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Meditations on Modi 2.0, Pakistan & the Kashmir Question

10th Anniversary Issue Features

Meditations on Modi 2.0, Pakistan & the Kashmir Question

Can a second-term Modi government, with new red lines but growing domestic turbulence, find a new dialogue with Islamabad? Will Beijing allow it? Will Washington? What role for competence?

India has one foot on a lower rung of the ladder to global power and prestige. Prime Minister Narendra Modi craves and courts status as a world leader. He can now certainly claim a second successive largest mandate in human history, having been re-elected with an increased majority in May.

Having said this, India will continue to experience difficulty climbing the ladder of global recognition while its other foot remains bogged down firmly in the quagmire of bilateral relations with Pakistan. For its part, China has followed a deliberate strategy of keeping India entangled in its own neighbourhood in order to frustrate its pretensions to great power status.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has reversed the American course on China to confront it as an emerging strategic rival across a broad front in Cold War 2.0. And yet the resulting window of opportunity for a game-changing partnership with New Delhi is being wasted by Washington through the strategic incoherence of picking avoidable trade fights, threatening India with secondary sanctions for its independent relationship with Iran (driven by regional dynamics), and demanding the right to veto India’s defence purchases from Russia. Adding to the gathering international storm, the Modi government has also encountered turbulence in its domestic dealings with Muslims and Kashmiris.

The Pulwama-Balakot Clashes

In February, tensions between nuclear-armed neighbours India and Pakistan spiked with the suicide bomb attack on a paramilitary convoy in Pulwama, Kashmir that killed 44 Indian soldiers. Modi approved missile strikes against an alleged terrorist training camp deep inside Pakistan in Balakot. Pakistan retaliated the next day with air raids along the Line of Control in Kashmir. With certain facts – who shot down how many of the other side’s planes, and did Indian missiles hit a terrorist training camp or land harmlessly in an open field? – impossible to verify or disprove in the fog of war, both sides were able to claim military and diplomatic victory and, with honour intact, defuse the crisis. Nevertheless, the toxic cocktail of Pakistan-based jihadist groups waging hybrid war in Indian Kashmir, territorial disputes, growing nuclear stockpiles and expanding delivery platforms, and the rise of militant Hindu nationalism in India mean that the crisis will flare up again.

No analyst is taken seriously in India or Pakistan without reference to the origins of the Kashmir dispute that are shrouded in the mist of the partition of the subcontinent in 1947. These origins entail a mix of legal arguments, politics and – to be sure – the military balance of 1949 that determined the present division of Kashmir into parts administered by India and Pakistan. Of course, both sides are convinced of the moral rectitude of their position, which militates against a compromise solution. Their militaries continue to skirmish, and occasionally this breaks out into full-fledged war. Pakistanis – and in particular the Pakistani military – have not forgiven India for the 1971 defeat that broke off Bangladesh as an independent country. Indeed, their thirst for vengeance remains unsated.

When insurgency erupted in Kashmir in the 1980s, Pakistan seized its chance to try to ‘bleed India with a thousand cuts.’ The Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), in particular, have been cultivated as deep state-sponsored jihadist outfits. The 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed more than 160 civilians were perpetrated by the LeT. The attacks on India’s Parliament in December 2001, on an Indian Air Force base in Pathankot in January 2016, and on an army base in Uri in September of that same year, were blamed on the JeM.

The Kashmir territorial dispute intersects with ethno-national identity politics. It continues to fester and divide India and Pakistan because it is unfinished business for both. Pakistan was hived off and created as an Islamic republic on the argument that the Muslims of the subcontinent could not live in a Hindu-majority nation – that is, they needed a national home of their own. As a Muslim-majority province, then, the fact that Kashmir is not part of Pakistan negates that country’s founding ideology and represents unfinished business from 1947.

