The subcontinental stand-off

Print edition : January 05, 2002

An outburst of rancour between India and Pakistan in the wake of the December 13 attack on Parliament House threatens to escalate into war, but some positive action by Islamabad against Pakistan-based jehadi groups and a conciliatory message on New Year's eve from Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee bring the signs of a thaw.

THE threat of war inevitably succeeds in focussing minds on the need to preserve the peace. But the consequences of unrestrained rhetoric can often evade the control of its exponents, sweeping them along in an irresistible momentum towards war.

The last bus from Delhi left for Lahore on December 29, many among its complement of downcast passengers expressing the conviction that the latest outburst of rancour between India and Pakistan would be short-lived. The bus service had begun shortly after the Indian Prime Minister's visit to Lahore in February 1999, an event that had seemingly dissolved the bitter antagonisms engendered by the two countries' tit-for-tat nuclear tests the previous summer. The service soon became a resilient symbol of the growing constituency for reconciliation between the estranged neighbours, not pausing even when animosities erupted with a renewed virulence during the Kargil conflict. But the global war against terrorism has set a new context and created fresh compulsions for all sides.

Passengers load their luggage on to the Samjhauta Express at the Wagah border. India halted the train service to Pakistan from January 1.-MIAN KHURSHEED/REUTERS

Two days later, as the Samjhauta Express steamed out of Delhi on its last journey to Lahore, came an inkling that the two sides were preparing to step back. Emerging from a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security, External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh described certain measures taken by Pakistan over the previous two days as a "step in the right direction". Earlier responses had ranged from the dismissive to the scornful. But with the founders of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) - two leading members in India's pantheon of cross-border terrorism - being placed under arrest, a nod of commendation for the Pakistani military regime seemed appropriate.

A new conciliatory tone was also evident in Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's New Year's eve article published in sections of the media. Addressed in the main to the Indian people, the article spoke of India's unrelenting resolve in addressing the problem of terrorism. At the same time, there was an overture - perhaps laden with a hint of condescension - to the Pakistani leadership: "After what happened on December 13, we have made certain legitimate demands of the Government of Pakistan. Its sincerity to fight terrorism will be determined by the positive response to these demands. We also hope that our friends in the international community will bring requisite pressure on Pakistan to give up its double standards on terrorism."

Vajpayee also seeks to establish an identity of interests in ending terrorism between the people of India and Pakistan and "with right-thinking persons" in the "ruling establishment" across the border. Addressing this constituency in Pakistan, he holds out the assurance that if the anti-India obsession were to end and cross-border terrorism to cease, then India would be "willing to walk more than half the distance... to resolve through dialogue any issue, including the contentious issue of Jammu and Kashmir."

The tone of Vajpayee's New Year's eve reflections - which now looks like it could become a prime ministerial convention at least as long as he remains in office - is reminiscent of his musings from the Kerala holiday resort of Kumarakom, where he had retreated to celebrate the last New Year's eve. Like his Kumarakom Musings, which were closely studied for a possible opening for a dialogue, the recent observations are also likely to attract serious attention in Pakistan.

It is another question how the domestic constituency of Pakistan's President, General Pervez Musharraf, would react to the overtures and the qualified acclaim from across the border. The Pakistan leader, though occasionally bristling at the peremptoriness of the demarches issuing from India, had insistently sought the lofty plane of statesmanship ever since the current crisis in relations began. The task of flinging the accustomed barbs was left to his military spokesman, Major-General Rashid Quereshi, who continued to raise hackles with his crass suggestion that the December 13 attack on the Parliament premises in Delhi could have been engineered by Indian intelligence agencies.

Despite the Pakistan President's early and frequently reiterated expressions of concern over the attack on Parliament House, there was little suggestion of a focussed response coming from that side. Alongside Quereshi's crudities, the Foreign Office spokesman from Pakistan seemed to leave open the possibility that action could be initiated against the militant groups believed responsible for the attack, provided credible evidence was received from India. Others, including the President, mentioned a joint investigation by India and Pakistan as a possibility.

