Bordering War: Pakistan-India Tensions Enter a War-Like Narrative

BOTTLED ANGER: Demonstrators holding a Pakistani flag, shout during a protest in Srinagar against the recent killings in Kashmir, September 30, 2016

BY: Jyoti Malhotra

A map of the undivided state of Jammu and Kashmir lays bare the plain truth for all to see. As the crow flies, the distance between Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, and Uri in the northern part of Indian-administered Kashmir is a mere 211 km. The road from Islamabad to Baramulla, once known as the “Gateway to the Kashmir valley,” is even closer, at 138 km.

Despite the proximity, there is more than an electrified barbed wire fence separating Islamabad from these Kashmiri towns.

Since the cross-border attacks by militants—on September 18 on the Uri army base camp, which claimed the lives of 18 soldiers, and two weeks later on October 2, on the Baramulla army base—the rising nationalist sentiment on either side of the border has pushed both the Indian and Pakistani governments to take such hardline positions against each other.

According to the Indian government, army commandos conducted covert strikes inside Pakistani-administered territory some 10 days after the Uri attack. But the Pakistanis have strenuously refuted the scale of the attack as described by the Indian side, saying that only small arms and mortar fire was used. Nevertheless, Pakistan’s permanent representative to the U.S. Maleeha Lodhi met U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and asked him to take cognizance of the Indian violation of the Line of Control (LoC).

Barely nine months after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi dropped in, uninvited, to the family home of his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif on Christmas last year in Raiwind, just outside Lahore to participate in the wedding celebrations of Sharif’s granddaughter, India and Pakistan are now locked in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation.

Media outlets in general, and televised media in particular, have reflected and continue to mirror the bitterness on both sides.
Indian TV anchors are behaving these days as if their microphones could be transformed into AK-47s. Meanwhile, Pakistan TV shows are incomplete without the presence of at least one retired general who don’t think twice about connecting the ongoing tension with the war in 1971, in which Pakistan lost one-third of its territory (which later came to be known as Bangladesh).
Interestingly, in the wake of the covert strikes, the Indian political class has united in complimenting the Modi government for teaching the Pakistani army a lesson. It was a measure of the anger that has been sweeping India in recent weeks and months, as officers and soldiers have fallen fighting militants from across the LoC. Congress Party’s leader Sonia Gandhi said: “The Congress Party hopes that Pakistan will recognize that it bears a great responsibility in the continuing cross-border terrorist attacks against India.”

Former Indian Army Chief General Bikram Singh tells Newsweek Middle East that “the Indian army has done this before. As recently as 2013, when the heads of two Indian soldiers were decapitated, Indian soldiers went across the LoC and did what had to be done.”

The general was referring to a time when Congress Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was in power. Former Home Minister P. Chidambaram has since publicly claimed credit for sending Indian troops inside Pakistani territory in retaliation to the terrorist attacks.

The Congress Party is cruelly aware of the bottled anger inside India—after all, the heinous attacks in Mumbai in 2008 took place under its watch and the Pakistani establishment has done little about bringing the perpetrators and masterminds to justice. Now, with Modi getting all the credit for conducting covert strikes, the Congress also realizes that the ruling Bharatya Janata Party (BJP) is likely to enormously gain in the coming provincial elections in several parts of the country in 2017. With the Congress fighting with its back to the political wall, this could make a big difference to further saffronizing the country.

India’s political party Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) on the other hand, gave a 48-hour ultimatum towards the end of September, to all Pakistani artists working in India to immediately leave the country. MNS also targeted production companies who cast these artists. In the past, Pakistani artists and players have been forced to cancel their performances in India over political issues between both countries. A few days after the threat, and in a tit-for-tat move, Pakistan banned the broadcast of all Indian channels, for showing “illegal content” and blocked Bollywood movies from playing in theatres.

After the Indian army’s elite Special Forces conducted their strike 2 to 3 km into Pakistani territory on September 29—a move the Pakistani army strenuously denies—Modi held a meeting with his Cabinet Committee on Security, which comprises the defense, foreign and finance ministers. Following the meeting, the Director-General of Military Operations (DGMO), Lt.

General Randhir Singh held a press conference with the spokesperson of the ministry of external affairs, Vikas Swarup, sitting by his side. Singh and Swarup told the assembled media that Indian troops had conducted strikes inside Pakistan.