But India was established as a secular nation, and Kashmiri Muslims comprise less than seven percent of the country’s total Muslim population. For India’s only Muslim-majority province to be cut off would undermine its core identity as a secular republic, and could potentially pose a threat to the remaining Muslims of India. Moreover, unlike other princely states of the British Raj whose post-independence accession was duly followed by merger with the Union of India, Kashmir went through accession (which Pakistan alleges was fraudulent), but not merger. As such, it has unique status under an Indian constitution that seeks to protect its demographic and cultural identity – for example, by prohibiting property ownership by non-Kashmiri Indian citizens. This in turn means that Kashmir is unfinished business for India.

The Nuclear Overhang

The 1971 humiliation spurred Pakistan into investing all means necessary in order to acquire the bomb. By the early 1990s, both Pakistan and India operated on the assumption that the other side already had a nuclear weapon. Both came out of the closet with matching nuclear tests in 1998. (China was an essential enabler of Pakistan’s nuclearization, driven as much an anti-India as a pro-Pakistan motivation.) Although the primary driver of India’s nuclear policy is China, it must live with the nightmare of two nuclear-armed neighbours. India has long-festering serious border disputes with both countries, and the diplomatic friendship between Beijing and Islamabad is said to be higher than the Himalayas, deeper than the oceans, stronger than steel, and sweeter than honey. The depth and solidity of the relationship helps the two to tide over occasional irritants like the recent dispute of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Uniquely among all nuclear-armed states, Pakistan’s nuclear policy, programme and weapons are all under military control, and the decision to use the weapons will be made by the military rather than civilian leadership. Pakistan hosts and supports jihadist groups as instruments of security policy, and it is a revisionist and irredentist state. As a consequence, unlike other dyadic nuclear rivalries that focus on managing stability, Pakistan seeks managed nuclear instability (says Bradford University’s Shaun Gregory).

With parallel nuclearization, Pakistan believed it had created a nuclear ceiling under which it could safely prosecute asymmetric, sub-conventional warfare. Its full-spectrum deterrence posture, first-use doctrine and development of tactical battlefield nuclear weapons were deliberate efforts to blur nuclear red lines by softening the normative boundary between conventional and nuclear weapons.

The nuclear overhang turned the Kashmiri Line of Control into a sacrosanct red line not to be crossed under any circumstances by the Indian military. The Indian Air Force was denied permission to launch strikes across the Line of Control in the Kargil war in 1999, and again after the 2008 attack on Mumbai. India received much international praise for its restrained patience, but most Indians felt shame and humiliation at New Delhi’s policy of ‘strategic restraint.’ As far as they were concerned, Pakistan had got away with a large-scale terrorist massacre in India’s financial capital and turned the question of accountability for the perpetrators into a technical discussion on what counts as verifiable evidence. Meanwhile, for some in the Pakistani military it was bias confirmation of ‘Hindu cowardice.’

With the Balakot strikes in February, India demonstrated the national intent, military capability and political resolve to take the war deep into enemy territory when and if it must. India’s default military response matrix has been reset. The folly of ‘strategic restraint’ has been jettisoned decisively: domestic Indian politics will no longer tolerate it. Modi skillfully exploited the clashes to ride into power for a second term on the back of his image of muscular nationalism. A new, much sharper red line has been drawn for the use of Indian military force. Now, the new normal is that Pakistan-based terrorist attacks on Indian targets will have military consequences. And this will change the calculus of decision-making in Islamabad in respect of the utility and cost-risk benefit of using jihadists and insurgents to wage hybrid war in India.

After decades of neglect and underfunding of the military, India does not presently possess such ‘escalation dominance.’ The best model for India in developing such capacity is Israel. 

Still, to be credible and successful, such a policy requires the capacity to inflict increasingly heavy punitive costs at every rung of the escalation ladder. After decades of neglect and underfunding of the military, India does not presently possess such ‘escalation dominance.’ The best model for India in developing such capacity is Israel. Indeed, the strikes on Balakot used Israeli-made Rafael Spice-2000 GPS-guided ‘smart bombs,’ and Indian and Israeli special forces already conduct combined exercises in the Negev desert. India will likely take other lessons from Israel in the future.

