Where do we go from here?

Pakistan’s gestures over the past week have made the latest stand-off with India look less grave, although the crisis is still far from over and there is great uncertainty ahead of us.

Pakistan’s response to provocations from India since the aerial incursion by Indian Air Force jets on February 26 has been a restrained one, with the single objective of not allowing the situation to spiral out of control. At the same time, India, too, had to be prevented from establishing the new normal of punitive strikes.

Three important steps taken by the government – the immediate release of the Indian Air Force pilot, who was captured after his aircraft was shot down; the decision to send back Pakistan’s High Commissioner to India Sohail Mehmood; and insulating the progress on Kartarpur Corridor from the unfortunate events on the bilateral front by signalling the continuation of negotiations on the agreement that would enable the working of the visa-free corridor for Sikh pilgrims – underscored Pakistani desire from containing this crisis instead of escalating the situation or prolonging the confrontation.

The crisis has also underscored the absence of a functional communication mechanism between India and Pakistan that could reduce the possibility of a miscalculation or a misunderstanding

The gestures earned Pakistan, particularly Prime Minister Imran Khan, some good media projection, but the actual objective of defusing the situation still remains to be achieved – essentially because of India’s intransigence. Delhi has not only not reciprocated Pakistani gestures, but also discouraged international mediation in the crisis.

PM Khan and Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi have together reached out to some 30 world leaders and have sought their intervention in the situation. The hectic outreach is yet to bear fruit because India is not yielding.

What is more worrying is that India is reading Pakistan’s handling of the crisis as a sign of weakness.

In the absence of reciprocation from India, fundamental questions remain about the usefulness of Pakistani overtures and the future direction of the crisis. Without additional momentum and Indian reciprocation, a peaceful end to the crisis remains elusive.

Indian inflexibility mirrors the kind of stubbornness it adopted over resumption of bilateral dialogue with Pakistan that has been stalled since 2014. There are several explanations for Indian stubbornness. One school of thought believes that Delhi is behaving so because of strong international backing for their aggressive behaviour towards Pakistan. The proponents of this view recall how reserved was the world response to Indian aerial incursions with everybody calling for calm and nobody unequivocally denouncing Indian action. Many of them, on the contrary, asked Pakistan to shut down the terror organisations allegedly operating from its soil.

The other school of thought believes that BJP, which was politically struggling, tried to gain mileage from the crisis ahead of the upcoming elections. But, since it has so far failed to achieve anything militarily that it can celebrate in elections as a success against Pakistan, it does not have the incentive to close this episode.

The factors that would be considered by Modi government before agreeing to a closure include the differential cost of the crisis, the desirability of the end state, public opinion (which is very inflamed at the moment) and the pressure of international crisis managers. Right now, none of those factors, from the Indian perspective, are favourable for ending the matter.

Speaking at Islamabad Policy Institute, former defence secretary Lt. Gen (R) Asif Yasin Malik said that a climb down from this escalatory ladder will be costly for Prime Minister Modi in political terms.

Therefore, Indian belligerence is likely to continue although it may vary in intensity and shape as long as Delhi does not get one-up over Pakistan, even if it comes in the diplomatic arena at some multilateral forum.

What could that face saving be for Modi, that remains to be seen. Watch out what happens in coming weeks.

The crisis has also underscored the absence of a functional communication mechanism between India and Pakistan that could reduce the possibility of a miscalculation or a misunderstanding, which could trigger an all-out war and potentially a nuclear exchange. Pakistan’s Foreign Office has conveyed to India its commitment to a functioning hotline between the operations directorates of the armies of the two countries. India is yet to respond, but as history tells and as seen during the latest episode, that channel remains dysfunctional.

The lesson for India, meanwhile, is that it needs to listen to the Kashmiris. The independence movement in the Occupied Valley can no more be suppressed. There is also a limit to blaming Pakistan again and again for India’s failures to govern the occupied region. Pakistan has no control over the latest dynamics of Kashmiri uprising.

As Gen Malik put it, over sixty percent of the Kashmiri population is below the age of thirty-five years, which explains why the youth is unwilling to accept Indian tyranny and occupation. “Dynamics of Kashmir is in nobody’s control, it is on auto-pilot now,” he maintained.

The writer is a senior researcher at Islamabad Policy Institute.

Email: mamoona.rubab@ipipk.org

Published in The Friday Times , March 08, 2019.

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