India & Pakistan

Reluctant to talk

Print edition : January 06, 2017

Sartaj Aziz, Adviser on Foreign Affairs to the Pakistan Prime Minister, at the inauguration of the 6th Heart Asia Conference in Amritsar. Photo: PTI

Indian soldiers in Rajouri pay tribute to two soldiers who were killed in cross-border shelling on November 9. Photo: PTI

Pakistani soldiers offer prayers in Jhelum for soldiers killed in cross-border firing on November 14. Photo: HO/AFP

There has been an escalation in tensions, apart from a deterioration of diplomatic relations, between India and Pakistan after the “surgical strike” across the LoC.

EVER since the Indian military claimed that it had conducted a “surgical strike” across the Line of Control (LoC), diplomatic and military tensions have escalated between India and Pakistan. The firing and shelling across the LoC have shown a marked increase —more than 200 incidents of firing—making a mockery of the 2003 ceasefire agreement. That agreement had made life easier for residents on both sides of the border. Though there have been fewer reports of cross-border shelling in December, diplomatic relations seem to have further deteriorated, with no signs of any revival of bilateral talks. Both India and Pakistan have massed troops along the border. Men in authority are hurling bellicose threats that hint at resorting to the nuclear option, and the Indian Defence Minister even chose to air his views about changing the country’s “no first use” nuclear policy. The Pakistan Army has already decided to deploy low-yield tactical nuclear weapons and allow local commanders to decide when to use them in the battlefield. India’s “Cold Start” military strategy envisages the penetration of its army to a depth of 30 kilometres inside Pakistan in retaliation to a major terror attack.

The silver lining is that cross-border “barter” trade across the LoC, which started in 2008, is continuing. There was also a slight glimmer of hope, emanating from the Pakistan government’s decision to send Sartaj Aziz, the foreign policy adviser of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, to Amritsar to attend the sixth “Heart of Asia” Conference that was co-hosted this year by the Indian government. The conference was conceived to focus on economic and political developments relating to Afghanistan. It also provides a platform to discuss regional issues and encourage political and economic cooperation among the 14 member countries. The United States and more than 20 other nations and organisations have observer status in the Heart of Asia Conference.

Aziz’s was the first visit by a senior Pakistani official to India in recent months. The Pathankhot terror attack had derailed his scheduled visit to New Delhi earlier in the year. Since Narendra Modi took over as Prime Minister, relations with Pakistan have been going steadily downhill. Officials from the two sides have rarely met in the last three years after the Indian government called off Foreign Secretary-level talks in 2014. After the “surgical strike”, both India and Pakistan have been busy expelling each other’s diplomats. In an unexpected move, Islamabad expelled eight Indian diplomats, accusing them of belonging to Indian intelligence agencies and being involved in terrorist and subversive activities inside Pakistan. Islamabad had earlier withdrawn some of its diplomats unilaterally. The Union government’s open support for Baloch separatists has come in handy for the Pakistani authorities to justify their claims of Indian involvement in the internal affairs of their country.

The Amritsar Conference, far from achieving its desired goals, ended up further widening the existing chasms between Islamabad and Kabul, and Islamabad and Delhi. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani seemed to be teaming up with the Indian Prime Minister to paint Pakistan as the fountainhead of terror in the region. Both the leaders accused Islamabad of hosting terror groups that were involved in recent attacks on Afghan and Indian territory. Ghani said that insurgency in his country was sustained from across the border. “Military operations in Pakistan have brought about selective displacement of terrorists. The state-sponsored sanctuaries exist in Pakistan. Taliban also say that they cannot sustain themselves for more than one month without support from Pakistan,” Ghani said in his speech.

It is no secret that the Pakistani establishment supports factions of the Afghan Taliban while cracking down on the Pakistani Taliban and other violent jehadi groups. Ghani had invested heavily on Pakistani goodwill in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table after he took over the presidency from Hamid Karzai. His first official visit was to Rawalpindi to meet with the top Pakistani military brass. But the Afghan Taliban continued with its military advance and suicide attacks. Ghani’s honeymoon with Pakistan’s security hierarchy was soon over. Indian government officials said that Ghani’s latest position affirmed India's stance on Pakistan's role in fostering terrorism in the region. “Terrorism and externally induced instability pose the greatest threat to Afghanistan’s peace, prosperity and stability,” Modi said in Amritsar in his opening speech. He emphasised that “resolute action” should be taken not only against the forces of terrorism “but also against those who support, sustain, train and finance them”.