The Changed US Approach

For external powers, India’s traditional posture of strategic restraint meant that the line between international respect, eye-glazing indifference and quiet contempt for India’s inability to solve its own problems was very fine indeed. However, the new normal of unilateral strikes across the international border shows that India has given up on the UN Security Council, where China, as a veto-wielding permanent member, has acted as Pakistan’s enabler and protector.

Today, countries worried about a nuclear war would be well-advised that the best way to avoid one is to make sure that Pakistan dismantles the infrastructure of terrorism-for-export to Afghanistan and India. On that logic, Washington has abandoned its traditional neutrality and open reinforced the Indian narrative on the key aspects of the February clash. US National Security Adviser John Bolton has publicly backed India’s right to self-defence. Describing the post-Pulwama situation as “very dangerous,” President Trump predicted a “very strong” response from India. After the Indian strikes on Balakot, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described them as “counter-terrorism actions.” Hussain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US, correctly concluded that the US approach was less sympathetic to Pakistan in this crisis because Pakistan had allowed terrorist groups to operate from its soil. This was also succinctly articulated by Eliot Engel, chairman of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee. To avoid any miscalculation that could see the two countries slide down a slippery slope toward nuclear war, he said, “Pakistani leaders must take demonstrable action against Jaish-e-Mohammed and the terrorist infrastructure on Pakistan’s soil.”

In the end, there is no alternative to bilateral dialogue with Pakistan to establish normal relations between the nuclear-armed neighbours. The problem for India remains: to whom should it talk? 

Of course, in the end, there is no alternative to bilateral dialogue with Pakistan to establish normal relations between the nuclear-armed neighbours. The problem for India remains: to whom should it talk? Pakistan’s military determines the key elements of its India, Kashmir and nuclear policies, and the civilian government can be overthrown if it crosses the military’s red lines. There therefore has to be a change in the nature of the Pakistani state, with civilian dominance over the military firmly established as a precondition for meaningful talks to begin.

Reassuring India’s Muslims

For its part, the nature of the Indian state is itself changing as the religious nationalist base of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) threatens to turn India into a Hindu Pakistan. In his towering self-regard, promise to make India great again – claiming a mile of triumphalism for every inch of policy success – and self-congratulatory boasts of achievements regardless of objective reality, Modi bears a striking resemblance to Donald Trump. His government has aggressively delegitimized any criticism of its Pakistan policy as unpatriotic and used this to shield itself against tough questions about the intelligence failures that enabled the Pulwama massacre, the reasons behind the radicalization of the home-grown suicide bomber, and the results of the airstrikes on Balakot.

Muslims suspected of consuming or selling beef have been lynched. Those expressing disquiet over rising Hindu intolerance have been advised to move to Pakistan – and in myriad other ways, have been made to feel like second-class citizens. The hardline Hindutva agenda that has been permitted by the Modi government to take root and increasingly monopolize the public space has palpably increased the anxiety level of Muslims, risking their alienation from the Indian political mainstream. Of course, were India’s 180 million Muslims, dispersed across the length and breadth of the country, to be fully alienated, no government could contain the resulting fire and fury, and the country would be consumed by the ensuing conflagration.

Calming Kashmir

Independently of – and bigger than – its Pakistan problem, India has a Kashmir problem. Escalation dominance by military means may buy India insurance against cross-border terrorism, but it does not resolve the underlying Kashmir dispute. This can be done only through direct dialogue and negotiation. Both the Congress Party and the BJP have been guilty of gross, deep and serial interference in the state politics of Kashmir, severely straining the quality of Indian federalism. This has fed the growing antagonism and restlessness of Kashmiris. Pulwama was not the same as Mumbai on 26/11: the suicide attack was directed at – and restricted to – soldiers being deployed into an active indigenous insurgency. As such, Pulwama does not satisfy the generally accepted definition of terrorism. Pulwama’s suicide bomber was a home-grown militant, 22-year old Adil Ahmad Dar who used a local van as his deadly missile.

The suspect loyalty of Kashmiris sympathetic to separatism and jihadists fuels the anti-Muslim agenda of Hindu hardliners. Modi’s aggressive nationalism is feeding the jingoism of an angry and aroused mass of citizens. Any effort to question the official narrative is denounced as offering aid and comfort to the enemy.

