Mending Pakistan’s behaviour
Narendra Modi’s credibility is at stake after the Uri attack. He must retaliate by using the Indus Waters Treaty
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After the bloody cross-border terrorist attack on an army camp in Uri, near the Line of Control with Pakistan, it will be difficult for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to return to business as usual.
Uri is just the latest in a string of important Pakistan-orchestrated strikes on Indian targets since Modi’s 2014 election victory: The other attacks occurred at Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif and Jalalabad in Afghanistan and at Gurdaspur, Udhampur, Pathankot and Pampore in India.
New Delhi’s response to all the attacks has been characterized by one common element—all talk and no action. This is no different from the response of the governments of Manmohan Singh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee to major terrorist strikes on their watch, including at Mumbai and on Parliament and the Red Fort. It would seem that Indian leaders live up to the biblical adage, “Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.”
With successive governments failing to pursue a coherent, resolute and unflinching strategy to combat Pakistan’s proxy war by terror, India continues to be terrorized, assaulted and bled by a smaller neighbour. A scofflaw Pakistan believes it can continue to gore India with minimal or manageable risks of inviting robust Indian retaliation. The Indian public’s patience, however, has worn thin, putting pressure on the government to start imposing deterrent costs on Pakistan so as to stem the increasingly daring terrorist strikes.
Modi’s own credibility is now at stake. He responded to the terrorist storming of the Pathankot air force station at the beginning of this year by sharing intelligence about the attackers with Islamabad and allowing a Pakistani team to visit the base for investigations. This was done in the naïve hope of winning Pakistan’s anti-terror cooperation. Modi’s exchange of saris and shawls with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif, as well as his surprise visit to Lahore to wish Sharif on his birthday and attend his granddaughter’s wedding, attested to how New Delhi was focused on optics rather than outcomes.
The Uri attack offers Modi a chance to redeem himself on the anti-terror front. How he responds to the latest terror outrage could help shape his political legacy.
Let’s dispel with the fiction that a country can get peace by seeking peace with a renegade, terrorism-exporting neighbour. Each time terrorists sent from Pakistan carry out a barbaric attack in India, Indians circle back to a familiar question: What makes Pakistan sponsor terrorism across its borders? The answer is simple: Waging an unconventional war against India remains an effective, low-cost option for Pakistan against a larger, more powerful India. The real question Indians must debate is whether India is making Pakistan bear costs for scripting cross-border terrorism.
India has a range of options in the military, economic and diplomatic realms to start imposing increasing costs on Pakistan in a calibrated and gradually escalating manner. Strategically, an unconventional war waged by a nuclear-armed nation can be countered effectively only through an unconventional war. Let’s be clear: Pakistan is more vulnerable to asymmetric warfare than India, which also has greater economic and diplomatic resources to squeeze that country.
If India jettisons the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty (IWT), it can fashion water into its most potent tool of leverage to mend Pakistan’s behaviour. Pakistan has consistently backed away from bilateral agreements with India—from the Simla Agreement, to the commitment not to allow its territory to be used for cross-border terrorism. So why should India honour the IWT?
When Pakistan refuses to observe the terms of the 1972 peace treaty signed at Simla, it undercuts the IWT. It cannot selectively demand India’s compliance with one treaty while it flouts a peace pact serving as the essential basis for all peaceful cooperation, including the sharing of river waters.
The IWT ranks as the world’s most lopsided and inequitable water pact: It denies India the basic right to utilize the waters of the rivers of its own state of Jammu and Kashmir for industrial and agricultural production. The main J&K rivers—the Chenab, Jhelum and Indus—and their tributaries have been reserved for Pakistani use, with India’s sovereignty limited to the three rivers of the Indus basin flowing south of J&K: the Beas, Ravi and Sutlej. In effect, the IWT kept for India just 19.48% of the total waters of the six-river Indus system.
Pakistan, by repeatedly invoking the IWT’s conflict-resolution provisions to mount pressure on India, is already undermining the treaty, the world’s most generous sharing arrangement. Waging water war by such means carries the danger of a boomerang effect.
A balance between rights and obligations is at the heart of how to achieve harmonious, rules-based cooperation between co-riparian states. In the Indus basin, however, Pakistan wants rights without responsibilities: It expects eternal Indian water munificence, even as its military generals export terrorists to India and its civilian government wages a constant propaganda campaign against India’s water “hegemony” and seeks to internationalize every dispute.
The IWT has become an albatross around India’s neck. If India wishes to dissuade Pakistan from continuing with its proxy war, it must link the IWT’s future to Islamabad honouring its anti-terror commitment, or else the treaty collapses. Indeed, a Pakistani senate resolution passed earlier this year, calling for Pakistan to “revisit” the IWT, offers India an opening to renegotiate a more balanced and fair Indus treaty—and, if Pakistan refuses, to stop respecting the terms of the existing pact. In the absence of an enforcement mechanism in international law, nothing can stop India from emulating Pakistan’s example in not honouring its bilateral commitments.
Guile, dexterity and diligence often can achieve more in international relations than the use of overt force. India can still bring Pakistan to heel without overtly employing force. By employing a mix of military, economic and political tools to squeeze Pakistan, India must wage a silent war to eliminate the threat from a quasi-failed nation that has mocked its patience as cowardice.
Brahma Chellaney is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research.
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