By Alok Bansal
2014 ended with India-Pakistan relations hitting a new low, there have been allegations of cross border firings and even worse, Indian security forces have alleged that there have been attempts by Pakistan to push in terrorists through the sea routes, a replication of Mumbai.
As the year was coming to a close, a boat carrying suspicious cargo was intercepted off Gujarat coast and destroyed itself when challenged to stop. Sources have claimed that the crew on board had been in touch with Pakistan’s security forces. It appears as though the ties have hit rock bottom with the year coming to an end.
India-Pakistan relations have gone through a rollercoaster during 2014, which began with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif firmly in saddle, with a new Army Chief and Chief Justice. Like all other political leaders in Pakistan, Nawaz knew that Pakistan’s salvation lies in good relations with India. It would also help him to reduce the salience of the Pakistan Army, in the body politic of the state. He accordingly tried hard to improve trade relations with India.
The first two months witnessed lot of discussions on trade, including importing electricity through Amritsar. To bypass the terminology “Most Favoured Nation”- offensive to hardliners, a new term Non-discriminatory Market Access (NDMA) was coined and it appeared as if NDMA would be granted to India by Feb 15. However, the army ensured that this step, which had the potential to permanently change the dimension of India-Pakistan relations, never came about.
It instigated farmers and certain sections of the industry like pharmaceuticals, engineering and automobiles, to protest against granting market access to India. Army sponsored columnists started projecting that trade could be catastrophic for Pakistan. Even a benign offer of exporting electricity through Amritsar was seen as devious machination of India and was projected as though it would enable India to tinker with the water flow of the Western rivers. In the agrarian heartland of Punjab, it became an extremely emotional issue.
A huge movement was created by the army through proxies, who talked of not only non-tariff barriers (NTB) in India, but also about hidden subsidies to Indian farmers. Although Indian authorities gave an assurance that all NTBs that were specific to Pakistan would be removed, it did not cut any ice. Finally as the elections in India were announced, the whole exercise went into a limbo as it was felt that negotiations during elections were meaningless. Moreover, granting concessions to Pakistan, while contesting elections did not make political sense.
The elections in India gave an unprecedented mandate in favour of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and a government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power. The new government invited the heads of states/government of all South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) states to the prime minister’s swearing-in ceremony. Accordingly, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was invited and he rightfully responded by attending the ceremony and gave a positive stimulus to the emerging bonhomie by rejecting a call by the Kashmiri separatists to meet him. In keeping with this prevailing atmosphere of trust, it was decided that the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan should meet in Islamabad to lay a platform for reviving the composite dialogue process, which had been stalled for two years.
However, this cordiality created problems in Pakistan, as the army realised it could lead to the army’s political marginalisation. Consequently, it worked on a two-pronged strategy to unravel this emerging bonhomie. Firstly, it started firing across the Line of Control (LoC), which elicited a stronger retaliation. Secondly, it campaigned to weaken Nawaz and managed to get Tahir-ul-Qadri, a Pakistani politician and Islamic scholar, and Imran Khan, chairman Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, to lay siege to Islamabad with their followers. Nawaz, who was cornered, had to seek support from the army to survive. The army did provide him crutches, but forced him to sing its tune. It asked the envoy in New Delhi to meet the separatist leaders of ‘Hurriyat Conference’ just before the Foreign Secretary level talks, despite instructions from the Indian government not to do so; thereby forcing India to call off the talks.
In the UN General Assembly, a beleaguered Nawaz read the army’s script, wherein he tried to raise the Kashmir question. The relationship consequently went into a deep freeze. Meanwhile, the firings continued unabated not only on the LoC, but also across the International Border in Jammu and Kashmir. The NDA government in India, which had come to power riding on a strong nationalist sentiment, had to give the security forces the autonomy to retaliate strongly.
The ice was eventually broken when the two prime ministers shook hands during the SAARC summit in Kathmandu in November last year, but there has been no further progress in bilateral ties. The terrorist attack on a school in Peshawar led to widespread sympathy for the victims across the border and there was genuine outpouring of grief. All educational institutions prayed for the departed souls and maintained two minutes silence. Even the Indian parliament expressed sympathy for the bereaved families.
There was a general perception that this could lead to better India-Pakistan relations, as Pakistan would realise the dangers of harbouring terrorists. For a change the rift between the Islamist extremists and the army appeared permanent and strikes were launched on the terrorist hideouts. The government also terminated its moratorium on death penalty and hanged many terrorists, who had been awarded the sentence long ago.
For the first time, the Nawaz government overtly expressed its desire to eliminate all terrorists and the army conceded that there were no good or bad Taliban. It appeared that Pakistan would eliminate or at least incarcerate those who were responsible for the Mumbai and other incidents of terror in India. However, Indians were stunned when courts in Pakistan granted bail to Zakiur Rahman Lakhvi, the mastermind of the Mumbai terror attack. Although the authorities arrested him again in another case and an appeal was filed in the Supreme Court against the bail, the incident created serious apprehensions in India. To compound the matter, firing across the border and LoC in Jammu and Kashmir intensified.
At a time when Pakistan is in no position to fight a war with India and Army General Raheel Sharif has made elimination of all Taliban his avowed objective, the firing on the LoC shows fissures within the Pakistan army. It appears there are sections within the army who are unwilling to go along with the army chief. Consequently, firings across the LoC have resumed, as these elements realise that the Indian security forces will respond in strength and this could aggravate the situation along Pakistan’s eastern front, forcing it to halt operations in Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and shift troops to the east. To create further fissures within the armed forces, Adnan Rashid, a former Air Force personnel who is part of the Pakistani Taliban, recently released a video wherein he has exhorted the Pakistani soldiers not to obey their officers. As an added incentive, he has promised them complete amnesty if they joined Taliban.
The future of India-Pakistan relations will continue to be decided by GHQ in Rawalpindi, but the recent incidents have shown that until and unless the troops deployed along the border are reined in, the relations cannot improve. The detection of a boat off Gujarat, which destroyed itself, leads to suspicion that it was either carrying terrorists or arms for them. This shows that there are elements within Pakistan who want to attack India, with or without the approval of their superiors.
The Pakistan Army, despite its outer façade is no longer a monolith and in days to come could show further fissures. Consequently, there could be increase in firings across the LoC and International Border. The two ‘Sharifs’ in charge of Pakistan’s destiny need to improve relations with India by allowing trade and unilateral reduction of forces across LoC and International Border, if they really want to have any chance of success against the Taliban.
(Alok Bansal is executive director, South Asian Institute for Strategic Affairs (SAISA). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)