the background.
But then the Modi government moved on to a new offensive and talked first about scrapping the Indus Waters Treaty and later put on hold the Indus Commission meetings and exploring possibilities of maximizing the use of the water.
This all came across as calculated moves by a government that was already grappling with internal challenges given that going to an overt or covert war with Pakistan is certainly not an option a BJP government would consider. This was a party that had been advocating a hard-hitting response to Pakistan when out of power. But it found the space for this had shrunk since. But this does not mean it could push for an offensive that could spiral out of control. Strategic experts have in the past few days gone over all the options of how it could “teach Pakistan a lesson” for Uri, but in the end they have ruled out war.
Since Modi has been pushing a model of development with India a strong and robust economy, even talk of war has the potential to render the country a no-go zone for foreign investment. But at the same time, the BJP has a challenge ahead as it is going to face its biggest electoral battle in Uttar Pradesh, which was instrumental in Modi’s march to Delhi in the 2014 parliamentary elections. Many analysts believe that hard posturing against Pakistan would help the BJP wrest power from the Samajwadi Party. Fighting elections on a warlike plank is a risk that may not be worth taking.
With Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif taking a tough position on Kashmir at the United Nations General Assembly, pressure mounted on India to ramp up its counter offensive. When Nawaz spoke at the UN last year, he was reconciliatory and offered a four-point formula for peace with India. But this year’s speech was full of belligerence with him positing Kashmir as a challenge to the UN’s credibility. He called for the Right to Self-Determination, something that was expected given his call for a Black Day to mark the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani on July 8 and the subsequent civilian deaths that ensued in protests. Nawaz tried to make the best use of Kashmir’s current phase of unrest that has been unprecedented by all accounts.
Even though Uri cast a shadow over his “Kashmir offensive”, Nawaz still used the podium to corner India, without referring to the attack. However, what analysts point out is that he probably made a wrong choice by eulogizing Wani in his speech and projecting him as a Kashmiri leader. Wani had the ability to ignite sentiment in Kashmir as had not been seen in 26 years. The social media savvy fighter was perceived as a “hero” by many in and outside Kashmir. But mention of his name by Nawaz, despite all this, only served to help India flag it in the UN speech as proof that Pakistan is a “promoter of terror”.
Nawaz may have made a forceful speech at the UN but mentioning Wani and describing his country as a victim of terrorism in the same breath did not have the impact he may have wanted. It would have perhaps been enough to reference the excessive force used by the Indian government to contain the protests, the death toll, the blinding injuries from pellets and a continuous lockdown.
Pakistan will have to do a lot more at the international level to restore its credibility and strengthen its case. The New York Times wrote a few editorials urging intervention in Kashmir, but it refused to believe Pakistan. For example, on India’s allegation against Pakistan on Uri, it wrote on September 23, “Pakistan has denied involvement, but that rings hollow: Its military has long supported terrorist groups intent on attacking India.” Writing in Dawn, four Pakistani diplomats, Inam ul Haque, Riaz Hussain Khokhar, Riaz Mohammad Khan and Mahmud Durrani said: “The perception of Pakistan’s erstwhile support to extremist militancy in Kashmir in the 1990s and our association with the Taliban have hurt Pakistan’s international image.” They also spoke of outside elements: “Nothing will help India more than an [sic] evidence of outside militant elements blending with the indigenous Kashmiri uprising to justify its extreme violence in India-held Kashmir and its aggressive posture against Pakistan. We should be open to cooperating with any investigation into the Uri attack.” Such an assessment amply points to how Islamabad is seen when it comes to mixing Kashmir’s indigenous political movement with something else.
India’s response to Pakistan at the UN was not as robust as expected. There are mixed responses to External Affairs Minister Sushma Sawraj’s speech that was mainly seen as countering Pakistan. Except for reiterating New Delhi’s stand that Jammu and Kashmir was an integral part of India, that has been heard a million times before, she was less impressive. And this too needs to be seen in the backdrop of what is happening inside Kashmir. It is debatable whether India has succeeded in isolating Pakistan globally or that Islamabad’s own problems mean its outreach lacks impact.
What is happening in Kashmir has to be delinked from what was happening at the UN and or between India and Pakistan. Perhaps aware of its new dynamic, Modi said in his weekly Man ki Baat radio outreach: “I am confident that we will resolve all issues together through discussions, will find ways and jointly lay the track for the future generations of Kashmir.” However, all that he has been saying about Kashmir recently needed to put in a framework. He is right that all issues can be resolved through dialogue. While it is important to understand that no permanent solution to the Kashmir issue can be found by isolating or ignoring Pakistan, first an atmosphere of trust and confidence must be built within Kashmir. Justice for the victims of state-sponsored atrocities is the only way to create a space for that dialogue. Modi should move in this direction before it is late. Both India and Pakistan will have to understand that Kashmir cannot be held hostage to their strategic concerns or their animosity.
The writer is a senior journalist based in Srinagar and can be mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org