India and Pakistan: Low Expectations

Ajmer Shrine, photo from http://www.flickr.com/photos/ajmer/4478622642/sizes/m/in/photostream/

March 11, 2013: Pakistan lame-duck Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf’s brief private visit to India March 9 accomplished nothing of substance, but it put an unintended spotlight on the troubled state into which India-Pakistan relations have fallen in the past few months. The causes of the downturn are many and varied – trouble in Kashmir and along the Line of Control, concerns about post-2014 Afghanistan, a stalling of their encouraging trade opening, and perhaps most importantly impending elections in both countries. A State Department spokeswoman welcomed Ashraf’s visit and confirmed Washington’s interest in the two nations talking to one another. But such long-standing U.S. cheerleading from the sidelines is unlikely to have any meaningful impact. Significant progress seems unlikely until parliamentary elections are held in both countries, Pakistan’s this May, India’s probably in early 2014.

Ashraf’s visit contrasted in tone and substance with President Zardari’s brief, similarly “private” journey last April to worship at the same Muslim shrine, in Ajmer, Rajasthan. On that occasion Zardari lunched with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi. The two leaders congratulated one another on the progress their countries had made in improving ties, especially in facilitating trade, investment, and travel. Their summit encounter, which included a reiteration of Islamabad’s invitation to Singh to visit his native village in Pakistani Punjab, seemed a modest step forward toward a further improvement.

This year, Ashraf did not visit New Delhi. He was hosted to lunch in Jaipur en-route to Ajmer by Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, but the media were told that no official talks and specifically no discussion of the hot-button terrorism issue had taken place. In both Jaipur and Ajmer, protesters, reportedly including activists from the Hindu nationalist BJP, demonstrated against the Pakistani visitor.

Two developments in Kashmir earlier this year have contributed to this downward cycle. The first involved clashes in early January along the Line of Control, one allegedly involving the beheading of an Indian soldier. As is usually the case, the two sides offered different official versions of what happened. What was unusual, however, was the reporting by the highly regarded Kashmir correspondent of the Indian newspaper The Hindu, that it had been the Indian side that had started the trouble.

Official Indian reaction to the incident, which had been moderate at first, quickly escalated.  The Armed Forces led the way: the chiefs of both the Army and the Air Force threatened retaliation. Prime Minister Singh joined this aggressive chorus on January 15, when he declared that after the barbaric beheading there could not be business as usual with Pakistan. The following day, amid jingoistic clamor from India’s electronic media and leaders of the BJP, the government announced that a newly established special visa-on-arrival facility for older Pakistanis visiting India had been put on hold and expelled Pakistani field hockey stars touring the country. It was a clear case of overreaction by the usually mild-mannered prime minister, very likely heightened by pre-election concerns. Although some of the mainstream press to its credit urged the government to modify its position, Singh has continued to maintain a hard line on further efforts to bring about Indian détente with Pakistan. The Pakistanis have maintained a much more restrained attitude.

Another series of unhelpful developments took place soon afterwards in the Kashmir Valley. These followed the hanging in a New Delhi jail in early February of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri convicted and sentenced to death for the terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001. The execution was ordered without prior notification of Afzal Guru’s family and before a final appeal for clemency could be entered. The Indian government subsequently refused the family’s request that Afzal Guru’s body be sent to Kashmir for burial. Even Indians totally unsympathetic to Afzal Guru acknowledge that the Manmohan Singh government seriously blundered in taking this position. Severe rioting followed, forcing the authorities to impose curfews throughout the Kashmir Valley. Matters had only begun to calm down when Indian forces shot and killed an unarmed Kashmiri youth. This led to further disturbances and a virtual shutdown of activity in the Valley.

Trouble of this kind in Kashmir always has a negative effect on India-Pakistan relations. Pakistanis see it as further evidence of Indian oppression of their fellow Muslims. Whatever the facts, Indians see a Pakistani hand in the disturbances. They find it difficult to acknowledge that most Kashmiri Muslims are unhappy with Indian rule or that New Delhi’s often insensitive handling of the Kashmiris contributes seriously to law-and-order problems in the state. Many long-time observers we spoke to during our recent visit to India argued that the Kashmir insurgency had gone away, citing as evidence the large-scale revival of tourism to the Valley last summer and the diminishing violence there.

During these events, the Indian authorities expressed no interest in looking for solutions that would foster reconciliation within the Valley and between Kashmir and India. Although the Kashmir state government and the leading Kashmir-based pro-India opposition party have called for reforms, the Indian government has made no fresh offer to “give peace a chance,” as it had following severe rioting in the summer of 2010. It has refused to scrap the much loathed Armed Forces Special Protection Act, which gives the military immunity from prosecution for many types of offenses they may commit against civilians in the Valley. It has buried the report prepared by the three-member commission of “interlocutors” that it had set up to seek out Kashmiri opinion on the political future of the state. Some observers argue that India can manage intermittent disorder in Kashmir better than the Congress party can manage the political fallout from appearing “soft” on Kashmir.

Kashmir appears to be less central to New Delhi’s current concerns about Pakistan than the problem of postwar Afghanistan.  Indians worry that Pakistan will encourage a Taliban takeover and might even send irregulars into Afghanistan to make this happen. The Indian military are now training some Afghan forces in India. Ironically, Washington, which had long been skittish about any Indian activity in Afghanistan other than economic support, now seems eager to see India expand its military training effort. Islamabad, intensely suspicious of India’s ties with Kabul, continues to decline New Delhi’s invitations to include a discussion of Afghanistan in their bilateral dialogue.

The promising trade opening initiative launched in 2011 remains the most encouraging item on the India-Pakistan agenda, but it too has been virtually stalled since December 2012. Pakistan has gotten cold feet about completing and formalizing its extension of normal trade relations to India, and India’s cancellation of the visa-on-demand facility for older visitors adds to the problems. No one has denounced the initiative, however, and it may well revive, but not until after both elections are over.

Indeed, the looming elections underline what may be the most important problem: weak governments in both countries. The result is likely to be a difficult year for India-Pakistan relations. And there are plenty of spoilers out there who could make things even more perilous, as they did when they attacked Mumbai in 2008. More encouraging scenarios are likely to emerge only when leaders come to power in both countries who are both confident and looking for ways forward.

Teresita and Howard Schaffer

3 Comments

  1. Ainslie Embree says:

    This a disheartening report, but, perhaps overoptimisticalkly,the linking of harsh rhetoric to the necessities of election politics as a suggestion the situation may not be quite as grim as a it seemed.

  2. antony says:

    A realistic assessment of a complex regional melting pot. No doubt, there is a linkage with the domestic politics of the major powers involved. But central to it are other problems which are of global interest and implications today and as such leading powers cannot ignore them.

  3. Teresita & Howert Schaffer,s article on Indian-Pakistan relation on present time is quite thought prowoking one.Myself,being not only observer for almost half -centuary of mine life for this continent(since joining me to the Institute of Oriental languages of Moscow State University in 1963,specialising in studing languages, history & economy of this two countries-splitting then into three in 1971(Bangladesh),but also working as a counsellor ,head of the diplomatic Russian missions and working in other capasities in all of them(from 2-d secretary to the Head of the missions)can tell you,that mentioned article is a brilliant one in many sences.In few lines I cant asses authors contribution to the cause of maintaining objective opinions,but may assuer you that it is well assesed points of vieu of them.V.Shageyev,siniour counsellor of the MFA of Russia(retired)

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