War in the airClash between India and Pakistan is a reality that South Asia is compelled to live with for the foreseeable future
India’s decision not to participate in the 19th summit of Saarc (South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation) slated for November in Islamabad bears ample testimony to the fact that tension between the two historical rivals has reached an explosive level. Indian morale has been boosted by the decision of other three Saarc member countries—Afghanistan, Bhutan and Bangladesh—to abstain from the summit. The emergence of such an apparently partisan sub-bloc in the region is also an unprecedented phenomenon in the three-decade-long history of Saarc. Needless to mention that Saarc has been rendered, for all practical purposes, dysfunctional mainly due to the bitter, incessant and intense conflict between these two countries that far predates the conception of the regional grouping.
Over the last several weeks, there has reportedly been a heavy build-up of military presence on both sides of the Line of Control (LoC), the de-facto border between India and Pakistan. Even a small additional trigger can turn the skirmishes into a full-blown war in no time. Apart from the war in 1947 immediately after their independence from the British rule and the partition into two countries, India and Pakistan have fought three wars—1965 (Kashmir), 1971 (that created Bangladesh) and 1999 (Kargil). In addition, there have been innumerable stand-offs and skirmishes. The fourth one, which looks imminent, will be the first in the 21st century, amidst a drastically changed global order.
Deeply engrained conflict
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had invited the executive heads of the governments of all the Saarc countries for his swearing-in ceremony in May 2014. He paid a surprise visit to Lahore to meet his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif in December 2015. There were exchanges of gifts and pleasantries between the two prime ministers, even for each-others’ mothers. However, hostilities continued to mount. India faced terrorist attacks—which it contends were sponsored by Pakistan—in Pathankot in January and in Uri in September.
In fact, India-Pakistan conflict
is a reality that South Asia is compelled to live with for the foreseeable future, because it is not a single ‘win-or-lose’ battle. For both sides, the Kashmir dispute is no longer just a border or territorial issue. It is an intermingling of the nationalism of political leaders, the patriotism of security agencies, and the sense of sovereignty, pride and dignity of the common people. The ‘two state theory’ devised by Britain to divide pre-partition India along religious lines is so deeply engrained in the popular psyche on both sides that it gets instantly flared up with even the slightest
The Kargil war in 1999 and the current escalation of tensions, among others, are linked to the rise of the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India. The Rastriya Swayamshewak Sangh (RSS), the mentor and indoctrinator of the BJP rank and file, propagates strong anti-Pakistan (read pro-Hindu, anti-Muslim) rhetoric.
Pakistan’s unifying identity is the Islamic theocratic state; therefore, it sees the RSS rhetoric in absolute disgust. In addition, its intermittent democracy with repeated military rule has severely shrunk the space for elected civilian authority. The army and the intelligence agency effectively rule the roost.
The US and China
On both sides of the Indo-Pak border, a significant number of decision makers, politicians and power brokers are handsomely benefitting from this ‘war enterprise’. It is virtually unthinkable to dismantle overnight the gigantic military, intelligence and bureaucratic edifices created over the decades by both countries, with a potentially massive war in mind. Whether or not the series of so called ‘surgical strikes’ and ‘fitting replies’ result in a war, its ominous cloud appears unlikely to clear from the South Asian skies anytime soon. Smaller nations like Nepal, without any fault of their own, are potential victims of this seemingly perennial conflict of two nuclear powers of the region.
This time around, the Indo-Pak conflict has heightened amidst completely different geo-strategic equations compared to the previous wars. In both the 1965 and the 1971 wars, Pakistan was backed by the US. India was in the USSR bloc during the cold war. Even in 1999, the US-India relations were largely in undefined territory. The US had officially imposed a partial economic sanction on India after its nuclear test a year before. China was barely in the picture of strategic considerations. But global balance and regional allegiances have now drastically altered. Pakistan has not only become a soft state and a haven for Muslim militant outfits but also a main target of Islamic fundamentalism. Some of its alignments have completely reversed.
Osama Bin Laden, the then Al-Qaida chief, was found to have taken shelter in Pakistan, allegedly with full knowledge of the Pakistani government until he was killed in 2011 by US marines. This practically ended the US-Pakistan bonhomie of half a century. Of late, the US has found India to be a more credible ally than Pakistan, and the latter has leaned more towards China. Therefore, Pakistan’s ability to withstand any form of Indian aggression depends directly on how much China supports Pakistan. Given the level of investment and engagement in Pakistan, China, too, is unlikely to adopt a relaxed approach. In that case, the US might back India, not Pakistan. This is how South Asia is gradually turning into a strategic battleground between the US and China, fought by proxies India and Pakistan. India itself is a far more powerful military might than any of its neighbours and is readying to square up to China. It appears as if the cold war of the 21st century has landed in the South Asian heartland.
The ramifications of Indo-Pak conflict have already started to surface. The Indian bid to alienate Pakistan in both regional and global forums is gradually taking shape. When Pakistan refused to sign a Saarc motor vehicle pact during the 18th summit in Kathmandu, the BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal) agreement was later reached. Pakistan is also opting out of the Saarc common satellite project. The Indian priority is now more on Bimstec than on Saarc, as the former excludes Pakistan. These developments will deal a fresh blow to the already dysfunctional Saarc.
The extent of the Chinese involvement in the Indo-Pak conflict so far is only a conjecture. But, with or without Pakistan, Sino-Indian relations in the coming days are certain to be marked by the fierce competition to bring South Asian nations under their respective sphere of influence. Nepal, for example, which is located between these two giants, often prefers to fence-sit on all murky issues between them and only cares about its prosperity and growth. It will be one of the countries that will find it difficult to maintain neutrality or to align with one side. This is indeed not an easy situation.
Before regional politics becomes unmanageably messy, it is in Nepal’s interest to propose a Nepal-India-China summit with a single agenda to keep Nepal out of their geo-strategic manoeuvrings and help formulate development projects that are beneficial for all the three countries. From Nepal’s perspective, that is the only silver lining in the hovering dark cloud.
Wagle, a founding editor of the economic daily Arthik Abhiyan, is an eco-political analyst