Time to stop letting Pakistan call the shots
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In yet another display of sickening behaviour, a Pakistani Border Action Team (BAT) chose to kill two Indian soldiers and mutilate their bodies in the Krishna Ghati sector of Jammu and Kashmir on Monday. The Indian Army has asserted that this “unsoldierly act” of the Pakistani army will be appropriately responded to, at a time and place of the former’s choosing. The barbarity of the incident has evoked widespread condemnation and demands are being made of the government to respond strongly. Predictably, the Pakistan army has denied the charges.
This newspaper has repeatedly argued that the Pakistan problem cannot be solved by shunning the hard force option. However, this is not the time to demand mindless reprisals. Nor should immediacy of response be a concern right now. The Indian Army is responsible and mature enough to take care of these aspects. This, instead, is a moment to assess why Pakistan feels tempted to engage in such outrageous activities—and to consider if New Delhi can afford to be a perpetual hostage to cycles of conflict dictated by Rawalpindi.
According to conventional wisdom, the civilian government in Pakistan led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is regarded as favourably disposed towards peace with India. The institution of the Pakistan army, on the other hand, which enjoys immense power and popularity in the country because of its ability to project India as an existential threat, is the one held responsible for bad blood between the two neighbours. In as much as this can be assumed to be the reality—to be precise, it is not—the script has so far gone on expected lines. Monday’s incident took place within five days of a meeting between Sharif and Sajjan Jindal, an Indian industrialist. It was widely reported that Jindal carried a secret message for Sharif from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Pakistan army, the de facto authority on the country’s India policy, would have definitely not found the meeting to their taste.
It was speculated that the message from Jindal—and Mint has no independent confirmation of this—could have been about Kulbhushan Jadhav, India’s alleged spy who has been sentenced to death by a Pakistani military court. The sentence, many believe, was a message by Qamar Javed Bajwa, the chief of the Pakistan army, letting Sharif know who truly calls the shots. Battling corruption charges against himself and his family, Sharif was too weak to do much about it. But even after Sharif got a temporary respite from Pakistan’s Supreme Court, the army chose to insult Sharif by rejecting a notification issued by the Prime Minister’s office. In a new low for Pakistani democracy—even by its admittedly poor standards—Bajwa selected a two-star officer, Major General Asif Ghafoor and the platform of Twitter to humiliate Sharif, a four-decade veteran of Pakistani politics, in public view.
While the military-civilian derby within Pakistan may indeed be riveting, it should be of purely academic interest to Indian policymakers. It is not India’s job to encourage democracy in Pakistan by choosing to ignore the grave provocations hurled by the Pakistani army. In fact—and this goes back to the question on why Pakistan feels it can get away with its provocations against India—the inability to respond adequately has resulted in a complete deterrence failure. Any Indian response, if at all, is always within the tolerable threshold of the Pakistani army.
There is sufficient historical evidence to suggest that Indian restraint vis-à-vis Pakistan has far exceeded what would be predicted by any rational calculation based on the subcontinental balance of power. The September 2016 surgical strikes in response to the Uri attack was a welcome move, but it was just one of the many steps required to be taken. The failure to build a robust “deterrence by punishment” posture has meant that we are again at a moment when the Indian public is ready to be gratified with another act of reprisal conducted by the Indian Armed Forces. That may work for the short term; the medium- to long-term objective should be to move out of Pakistan-initiated cycles of conflict altogether. This will require the Indian Army, with the backing of the government, to be willing to escalate if proportionate responses aren’t enough for Pakistan.
But the path will not be easy. Former Union minister Arun Shourie has often said that every new Indian prime minister carries into office a false optimism that relations with Pakistan can be improved. Modi was no different. He also made an unannounced visit to Pakistan in December 2015 with the hope of achieving the impossible. Terrorists at the Pathankot air base paid a return visit just a few days later. Similarly, former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s bus visit to Lahore in 1999 was followed by the Kargil war. And now, the Jindal-Sharif meeting has been responded to by the mutilation of Indian soldiers.
Building a strong “deterrence by punishment” posture in the medium term will require the Indian ruling class to learn one important lesson: Pakistan cannot be made to enter into a peaceful relationship with India by talks alone. A serious reconfiguration in the Pakistani army and polity is necessary for that. Even a Pakistani army chief with admirable taste in reading material about civil-military relations is not sufficient to initiate such a reconfiguration.
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