Given the troubling rhetoric on both sides of the India-Pak border, a reflection on where tensions could possibly culminate may be in order. Although China too is involved, it may be useful for this moment to focus solely on India-Pakistan relations.
Pakistan’s “map offensive”, timed with the first anniversary of the formal removal by New Delhi of Kashmiri autonomy, was accompanied on August 5 by anti-India protests across Pakistan and also in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, where Prime Minister Imran Khan led a march against Delhi’s Kashmir-related steps.
Fahd Husain, an editor at Dawn, Pakistan’s leading English-language newspaper, has asked the Imran Khan government to recognise the wastefulness of efforts to mobilise Pakistanis over Kashmir. That is merely “preaching to the converted,” says Husain, who suggests that “this battle for Kashmir” would be better fought diplomatically in Washington, Moscow, London, Paris, at the UN, and in New Delhi.
Husain does not need to include Istanbul in his list. In July, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had assured Pakistan’s parliament of his country’s support for Islamabad’s Kashmir stand. More recently, Malaysia’s former Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, has reiterated his backing for that stand.
Islamabad and perhaps Malaysia — that may be the extent of the support Pakistan can expect from governments in the Muslim world. Iran’s current negotiations with China do not necessarily mean alignment with the latter’s Kashmir policy. As for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, their refusal to back Pakistan in its disputes with New Delhi — a stand connected to their strong economic relations with India — has for the first time invited official criticism in Pakistan.
Reacting to the unwillingness of the Saudi-dominated Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to convene a meeting on Kashmir, Palestine and Ayodhya, Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, has said: “Today Pakistanis… need Saudi to play a leading role on the Kashmir issue. If they will not play their role, then I will ask Prime Minister Imran Khan to go ahead with or without Saudi Arabia.”
Given the long history of Saudi-Pakistani relations, a remark like this (which Pakistan’s opposition leaders have strongly criticised) suggests a high degree of frustration. The question therefore has to be asked: Will frustration, isolation, and domestic politics prod Pakistan’s civil and military leaders into taking rash steps?
In respect of India’s leaders, the questions are similar, but not identical. Not frustration but an excess of confidence and an unwillingness to think things through may be India’s vulnerabilities. We can recall the statement made on January 11 this year by the army’s chief of staff, General Manoj Mukund Naravane: “As far as PoK is concerned, there was a parliamentary resolution many years ago that the whole of erstwhile J&K is a part of India. If Parliament wants that area should be ours at some stage, and if we get such orders, we will definitely act on those directions.”
Seventeen days later, addressing a New Delhi rally of the National Cadet Corps, this is what Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in his televised speech: “Pakistan has lost three wars against India, whose armed forces will not need more than a week to 10 days to defeat the neighbouring country in case of another war.”
Modi added: “Pakistan has waged a proxy war against India in Jammu and Kashmir for decades and killed thousands of people and security personnel, but previous governments did not give the armed forces the permission to launch operations across the border.”
“Many speeches were given but when our armed forces sought permission to take action, they were refused. But today the country is moving forward … So, it carries out surgical strikes and airstrikes to teach terrorists a lesson in their own backyard.”
If they compare the economic, military, and human resources of India with those of Pakistan, most analysts would probably give India the clear advantage in any war, without necessarily subscribing to a “seven-to-ten-days” forecast.
Though no one can be absolutely sure, it is also perhaps likely that, aware of the total devastation to follow, neither side in an India-Pakistan conflict will press the nuclear button. Yet a question that must be asked, and one seldom asked, is this: How will India handle or “govern” a defeated Pakistan? The way the Soviet Union handled Afghanistan? The way the US governed Iraq after Saddam was finished in 2003? Would Pakistan’s provinces become so many “Union Territories” within an enlarged Indian Union?
Once it has a defeated Pakistan on its hands, India may regret its victory. No doubt, it is possible to imagine the forces of a victorious India abandoning, to no one’s peace of mind, a vanquished Pakistan to its fate, something similar, perhaps, to what the US under Trump appears to be doing in respect of Afghanistan.
On the other hand, it is also possible, before any war, to imagine negotiations that lead, not necessarily in that order, to a resumption of trade, travel and normal relations, the renunciation of terrorism, and the restoration of the democratic rights of the people of Kashmir. While no realistic person today expects such talks, it is not a crime to picture them.
This article first appeared in the print edition on August 29 under the title “Let’s imagine peace.” The writer teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.