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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 40 New Delhi September 24, 2016

A Flashpoint in South Asia?

Saturday 24 September 2016

by L.K. Sharma

Pakistan and India are engaged in a war of words at the highest level. Unusually provo-cative statements have been made by the two Prime Ministers. The area of contest and conflict has been widened. The TV channels in the two countries beat the war drums every night.

Pakistan queered the pitch when it saw India failing to deal with the Kashmiris protesting against the killing of a terrorist. Pakistan’s Prime Minister dedicated his nation’s Independence Day to Kashmir’s freedom from India! Provoked, India stooped to Pakistan’s level, engaging in a tit-for-tat game.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi could hardly allow himself to be seen as a wimp. He made references to the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, to some other Pakistani territories and to the human rights violations in Balochistan.

A dignified silence was not an option for the Indian Prime Minister. Not when a wave of hyper-nationalism has been set off by his party and its extended political family. By referring to Balochistan, Prime Minister Modi signalled: You question India’s territorial integrity, I will question Pakistan’s. You interfere in our internal affairs, we will interfere in yours.

Modi’s fans were elated. They saw it as a befitting reply to Pakistan! The ruling BJP saw aggressive patriotism fetching it more votes in the coming State-level elections. The jingoistic utterances by the ruling party leaders and the TV channels energise the BJP’s support-base but these make the restoration of normalcy in the troubled Kashmir quite difficult.

Pakistan feels encouraged to provoke New Delhi because of its close ties with China and its successful use of Islamic terrorism against India, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. It sees an opportunity in the upsurge of the sectarian sentiments in India. Will Pakistan be deterred from organising more terror strikes in Kashmir as a result of the Indian Prime Minister opening the Balochitsan front? It remains to be seen.

For different reasons, India’s new approach also touches India’s ties with China, Iran and Afghanistan. China has stakes in Balochistan because of the so-called China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Iran and Afghanistan have problems with the vision of a Great Balochistan.

The world always made a distinction between India and Pakistan, even though because of the Cold War, India’s moral standing or its democratic credentials did not earn India any bonus. India’s new pragmatic foreign policy practitioners may argue that morality does not pay. In one more sphere, India now mirrors Pakistan.

The Modi Government’s capacity to make peace overtures to Pakistan as also its ability to deal with the separatists in Kashmir are at a low point. Both have been constricted by the outbreak of hyper-nationalism in India. Domestic politics should not influence the conduct of foreign policy but it does.

There is a concerted campaign to fuel jingoism in India as a winning political strategy. The vigilante groups intimidate the “anti-national elements”. Those discussing Rabindranath Tagore’s criticism of nationalism are called unpatriotic intellectuals.

Displaying aggressive patriotism has become fashionable. Those who consider it disgusting hesitate to express their views lest they get attacked on the road or in the social media. Some vigilante groups have ruled what is nationalism and track those not following their diktat. A visiting foreign correspondent would get the impression that two rival tribes inhabit India, the nationalists and the anti-nationals.

Some political outfits in India, flaunting aggressive patriotism, have been opposing visits by the Pakistani musicians, singers and film actors. India’s public diplomacy campaign is not helped when its Defence Minister calls Pakistan “hell”.

When a former woman MP on her return from Pakistan says Pakistan is no hell, a “patriotic” person files a sedition case against her! The ideological followers of the Indian Prime Minister routinely ask his critics to migrate to Pakistan. Vigilante groups intimidate the “anti-nationals” with impunity.

Taking a cue from the Prime Minister, Indian TV channels suddenly discovered the Pakistani territory called Balochistan. They began showing Al-Jazeera’s archival footage of the Pakistani forces committing atrocities against the civilians there. One TV channel blatantly boasts of its “patriotic coverage” and attacks the rivals for the lack of it. Every channel carries interviews with the exiled Baloch separatist leaders who express their gratitude to Modi.

Some critics call Modi’s Pakistan policy inconsistent. This was the same Modi who had invited the Pakistani Prime Minister to his inauguration. He let a Pakistani team visit the sensitive Pathankot air base that was attacked by Pakistani terrorists. Also, in a surprise move, Modi joined the Pakistani Prime Minister at his home in celebrating a family function.

After this fruitless endeavour to be seen in South Asia as an emerging statesman, Modi returned to his default position. As the Chief Minister of Gujarat, he had won a State election by deriding “Mia Musharraf” of Pakistan. He had relentlessly attacked the weak-kneed Manmohan Singh Government.

