The Hawks of South Asia

The dream of a lasting peace between Pakistan and India can't happen unless their militaries get out of the way.

ROUF BHAT/AFP/Getty Images
ROUF BHAT/AFP/Getty Images

NEW DELHIOn May 12, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh traveled to Kabul for the first time since 2005, announcing $500 million in Indian aid, raising India’s total contribution to $2 billion for developmental projects for Afghanistan and increasing cooperation on security issues between the two countries’ governments, which share hostile relationships with Pakistan. A large contingent of Indian journalists filled the venue where Singh shared the stage with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Pakistan has been wary of the growing Indian influence in Kabul; in the past, Afghan and Indian officials have blamed the attacks on Indian establishments in Afghanistan on terrorist groups under the patronage of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, which has long used the Taliban and other militants as a proxy for destabilizing India in its near abroad.

Singh’s pronouncements in Kabul were followed with great attention in Pakistan. An Indian journalist asked whether India would mount a covert action similar to the United States’ Operation Neptune Spear to kill Osama bin Laden if it had credible evidence of fugitives wanted by India — from leaders of the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba to underworld don Dawood Ibrahim, accused of masterminding the 1993 Bombay blasts — living in Pakistan. "These are sensitive issues and we don’t discuss strategies on terror in press conferences," Singh replied. But he proceeded to downplay the possibility of India conducting a military raid on Pakistani territory by saying, "Experience in the past has been rather frustrating and disappointing. One cannot lose hope. Let me say one thing: I would like to say India is not like the United States."

Yet opinions vary within the Indian establishment. While Singh may sound quiescent notes, some Indian military chiefs and several senior leaders of the prime minister’s Congress Party remain hawkish on the question of relations with Pakistan and the settlement of disputes like Kashmir. A few days after bin Laden’s killing in Pakistan, reporters on tour with Indian Army chief Gen. V.K. Singh asked him the same question: Could India go after Pakistan-based terrorists? A similar question was thrown at Indian Air Force chief P.V. Naik. The answer in both cases: Yes, we can.

Pakistan retaliated with counterwarnings. Pakistani Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir remarked that such "misadventure" could lead to a "terrible catastrophe"– sending a quick reminder of his volatile country’s nuclear capabilities. Yet some Indian television anchors and strategic-affairs hawks, who make Rush Limbaugh sound like Joseph Nye, continued egging on the Indian government for a raid into Pakistan to assassinate men like Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, the chief of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, whom India holds responsible for the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks.

In a move characteristic of the country’s competitive politics, India’s main opposition party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, called on Singh to rethink his Pakistan policy and demand Ibrahim’s extradition, noting that "talks and terror cannot coexist." Even within Singh’s Congress Party, a majority of leaders were clamoring for an end to talks with Pakistan. "Singh is in a minority even in his party, but he resisted all the pressure to end talks with Pakistan," said an analyst familiar with those discussions.

In the past seven years, Singh has been foremost an advocate of Indian engagement with Pakistan aimed at resolving their several disputes, including the future of Kashmir. A slow process of meetings between Indian and Pakistani officials has lumbered on since late 2003, reaching its most fruitful moment in April 2005, when the two countries agreed to allow a bus service for divided families across the Line of Control (LOC), the de facto border between Indian-controlled and Pakistan-controlled parts of Kashmir.

Some of the most hopeful moments in the bitter diplomatic history of Indo-Pak relations followed the trans-LOC bus route success, as back-channel talks between India and Pakistan in 2006 and 2007 backed by Singh and then-President Pervez Musharraf came close to an informal agreement about the way out of the Kashmir dispute. Indian and Pakistani diplomats involved in the talks had come to agree on a largely autonomous Kashmir with soft borders between the Indian-controlled and Pakistani-controlled regions, followed by a gradual demilitarization of the area. But Musharraf lost power in August 2008 and the talks reached a dead end. A year later, India formally ended talks with Pakistan after terrorists based in Pakistan attacked Mumbai in November 2008, killing more than 160 people.

Thus, Singh’s insistence in Kabul on not losing hope for peace with Pakistan is important in the volatile context of relations between the nuclear-armed neighbors. He also decisively put to rest the speculation of such an attack that had filled the Indian public sphere in the aftermath of the bin Laden killing. "There is recognition that ‘not talking’ does not give you any levers. Talking may not solve problems, but not talking does not either. So we have the cycles of talks — crisis — no talks — recovery — crisis. We stop talking in part because the Indian government has no other means of protest or options against something like [the November 2008 Mumbai attacks]. Ironically, if there were other options, we might not ‘suspend’ talks," said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of Center for Policy Research, India’s premier public-policy institute.

India has mounted intense diplomatic pressure on Pakistan to prosecute terrorists behind the Mumbai attacks and their handlers, repeatedly calling for the arrest of the leaders of Lashkar-e-Taiba and Hafiz Saeed, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa chief. Pakistan has arrested some operatives of Lashkar-e-Taiba, but New Delhi wanted more.