India, in contrast, managed to obtain a reasonably receptive - and widening - global audience for its demands by escalating the rhetoric, even as it set underway an unprecedented military mobilisation. As Army convoys began moving towards forward positions in the Jammu, Punjab and Rajasthan sectors and the Air Force took up strike postures, India withdrew its High Commissioner to Pakistan. Waiving the rule of strict reciprocity, Pakistan retained its top diplomat in New Delhi on the understanding that a channel of communication was vital in a context of growing tension. But the suspension of the bus and train services by India left Pakistan with no option but to respond in kind.

Prime Minister Vajpayee in the Delhi-Lahore bus on February 20, 1999.-S. ARNEJA

Hardline elements on the Indian side were not yet through. Merely pulling out the top envoy was inadequate as a signal of the gravity of the events of December 13, they argued, not to mention the long prelude of violence and trauma in Kashmir. A reduction of the Pakistan High Commission staff by up to 80 per cent was, they said, more than warranted since the intelligence agencies had endorsed the estimate that this was the number of staff involved in extra-diplomatic activities. The more uncompromising sections were demanding the abrogation of the Indus river waters treaty, as a justified retaliation for Pakistan's reneging - in deed if not in word - on the Simla Accord.

After two successive days of meetings of the Cabinet Committee on Security, India directed Pakistan to cut its High Commission staff by half. Pakistani aircraft were prohibited from overflying Indian territory - a measure that was last resorted to in early 1971 as retaliation for the hijacking of an Indian Airlines flight by a Kashmiri militant (he recently returned from exile to launch a campaign for peace in the Valley).

The ban on overflight meant the suspension of all air services between India and Pakistan. Going one up, Pakistan banned the broadcast of all Indian television channels on its territory. And though the Indian authorities made a special point of mentioning that there was no corresponding ban on Pakistan television, by the end of the year there were few avenues left open for contact between the people of the neighbouring countries. That is when the first signal of a thaw was issued from the Indian side.

As he prepared to fly to Kathmandu for a summit-level conference of the South Asian regional forum, Musharraf was expressing his willingness to meet with the Indian Prime Minister and seek a resolution of the tense stand-off. Though opposed to all forms of war, he said, Pakistan would not press for a meeting and would only be inclined to talk if there was an expressed willingness from the other side.

India took a long time to catch up with the General's rhetoric of conciliation. There were early invocations of the precedent set by the U.S. and Israel, of unilateral military action against chosen targets. The Bharatiya Janata Party, from where the most hawkish counsel seemed to emanate, was subsequently asked to pipe down, among others, by the U.S. Ambassador in India, Robert Blackwill. Responsible military strategists pointed out that the models cited were completely misplaced since India did not have the overwhelming military superiority that the U.S. and Israel had against their adversaries. And political observers with some residual sense of principle suggested that the U.S. and Israel, with their respective and mutually reinforcing histories of lawless actions, were precisely the worst possible examples for India to emulate.

Explicit references to military action were soon cut out. In turning down the proposition that a useful purpose may be served by meeting Musharraf, Vajpayee sounded a general call for preparedness on the part of the nation. At a meeting with representatives of all major political parties, he mentioned that India's objectives might be served exclusively through diplomatic means. He won broad-ranging support from across the political spectrum on the basis of this undertaking.

Pakistan was increasingly on edge. During a telephone conversation with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, Musharraf mentioned that the movement of Indian troops indicated an unequivocal preparation for war. Apart from western and northern army units having taken offensive positions - dangerous in itself - there was a large-scale relocation of forces from the eastern front too.

