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India must distinguish between the Pakistani military and its political leadership

Question is, can Modi pick up where he left off?

Written by Jyoti Malhotra | Updated: September 21, 2016 10:09:06 am
Uri attack, India, Paksitan, Uri terror attack, Pm narendra Modi, Nawaz Sharif, Indian army, Jammu and Kashmir, Paksitan and India relation, India trade with Pakistan, India news, Latest news, natioanl news, world news Soldiers guard outside the army base in Uri, Jammu and Kashmir (PTI Photo)

As details of the terrorist attack against the Indian army installation in Uri begin to emerge, hyper-nationalists from both India and Pakistan have transformed social media into a virtual battleground, raising a storm on Facebook and trading verbal gunfire, tweet for tweet. Staggeringly, the narrative that seems to unite both politicians and political observers in Pakistan is that the #UriAttacks were an inside job — meaning Indian forces killed 18 of their own soldiers because India wanted to distract attention from the ongoing terrible human rights violations in the Kashmir valley that Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was going to raise at the UN General Assembly, on September 21.

Pakistan’s defence minister Khawaja Asif led the rhetorical bombardment: “Indian Army is massacring Kashmiris; as you sow, so shall you reap. Don’t rule out inside job to malign Azadi movement, by blaming Pakistan.” Asif later told Pakistan’s largest TV channel Geo News that if Pakistan’s security was under threat, it would not hesitate to use nuclear weapons. If only for that comment, perhaps Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif should have given him his marching orders. Except, Sharif was already in the US, a weakened and considerably debilitated prime minister compared to his namesake, Pakistan army chief Raheel Sharif.

Meanwhile, Maryam Nawaz Sharif had tweeted her displeasure. Nawaz Sharif’s daughter is an influential voice in the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (N) — it was for her daughter’s wedding that Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid a surprise visit to the family home in Raiwind, outside Lahore, last December. “Indian officials must address and redress gross human rights violation in IOK (Indian-Occupied Kashmir) instead of levelling unfounded allegations against Pakistan,” Maryam said.

Sherry Rehman of the opposition Pakistan People’s Party, completed the circle. “Quickest investigation ever points finger at Pakistan,” said Rehman, who runs the well-known thinktank, Jinnah Institute, in Islamabad as well as a successful track two dialogue with India, adding, “War drums over #UriAttacks will not solve anything. There can be no military answer to the diplomatic firestorm between #India-Pakistan.” Could a terror attack be described a “diplomatic firestorm”?

For the time being, at least, the Narendra Modi government seems to have decided to give in to the restraint sought by the international community — even though it reserves the right to take action “at a time of its own choosing”. US President Barack Obama and Modi have struck a close rapport over their several meetings and it seems the Americans are accepting of India’s argument that the roll-call of terror must stop and the “lakshman rekha” must be drawn at Uri. And if India retaliates quietly, by targeting key personnel who are part of the terror food-chain, the US will look the other way.

Certainly, the Uri attacks are as much an attempt to discredit Modi’s ramped-up engagement with the world, as it is to bring the human rights violations in the Kashmir Valley to its notice. Unfortunately, the world has been far too busy with Syria, with Vladimir Putin’s alleged infiltration of the US presidential election and with the yo-yo nature of the election itself to pay close attention to Delhi’s shocking lack of compassion as well as its continuing disinterest in resolving the Kashmir crisis.

Imagine if the Uri attacks were to result in a tit-for-tat response? After all, a large section of the media is baying for Pakistan’s blood, no doubt because blood and gore are great for TRP ratings. Presumably the RSS is too, with none other than the general secretary loaned to the BJP, Ram Madhav, declaring that India must respond with a “jaw for the tooth”. The prime minister himself, when he was chief minister of Gujarat, dismissed the noises made by his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, as so much pacifism.

But as prime minister, Modi finds he is subject to the same restraint that responsible leaders must display. Moreover, if India is to project itself as the region’s leader, with Modi at the helm, he must be in sync with the international community’s unwritten code that these leaders don’t speak loosely about terrorists even if they are allegedly sponsored by nuclear weapon states. Perhaps, the Uri attacks will clarify India’s Pakistan policy in Modi’s mind.

If Pakistan was in the Pacific Ocean, it wouldn’t matter so much. Certainly, Modi is quickly learning — like so many of his predecessors of varying political colours, both Atal Bihari Vajpayee or Manmohan Singh — that the buck, at least where India is concerned, stops with the Pakistan army chief, Raheel Sharif, rather than the elected prime minister. Nawaz Sharif was always in danger of being undercut by his own army. Modi’s Raiwind yatra was followed by the Pathankot attack, just as Vajpayee’s Lahore bus journey was followed by the Kargil invasion. India’s inability to distinguish between Sharif’s friendly feelings and the Pakistan army’s more complicated games persuaded Sharif to appease his army at home. The Kashmir crisis, in the wake of the Burhan Wani killing, was an incredible opportunity to return to the limelight. Nawaz Sharif would have been a fool not to take it. Meanwhile, especially with its successful anti-Taliban operations, the Pakistan army was looking better and better each day.

Question is, can Modi pick up where he left off? Can India and Pakistan’s elected prime ministers have a frank conversation about the nature and source of cross-border terror? Can India still help strengthen Nawaz Sharif, knowing that he may be the last man standing willing to take action against those terrorists?

One thing is certain. Once the Pakistan army is gradually cut out of the picture, watch the media narrative change — and Twitter Pakistan with it.

(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘Phone a friend’)

The writer is a Delhi-based journalist.

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