India’s “muscular” response may or may not restrain the official Pakistan; it will adversely affect the way Pakistanis see India. That the goodwill they harbour towards Indians does not influence Pakistan’s official policy is another matter. The state has always used Islamic terrorism to harm India by a thousand cuts and yet wars and war-mongering by Pakistan failed to vitiate the people-to-people relations.

Every Pakistani visiting India and every Indian visiting Pakistan would testify to a reservoir of mutual goodwill. Despite Pakistani military dictators orienting their nation towards the Islam of the Arabic nations, the people of Pakistan continue to cherish their South Asian ethos. India must not lose an advantage in the battle for the hearts and minds of the people of a neighbouring country.

The Pakistani rulers through their history text-books have tried for years to alienate the young from India and fuel anti-India sentiments. This process will now be helped by the aggressive rhetoric coming from India’s political leaders.

New Delhi’s new approach has already led to some consequences. The Balochi dissidents living in Pakistan face increased violence from the Pakistani forces. Pakistan says that Modi’s statement proved that India was creating trouble in Balochistan.

How will the Indian Prime Minister follow up the Balochistan issue? Opposing the separatists in Kashmir and supporting them in Balochistan will be a complex exercise.

Modi has raised the expectations of the Baloch freedom-fighters. The Baloch exiles, who thank Modi from Europe and America, have come to expect more than just statements. Their gratitude will last as long as the war of words between India and Pakistan continues. The Baloch freedom-fighters have for decades seen the powerful nations using or misusing the issue of “human rights violations”.

If the Indo-Pak equation happens to improve, where will it leave Balochistan? How will the Baloch leaders, persecuted by Pakistan, feel if Modi were to stop making statements on their plight? Some of them may then be reminded of the phrase “thrown to the wolves”.

Modi’s activism will partly depend on the signals from the US that has always overlooked the human rights violations in Balochistan and the killing of eminent Opposition leaders in Pakistan. Is America, in its own national interests, ready to make a departure in this regard? China’s role in Pakistan and specifically in Balochistan is another factor being examined by the foreign policy experts.

Normally, such a significant, though symbolic, change in India’s stance would have sparked a vigorous debate. In the current atmosphere, an Indian diplomat is unlikely to give a frank opinion in official meetings. This makes any rational discussion difficult.

Some commentators did refer to India giving up its high moral ground etc. but the weak notes of dissent were drowned in the loud applauding noise emanating from the TV studios. The Opposition leaders do not wish to be called “pro-Pakistan”. In the present political scenario, public perception is influenced by fiction.

India has had a distinctive conflict-resolution policy. It ignored some provocations by Pakistan and carried on the path of development. Consequently, India emerged as a growing economic power. Now there is rethinking on that Pakistan policy as the past leaders have to be discredited.

The current wave of hyper-nationalism has made a meaningful diplomatic engagement with Pakistan difficult. However, given the erratic nature of the Indo-Pak relations, usually such spells do not last. At times, some wise counsel prevails in New Delhi and Islamabad. At times, a third powerful country forces the two sides to break the impasse. Pakistan may find it necessary to follow up its hostile rhetoric with friendly messages!

Modi will then have to find a face-saving formula because he leads a democracy. Pakistan can take a U-turn without any risk. The Modi fans will have to justify the Prime Minister’s visit to Pakistan for a South Asian summit, if that takes place. They will have to justify if New Delhi invites the Pakistani Prime Minister to watch a cricket match in India!

The Modi Government’s inconsistent Pakistan policy makes the dangerous rhetoric less credible. Had it not been so, foreign TV reporters would have rushed to this region once described as the most dangerous in the world. This has not happened because these two nuclear-armed nations are still not considered quite mad.

In the crucial coming weeks, one would know whether a meaningful Indo-Pak dialogue will be resumed or new fronts of contest will be opened. Will war-mongering be followed by friendly gestures and invitations for talks? Perhaps the charade will go on because the alternative is too horrendous for the world. It looks like a flash-point but then it may not be one!

The world as well as Modi’s critics and fans at home will watch the impact of his audacious move to give a new twist to India’s Pakistan policy. If a nation abandons a foreign policy tempered with ethics, it must have the capacity to succeed in the world of realpolitik. The euphoric reaction being worked up in India to Modi’s muscular approach will last as long as the new policy shows some success.

(Courtesy: Open Democracy)

The author is a senior journalist and writer who worked in India and abroad (notably Britain) in several major newspapers. Now retired, he is a free- lancer.