The body of a watch-and-ward staff member killed in the December 13 shoot-out at Parliament House.-REUTERS

On India's part, the massive movement of troops did not seem to reflect a corresponding multiplicity of military options. An Army spokesperson was definitive in his statement that the deployments in the Rajasthan and Punjab sectors were purely in defensive postures. If true, this would be in line with the Indian Army's well-established warfare doctrine - dating at least from Operation Brasstacks in 1986 - that Pakistan's threshold of tolerance for actions in the Punjab and Rajasthan sectors is relatively low. These potentially pose a direct hazard to Lahore, the cultural capital of the country, and could endanger the strategic links between the southern and northern provinces, prompting nervous fingers to inch towards the nuclear button.

A viable military thrust, if at all, could be mounted in the occupied Jammu and Kashmir sector, using infantry and mechanised army assets. But the value of such an operation, when most militant training camps in the area have been evacuated and dispersed through the territory of Pakistan, is open to question.

Secrecy and the element of surprise evidently seem to be of little relevance any more in the mobilisation effort. The idea now is to make a public display of aggressive intent, in order presumably to attract the keenest mediation interest. The U.S., with its attention focussed exclusively on the job of breaking up the Al Qaeda network of Osama bin Laden, has been predictably the most energetic mediator. By December-end, Secretary of State Powell was making an average of three calls a day to his Indian and Pakistani counterparts, urging caution and suggesting options for a possible compromise. The U.S.' main worry is that the diversion of Pakistani troops and military assets from the Afghan border would render that region more porous for the infiltration of Al Qaeda elements, including bin Laden.

From his year-end retreat in a Texan ranch, U.S. President George Bush referred to Musharraf's order arresting 50 "extreme terrorists" as a commendable initiative that should cool down tempers in the region. India had been maintaining for some time that the pretence of a crackdown on militants operating in Kashmir was of little value. Later, a "wanted list" of terrorists suspected of crimes on Indian soil was handed over. Official spokespersons asserted that action by Pakistan towards handing in these individuals might create the conditions appropriate for peace talks.

A key name in the list, of course, was that of Maulana Masood Azhar, one time militant of the Harkat-ul-Ansar and now founder and main inspiration of the JeM. After five years spent in an Indian jail, Azhar was sprung into freedom as part of the hostage swap that followed the hijacking of Indian Airlines flight IC-814 in December 1999. He has subsequently moved about relatively unfettered in Pakistan.

Azhar's arrest became a matter of compulsion for Musharraf after the U.S. notified his outfit as a terrorist organisation. The JeM, along with its ideological soulmate, the LeT, was alleged to have been the principal author of the December 13 outrage. Both had been specifically named by the Indian government for culpability in the attack on the Srinagar legislature compound on October 1 too. But the U.S. had, beyond deprecating the attack against a "government facility", failed to act then.

The relative eagerness which the U.S. has shown now is perhaps an indication that military coercion against its allies of the moment is the only language it understands. How far Musharraf's own position will be undermined by overt signs of capitulation to the U.S. diktat remains to be seen. There is little question that a crackdown on extreme Islamic elements has been a high priority with him for a long time. Pakistan's dual-flank jehad in Afghanistan and Kashmir has taken a heavy toll of civic life and public order within. The multiplicity of armed groups that have sprouted on its soil constitute a vast area of autonomy that the State has little control over.

Musharraf's words last August in describing his intent to rein in these groups could well have been borrowed from the vocabulary of Home Minister L.K. Advani: "Let me assure you, we will be conclusive, proactive and offensive and we will search targeted areas and it will be done at any cost." And as he addressed a special meeting of federal authorities and provincial Governors on the law and order situation, he was even more explicit: "The government will not let terrorists spread scare and terror. My government shall not be deterred by such acts and we shall chase them till the last of the terrorists is apprehended."

Yet, as some Pakistani newspapers pointed out, even as Musharraf was uttering these words, one of the country's many armed Islamic groups was parading its assets on a Karachi street. Army and civilian authorites could only stand by in watchful attendance as the disorderly rabble went their way, raising inflammatory slogans. In fact, most accounts of the arms seizure operations that have been launched by the military regime seem to indicate a conspicuous failure of political will and a rather poor return on effort.