In this edgy, volatile context, when the Indian discourse seems dominated by jingoism, Singh’s consistent attempts for a continued dialogue with Pakistan to address the disputes between the two countries are worthy. Singh risked serious political capital for improving bilateral relations by agreeing to decouple action on terrorism from a broader political dialogue aimed at discussing "all outstanding issues" with Pakistan after meeting Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in July 2009. Singh faced intense criticism from hard-liners in India, but he rightly seemed to believe that not talking doesn’t achieve anything.

A few more meetings between foreign ministers and secretaries followed in 2010 with little results. Pakistan wanted India to agree on a time frame for beginning discussions on Kashmir and the contested Siachen glacier; India sought progress in investigation and prosecution of those involved in the Mumbai attacks.

The question of Kashmir was in the foreground throughout the summer of 2010 as the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir witnessed intifada-style protests against Indian rule, renewed calls for independence, and deaths of 110 unarmed protesters, mostly teenagers, after Indian troops opened fire to quell the protests. Despite his dream of a legacy of peace in South Asia, Singh was very slow in responding to the crisis in Kashmir. In August 2010, at the height of the crisis, he came on Indian national television. Referring to killings of young Kashmiri protesters, he said, "The events in Kashmir over the past few weeks have caused me great pain. I share the grief, the sorrow, and the sense of loss of every mother, every father, every family, and every child in Kashmir." Yet after the Indian military’s opposition, Singh relented from even repealing or partly modifying the notorious Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) in Kashmir, which gives around 500,000 Indian troops based there impunity from prosecution if they kill anyone on suspicion. In September 2010, as Singh was to decide on the AFSPA, India’s military chiefs made it clear in person that they opposed any dilution of their powers, insisting on the need for "legal protection" to fight in Kashmir. The laws remain unchanged.

As Kashmir smoldered, the Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers met at the United Nations; the mood was tense, even hostile. Pakistan renewed the old call for a plebiscite in Kashmir and criticized India for human rights violations in Kashmir. "The Jammu and Kashmir dispute is about the exercise of the right to self-determination by the Kashmiri people through a free, fair, and impartial plebiscite under U.N. auspices. Pakistan views the prevailing situation in Indian-occupied Kashmir with grave concern," said Pakistan’s then foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi. India retorted that Pakistan allowed its territory to be used as a staging ground for attacks directed against its neighbor. "Pakistan must fulfill its solemn commitment of not allowing territory under its control to be used for terrorism directed against India…. Pakistan cannot impart lessons to us on democracy and human rights," S.M. Krishna, the Indian foreign minister replied.

A détente of sorts happened this March, as the two countries were intensely focused on the Cricket World Cup, the subcontinent’s most beloved and competitive sporting event, Singh sought re-engagement and invited Gilani to watch the India-Pakistan match with him in the Indian city of Mohali. Inviting Gilani was also a gesture of projecting the legitimacy of Pakistan’s civilian government over its Army.

Singh’s strategy of engaging Pakistan is seen by diplomatic observers to have the potential to improve trade relations between the two neighbors, though progress on terrorism and resolving Kashmir is expected to be slow — it’s simply the third rail of Indian politics. But on April 28 in Islamabad, the commerce secretaries of India and Pakistan agreed on increasing trade between the countries, which remains a paltry $2 billion, compared to India-China trade of $61 billion. "Apart from economic gains, greater trade will gradually enlarge the constituency of those in Pakistan who have a stake in the normalisation of relations with India," argued Siddharth Varadarajan, strategic-affairs editor of the Indian newspaper the Hindu. Echoing similar sentiments, the Asia Society’s recent report, "Pakistan 2020," recommends reforming visa processes, increasing people-to-people contact, and developing cooperative energy projects, such as joint natural gas pipelines and joint electricity-generation projects, to improve relations. Yet economic cooperation, movement of people, and cultural exchanges remain hostage to the questions of Kashmir and terrorism that dominate Indo-Pak relations. Even at the height of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union had numerous journalists reporting from each other’s countries; India and Pakistan each allow only two reporters — and with limited access.

Although incendiary proclamations have intensified tensions since the killing of bin Laden, the realism of politicians like Singh has ensured that talks will continue. Indian and Pakistani foreign secretaries will meet in New Delhi in July. Security agencies of both countries are meeting in mid-June to find ways of working together on curbing the drug trade. Travel dates for Indian and Pakistani delegations to visit the other country to talk about the Mumbai attack investigations are being decided. "Even those pro-talks within the government realize that in the current state, the Pakistan military establishment is not going to yield much," says Mehta, of the Center for Policy Research. For now, Singh seems to understand that hawkish stances achieve little for India and only strengthen the hard-liners in Pakistan. But with both countries’ militaries owning so much of the political conversation (particularly in Pakistan), the two nations are a long way from realizing Singh’s memorable formulation of making borders irrelevant.

As Singh said in a January 2007 meeting of business leaders in New Delhi, "I dream of a day, while retaining our respective national identities, one can have breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore, and dinner in Kabul. That is how my forefathers lived. That is how I want our grandchildren to live." For now, it appears that the dream might have to wait for his great-grandchildren.

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