Many of the other member states did not fully support the hard line taken by Kabul and New Delhi. The resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan is attributed to a variety of factors, which include popular support and help from countries like Saudi Arabia. A recent report in The New York Times detailed the extent of clandestine Saudi support for the Taliban. Russia’s Special Envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, made a pointed comment in Amritsar, saying that contentious bilateral issues should be kept out of the Heart of Asia Conference. Sartaj Aziz strongly rebutted the allegations against Pakistan by pointing out the complexity of the situation in Afghanistan. “It is simplistic to blame one country for the recent upsurge in violence,” he said. Pakistan’s commitment to peace in Afghanistan, he said, was exemplified by the very fact of his presence in Amritsar, “despite escalation on the Line of Control and the Working Boundary with India … testimony to Pakistan’s unflinching commitment to peace in Afghanistan and the region”. He reiterated the Pakistani position that peace in Afghanistan could only be achieved “through a politically negotiated settlement through an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned process”. The Amritsar Declaration, adopted at the end of the two-day conference, “recognised terrorism as the biggest threat” to the region and demanded “an immediate end to all forms of terrorism”. For the first time, Pakistan-based terror groupings like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad were named in the Conference Declaration. The declaration has been viewed as a diplomatic victory for the Indian Prime Minister’s efforts to portray Pakistan “as the centre of gravity of terrorism”. Modi had tried to do the same thing at the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit but with little success. In Amritsar, he succeeded to a great extent because of the support he got from Ghani, the co-host of the conference.

The Pakistani side was further upset with the shabby treatment that was accorded to their de facto foreign minister. Aziz was denied minimum diplomatic courtesies, including a meeting with the media. He was denied permission to visit the Golden Temple on flimsy grounds, whereas all other foreign dignitaries were allowed to do so. The Pakistan Foreign Ministry spokesman said that “India’s negativity” at the Heart of Asia Conference “exposed” its claims of commitment to peace in Afghanistan. India’s behaviour towards the Pakistani ministerial delegation, he said, “ruined the atmosphere”. He said Islamabad wanted a meaningful dialogue with India on all issues. Aziz had indicated that Islamabad was ready to kick-start talks with New Delhi again.

The Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesman reiterated in late November that New Delhi was prepared to resume the dialogue process with Islamabad but stressed that “talks and terror cannot happen together”. The Indian government has blamed Islamabad for the terror attacks on the Indian Army bases and other acts of violence in Kashmir. The Pakistani side claims that non-state actors outside its control and Kashmiri “freedom fighters” are responsible for the acts. Sharif has been saying for some time that India is raising the terrorism issue and raising tensions along the border to divert attention from the volatile situation in the Kashmir Valley.

After the “surgical strike” by the Indian Army in September, the Pakistani side has retaliated by resorting to shelling and sniper fire. By late November, both sides have admitted to the loss of many soldiers. Civilian casualties are also on the rise, and both sides have accused each other of wantonly targeting civilians. Pakistan has said that a passenger bus and a medical ambulance came under fire in late November, resulting in four deaths. India has accused the Pakistan Army of “deliberately targeting” 18 villages along the LoC. The incident happened after the killing of three Indian soldiers. According to the Indian Army, one of its soldiers was “beheaded” by armed attackers who had sneaked in from across the LoC. The Indian Army has promised “heavy retribution” for the deaths of its three soldiers. Pakistan announced on November 14 that seven of its soldiers were killed in Indian firing on a single night.

The Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesman said that Pakistan was responsible for 27 ceasefire violations in the third week of November. He said that it constituted a “clear violation” of the 2003 ceasefire agreement. New Delhi has conveyed its “grave concerns at the continued attempts to infiltrate armed terrorists from across the LoC” to target Indian Army posts. The spokesman said that the onus was on Pakistan for stopping the ceasefire violations. He accused the Pakistani side of using the violations “to provide a cover to infiltrate terrorists into India”. Pakistan has accused the Indian Army of resorting to “unprovoked firing”.

Jose Ramos-Horta, Nobel Peace laureate and a former President of Timor-Leste, in a speech delivered in Delhi in the second week of December, urged India and Pakistan to urgently resume the dialogue process. “There is no substitute for direct dialogue between India and Pakistan, and both sides should try to de-escalate the situation in Kashmir. And as major regional powers, they should address the aspirations of the people of Kashmir,” he said. He cautioned that if festering problems such as Kashmir and the Rohingya issue in Myanmar were not addressed, it could lead to the rise of extremism and terrorism in the region. Ramos-Horta also urged the Indian government to allow the United Nations Military Observers Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP) to play a role in de-escalating tensions along the LoC. India had stopped the UNMOGIP from its monitoring work in Kashmir in 2014. The Indian External Affairs Ministry had reiterated in January 2016 that the UNMOGIP had no mandate to monitor the situation in Kashmir.

Meanwhile, a U.S.-based group called Physicians for Human Rights released a report in early December which said that Indian security forces used 12-gauge shotguns, unsuitable for crowd control, during the recent unrest in the Kashmir Valley. The report said that shotguns had resulted in 12 civilian deaths and injuries to 5,200 people. The report also accused Indian security forces of blocking access to urgent medical care for injured protesters, describing the acts as “a violation of India’s obligation under international law to protect the rights to life and health”.

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