The physical intimidation and harassment of top-level Indian and Pakistani diplomats and the tit-for-tat expulsions of four high commission staff by each of them mark a historic, abysmal, low in relations between the two states. The episode shows them in singularly unflattering light as two juvenile governments competing with each other to recklessly push up the spiral of rivalry and prove to the world that South Asia will long remain its 'most dangerous place.'
After this episode, it is hard to predict how much lower Indo-Pakistan relations will fall. But 'mounting tensions' between them have already created financial problems, says The Economic Times, including a sharp spike in the forward premium payable by corporations on their foreign exchange liabilities.
The two sub-continental rivals' conduct probably has no parallel at least in the post-War era. Even in the worst phases of the Cold War, US and Soviet embassy staff didn't have to fear for their bodily safety. Physical harassment of diplomats is indefensible and impermissible, no matter what the circumstances, and irrespective of the consequences. It is also forbidden by the Vienna Convention of 1961 on the treatment of accredited diplomats, and by the bilateral Code of Conduct India and Pakistan signed in 1992. The fact they had to explicitly commit themselves not to harass each other's diplomats -- despite the existence of numerous international conventions -- is itself a sad comment on the two governments' maturity. It only suggests that such harassment was prevalent before 1992.
Even worse, the two rivals have since violated that very code any number of times. Every now and then, they rough up middle-level diplomats and consular officers and subject them to 'physical harassment, disconnecting of telephone lines, threatening telephone calls, pursuit in cars and unauthorised entry into residences' -- practices forbidden by the CoC. When one side does that, the other vengefully reciprocates. However, until last month, both respected one unwritten rule: they wouldn't subject the heads of mission (including acting heads) to aggressive surveillance or harassment.
Last month, even this rule was transgressed. This came to light when the car of India's Acting High Commissioner Sudhir Vyas was repeatedly blockaded in Islamabad by police and intelligence agencies. The vehicle, flying the national flag, was allegedly boxed in by four cars and two motorcycles. It was blockaded 'for up to 45 minutes at a time.'
Going by the written record, it is India which seems to have cast the first stone. Indian agencies started tailing Pakistan's Acting High Commissioner Jaleel Abbas Jilani in early January. On January 7, Pakistan's mission complained in writing that 'lately the surveillance of the flag vehicle has been increased to such a level that it can be simply termed as harassment.' For three days, it said, 'intelligence vehicles' followed it 'bumper to bumper,' making 'dangerous manoeuvres' which could have caused 'a serious accident.'
It is not clear whether this action was taken by overzealous low-level intelligence officials or had high-level sanction, and whether it was provoked by something Pakistan did. But beyond a point, it is futile to ask who fired the first shot. Even if India didn't, it brought itself no credit by descending to the sordid level of harassing diplomats. There are some things civilised states simply don't do, no matter what the provocation. The end-result was the expulsion of staffers and reduction of the strength of the two missions to 51, less than half the number a year ago, when India asked for the recall of Pakistan's high commissioner following the attack on Parliament House.
This episode comes together with several other negative developments: exchange of nuclear threats and bellicose rhetoric, hardening of nuclear doctrines and strategic postures, military preparations and plans for new weapons acquisition, demonisation of each other's intentions and hostile pursuit of each other in every conceivable forum. India-Pakistan relations have now plummeted to their lowest level since 1947, lower indeed than during the 1971 war which dismembered Pakistan.
Even during that war, the strength of the two diplomatic missions was not halved. Rail and air links were not severed for prolonged periods (as they have been since January 2002). Nor had India and Pakistan overtly crossed the nuclear threshold. Today, they drop threats to incinerate each other -- at the drop of a hat. On January 26, Defence Minister George Fernandes repeated that threat when he told the BBC that Pakistan would be 'erased from the world map' if it uses nuclear weapons against India.
Both governments are today driven by extreme frustration: India, because it cannot get Pakistan to stop supporting militant infiltration across
The present India-Pakistan stalemate gives an especially dangerous edge to their continuous half-century-long hot-cold war. The conflict between the United States and the USSR was essentially ideological -- to be sustained with armed preparation and settled over time through competition between the two social systems, but not expressed through direct military engagement. The two rivals were physically far apart and fought proxy wars in the Third World. But they never exchanged a gunshot. By contrast, the India-Pakistan conflict is territorial, political, highly militarised (the two have fought three-and-a-half wars), and driven by hostility of a foundational nature -- over accepting each other's very existence. Symbolic of all these features is the Kashmir dispute. Many Indians and Pakistanis haven't reconciled themselves even to the possibility of their peaceful coexistence. Some of them are in power.
In the recent past, particularly post-September 11, 2001, India's Pakistan policy has been shaped by hawkish and extreme Right-wing elements in the Sangh Parivar who believe that Pakistan is bent upon destroying India and India must defend itself by whatever means. This way of thinking does not place reliance on diplomatic engagement, but upon military 'solutions,' although these are fraught with unconscionable risk -- nuclear holocaust. This view is driven by visceral, pathological hatred of Pakistan. Indian hawks have their counterparts in Pakistan, who too feed on mutual hostility. Both have a stake in maintaining the hostility. Like the well-rehearsed, synchronised, flag-hoisting and lowering rituals every day at the Wagah border, with all its rooster-walk aggressiveness and swagger, the hawks of both countries work in coordinated and complementary ways.
It should be evident that India's Pakistan policy and Pakistan's India policy have both become totally sterile and counterproductive. No amount of Pakistani support to the Kashmir militancy is likely to force India to the negotiating table. And no amount of Indian muscle-flexing can bend Pakistan to New Delhi's will. And yet, both governments are wasting the precious lives of civilians and soldiers. India's hawks are convinced that all of India's 'security' problems are caused by Pakistan. They are comprehensively wrong. To argue this is not to entertain the illusion that Pakistan is a benign power which harbours no hostility towards India. The bulk of India's security problems are of internal origin, including Kashmir's azadi movement, People's War-style militancy, and the Northeast's secessionism. Pakistan cynically exploits India's problems -- just as India once did Pakistan's, in Sindh and Baluchistan. But it is not their principal cause.
A radical policy shift has become overdue. India should take the initiative by restoring communications and diplomatic links and offering talks to Pakistan to monitor the Line of Control with a mutually acceptable multilateral group, and to implement a comprehensive ceasefire, and restore human rights in Kashmir. If a prolonged ceasefire holds, India could begin a structured dialogue, as agreed at Lahore, on the 'six-plus-two' formula -- not excluding Kashmir, but not limited to it. At the same time, domestically, India must sincerely apply the 'healing touch' by releasing political prisoners in Jammu and Kashmir and dismantling the Special Operations Group, etc.
It would be a tragedy of monumental proportions if the Indian government squanders the opportunity offered by the present juncture: the installation of a broad-based coalition government in J&K following credible elections; growing popular disenchantment and disgust with militant groups like Lashkar-e-Tayiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed; serious differences, including armed clashes, between the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen's 'moderate' Majid Dar group and the Syed Salahuddin faction; the formation of a civilian government in Pakistan; and growing recognition in that country, especially in the intelligentsia, that Pakistan's Kashmir policy has run out of steam and become unworkable, as testified by the repeated criticism of it by US officials, including Ambassador Nancy Powell. These conditions may not be ideal, but they could quickly deteriorate if the India-Pakistan stalemate persists. India must take a calculated risk and grasp the nettle right now.