According to Mohammed Ayoob, emeritus professor of international relations at Michigan State University and an Indian Muslim, Kashmir has become an “albatross around the neck of Indian Muslims.” The suspect loyalty of Kashmiris sympathetic to separatism and jihadists fuels the anti-Muslim agenda of Hindu hardliners. Modi’s aggressive nationalism is feeding the jingoism of an angry and aroused mass of citizens. Any effort to question the official narrative is denounced as offering aid and comfort to the enemy. The Hindu militants who make up his base have also vilified anyone from the opposition parties and civil society seeking informal dialogue with counterparts in Pakistan as unpatriotic.

Firmness and military forcefulness in tackling jihadi terrorism exported from Pakistan must be complemented with fairness and conciliation in winning back the aggrieved Kashmiris. Modi must engage with them, including the disaffected and alienated youth.

This is a dangerous narrowing of space for political dialogue between civil society representatives that coincides with a freeze in diplomatic talks – a freeze that has extended even to contacts with a range of Kashmiri representatives. Indian commentators have repeatedly warned of the consequences, but have been either ignored or worse, branded as Muslim and Pakistan appeasers and jihadi apologists. Bref, firmness and military forcefulness in tackling jihadi terrorism exported from Pakistan must be complemented with fairness and conciliation in winning back the aggrieved Kashmiris. Modi must engage with them, including the disaffected and alienated youth.

Modi could do worse than to learn from his predecessor. Manmohan Singh kept open the political process in Kashmir, appointed a three-member civil society team of interlocutors, tried to soften the border with Pakistan by opening cross-border trade and bus services, and ensured that a dialogue with Pakistan was kept alive through official, back channel and civil society contacts. The result? According to V.K. Singh, the former army chief who is now a minister in the Modi government, Kashmir was essentially peaceful in the 2005-2012 period.

By contrast, Modi’s Kashmir policy has shifted the balance from the previous dual-track approach of military containment-cum-political engagement, to emphasize military solutions at the expense of political approaches. Modi has been erratic, inconsistent, volatile and combative on Kashmir, treating it largely as a law and order problem with curfews, comb-and-search operations and the use of lethal force, on the one hand, and as a counter-terrorism policy directed against local militants and their backers based in Pakistan, on the other. The result is clear: a substantial spike since 2014 in the numbers of terrorist attacks and attempted infiltrations across the Line of Control; of security forces, insurgents and civilians killed; and of protests. Citing these figures, Radha Kumar, an interlocutor in Kashmir during the Manmohan Singh period, has castigated the Modi government for having no policy to make peace in Kashmir.

Nor can India simply wish away last year’s damning report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on abuses in Kashmir. Hampered by the refusal of unconditional access to Kashmir, the report noted effective impunity for deaths, disappearances, sexual and other abuses due to various laws that have “created structures that obstruct the normal course of law, impede accountability and jeopardize the right to remedy for victims of human rights violations.”

The Wider Geopolitical Backdrop

India and Pakistan came close to cutting a deal on Kashmir a decade and a half ago. Prime Minister Singh and Pakistan’s General Pervez Musharraf launched intensive back-channel diplomatic negotiations under strict secrecy, led by veteran Indian diplomat Satinder Lambah and Pakistani politician Tariq Aziz. The teams also worked out measures to promote trade, travel and dialogue across the Line of Control. By 2007, however, Musharraf’s political position had become precarious domestically and he was unable to translate diplomatic progress into an agreement.

The simplest and most sensible solution to the Kashmir crisis would be to convert the de facto international border into the de jure border. That border has barely shifted through more than 70 years of conflict, and it is unlikely to shift much in the next 70 years.

The simplest and most sensible solution to the Kashmir crisis would be to convert the de facto international border into the de jure border. That border has barely shifted through more than 70 years of conflict, and it is unlikely to shift much in the next 70 years. The dispute has exacted a heavy toll on India, and an even heavier toll on Pakistan. With an agreed, settled and open international border, Kashmiris and all Indians and Pakistanis would be able to travel back and forth freely, forge close people-to-people relations, and build markets for shared prosperity and improved lifestyles. Both countries could focus on investing in social security, welfare and economic development. They could collaborate on shared policy agendas. All they need to do to appreciate the limitless possibilities is to look across to Europe and the common values, interests and identity that bind such historic rivals as Britain, France, Germany and Italy.