BJP President Amit Shah led the kudos on Twitter. “Today’s strikes signal the rise of a new India when the government of India doesn’t get cowed down by nefarious designs of terrorists.” Shah signed off his tweet with the hashtag #ModiPunishesPak.

For the time being, there is no taller leader in India than Modi. This is the man who has defanged Pakistan—Pakistan’s denials notwithstanding. As for whether the truth will ever be fully out, that is another question. The Indian government seems quite content not to be baited by the demand for “evidence,” which it is not about to give. Certainly, it would have shared the information of the attacks with the Americans. Considering there is such quiet on the western front, the Indian political class seems quite chuffed by the fact that even China, Pakistan’s best friend and ally, has been quite guarded in its reaction to the alleged covert strikes carried out by India.

And so the question arises, where do India and Pakistan go from here? C. Uday Bhaskar, director of the Society for Policy Studies tells Newsweek Middle East that if Modi “wants to prevail or compel Pakistan from supporting terror groups, then it must acquire the competence or ability to do so. This will call for both patience and prudence, and the determination to stay the course and pay the costs. It is not a low-cost option.”

Certainly, Modi now believes that the time for conversation with the elected premier of Pakistan, Sharif, is over. He believes that Sharif wields little or no power and that the real power lies with the Pakistani army, in Rawalpindi. Certainly, too, Modi’s assessment is not very different from his predecessors—the difference is that he is aiming to deal with Pakistan very differently.

A highly placed government minister who spoke on the condition of anonymity points out that “Modi is more like Indira Gandhi, than anyone else. Now that he is determined to change Pakistan’s behavior, he knows that it will be a long haul.” The ministerial source was referring to Indira Gandhi’s steadfast support to the Mukti Bahini, the Bangladeshi rebel army that pushed for independence from Pakistan. Modi’s support of Baloch insurgents fighting to bring to public notice human rights violations carried out by the Pakistani state must be seen in this context, the source added.

Rakesh Sinha, the director of India Policy Foundation, a think-tank run by the BJP’s ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), tells Newsweek Middle East that “India must call upon the international community to join hands with it and fight terrorism, whose epicenter is in Pakistan. If Pakistan wants, it can also be part of that fight.”

Asked if Modi should now reach out to Sharif, after the conduct of the surgical strikes inside Pakistan, Sinha is quick to answer: “Not at all. Modi-ji has tried to speak with Sharif over the past two years and has received a lot of flak in the bargain, internally, from people inside the organization. But Pakistan’s prime minister did not respond to Modi’s gestures of peace. He should now know that the burden of dialogue should also be on Pakistan, not only on India.”

It now seems as if Modi is willing to undertake the long haul and destroy the enemy within Pakistan. Certainly, that’s a huge challenge and could take years to overcome. In fact, somewhat romantically, at his Kerala rally on the eve of the surgical strikes, Modi called upon the people of Pakistan to overthrow their rulers, those who are hand-in-glove with terrorists.

But Modi’s government is also keenly aware that it must simultaneously move on resolving the crisis within Indian-administered Kashmir. Curfew has entered the third month in the Kashmir valley and more than 80 people have died after being fired at by security forces, while dozens have lost their eyesight due to pellet gunshots used by the police. Opening up an unconditional dialogue with Kashmiris of all hues could become a game-changer—especially when the government has decided to give no quarter to Pakistan.

Sinha points out there is no “contradiction in the idea between Kashmiriyat and the idea of India,” referring to the syncretic understanding between Hinduism and Islam that once flourished in this war-torn Valley. But the truth is that so much has changed inside Kashmir and that the wellsprings of mutual understanding have been replaced by reservoirs of hate. In 1947, Muslim-majority Kashmir chose to remain with India because Sheikh Abdullah, its most revered leader, believed that Kashmiris would be far more secure within India than join Pakistan.

Much water has flowed down the Jhelum, since. The BJP’s point person on Kashmir, who had tweeted in the wake of the Uri attack that the government should take out a jaw in place of a tooth, tells Newsweek Middle East: “We are aware of the situation, and we are going to act soon.”

For the sake of Kashmir, as well as for India and Pakistan, one hopes that day comes not a minute too soon.

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