With his resolve stiffened by U.S. pressure, Musharraf may well be compelled to initiate more serious measures now. Some of the targeted groups took recourse to a time-honoured strategy to escape his (and the U.S.') attention. The LeT, for instance, closed down its operations in Pakistan and shifted to Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, replacing its military chief with a native Kashmiri. Its parent body, the Markaz al-Dawa wal-Irshad, has renamed itself and its chief (or Amir) Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, while denouncing Musharraf as the head of an "apostate regime", has vowed to confine his organisation to preaching and reform activities. The detention of Maulana Azhar and Hafiz Saeed, occurring in quick succession, is perhaps the most decisive action that Musharraf has taken since putting Fazl ur-Rahman of the Jamiat Ulema e-Islami under house arrest at the beginning of the war in Afghanistan. Saeed heads one of the wealthiest religious endowments in Pakistan and the LeT was a key player in transforming the character of the Kashmir militancy into a pan-Islamic enterprise in the mid-1990s. He has maintained intimate links with sections of the religious leadership in Afghanistan and has provided the organisational and financial resources for transferring jehadi elements from that theatre of operations into Kashmir.

It has also been clear that Azhar and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan have shared intimate bonds of ideology and mutual sustenance. Azhar made his debut as a militant in Kashmir after he was appointed general secretary of the Harkat-ul-Ansar in 1993. In the formal sense, the chief patron of the organisation was Jalaluddin Haqqani, a long-standing commander of the Afghan jehad against Soviet occupation and one of the main assets of Pakistan's Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence. Informally, Azhar's ideological tutors are also known to include Rahman and Yunus Khalis of the Afghan Hizb e-Islami, one of the main tribal leaders in the eastern Nangarhar province.

Haqqani was a serious player in early Western efforts to undermine the Taliban regime from within. He made a highly publicised visit to Pakistan in October and met with top military officials, before returning with the vow that he would never be part of any plot hatched by stooges of the U.S., Russia and India. He has since reportedly surrendered to the Northern Alliance, though it is not clear what role is being assigned to him in the new regime. The U.S., after an initial effort at winning him over, is believed to have gone after him with a vengeance, targeting his premises in a number of different locations with massive firepower. Whether by accident or by design, he is believed to have escaped to retain his relevance as the most powerful Pashtun warlord in the eastern Paktia province. What role the U.S. may designate for him and the possible implications on Azhar's fortunes are matters that India should perhaps devote some attention to.

Another factor is the reported entry of bin Laden into Pakistan where, according to some Afghan sources, he has been living under the protection of the Jamiat Ulema e-Islami in the Frontier Province. Spokespersons for the organisation have, of course, denied this and pointed to the absurdity of the notion that Rahman could have engineered bin Laden's escape while himself being under detention. But U.S. special forces are reportedly not taking the rumours lightly. They have in recent days been conducting rigorous searches - mostly under cover of darkness - in the frontier town of Dera Ismail Khan, where Rahman retains his largest constituency.

Contingent political interest may impel the U.S. to lean on Pakistan to be more attentive to India's grievances. But clearly, they are yet to give up the mentality of seeking to differentiate between a "good jehadi" and a bad one. A good jehadi, as would be evident from the U.S. tilt towards Pakistan and Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, is one who secures the peace in Afghanistan and does not threaten U.S. interests in the Arab world. What he seeks to achieve in Kashmir is of course not of very serious consequence. And if Pakistan is of some strategic value to the U.S., then the jehadi activities in Kashmir may indeed win some measure of tacit approval too. When the current drama has run its course and a retrospective analysis is undertaken, the singular lesson in it for India may well be that it is futile to depend upon external arbiters who are notoriously prone to such gross double standards. A more productive dialogue with Pakistan, based upon realistic rules of engagement, may well be the only option.

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