India is deeply aware of the enabling role that China has played in using Pakistan to constrict India to the subcontinent – including by assisting Pakistan’s nuclear program. China has also been the chief obstacle to India’s elusive quest for permanent membership of the UN Security Council. The unresolved Sino-Indian border dispute also experiences occasional flare-ups and skirmishes – for example, on the Doklam plateau in 2017. Neither the Chinese nor Indians have forgotten India’s military humiliation by China in 1962. At the same time, on many global issues pertaining to trade, affordable medicine, intellectual property, labour and environmental standards, and climate change, their interests converge against industrialized countries. This finds expression in the BRICS grouping of Brazil, Russia, China, India and South Africa, which has become as much a geopolitical bloc as an economic one. Indeed, the ambivalence of India’s China relationship is well captured in the fact that the two are co-founders of the BRICS New Development Bank. India is a full partner in the China-created Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. And yet India has been a determined opponent of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

The central geopolitical dynamic of our time is the steady accretion of power, wealth and clout by China and the relative waning of US power. As the two Asian giants reclaim agency in determining their own affairs, the Sino-American dynamic has shaped the changing contours of the India-US relationship in the last two decades and is likely to become even more influential in the coming decades. For its part, the bilateral relationship between Washington and New Delhi had more downs than ups during the Cold War, but has been on a gradual upswing since then. It was put on a steeply upward trajectory with the signing of the civil nuclear cooperation deal in 2005. Having been denied an entry visa to the US for many years as the elected head of a state government, Modi, upon becoming prime minister, set aside personal hurts from the slight and made a strategic decision to invest in the US as India’s most important relationship. That has helped to create important constituencies in the US Congress, political parties, bureaucracy, military and private sector to deepen and elevate India-US ties. The Indian diaspora in the US has also played a key bridge-building role.

As part of the overarching strategy to challenge China’s assertive dominance, the US is interested in informal interests-cum-values-based coalitions with allies and friends. To this end, the ‘Indo-Pacific’ construct attempts to integrate geography, ‘free and open’ as a guiding principle, and the democratic values of Australia, India, Japan and the US into one strategic aegis. In a major speech in October 2017, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson became the first senior US official to switch to the Indo-Pacific strategic frame, with the US and India described as “the eastern and western beacons.” To be sure, the combination of geography, demographics, military power and political weight gives India multiple roles in safeguarding sea lanes, dampening Islamic militancy, combatting terrorism, and taking the lead in disaster relief operations around the Indian Ocean.

And yet Trump’s transactional foreign policy risks producing strategic incoherence between trade and geopolitical goals. By imposing stiff tariffs on Indian imports and secondary sanctions on India’s trade with Iran, the administration risks reawakening the latent anti-Americanism in the Indian body politic. India cannot become an Asian counterweight to China if its economy is weakened. A narrow-minded approach that weaponizes tariffs, trade and dollar dominance to browbeat India will only compel the Modi government to evaluate other options. India is too large – and in the pursuit of its regional interests, India’s pride and self-belief will not permit it to be a mere vassal state of any external power, whether benign or malevolent. This requires some recognition by the US of Indian sensitivities on economic, trade and regional security interests. A mature bilateral relationship would acknowledge the possibility of occasional disagreements based on divergent interests and perspectives, negotiate through the issues to find common ground, and quarantine discord to contain any lasting damage to the broader relationship.

Finally, domestic political stability, internal social cohesion and rapid economic transformation are all prerequisites for Indian foreign policy success in defeating cross-border terrorism from Pakistan, staying within touching distance of China’s rise as a comprehensive national power, and retaining US interest in being a strategic partner. Modi has ensured political stability with a second majority mandate for the BJP. But he shows little understanding of the need to check the vigilantism of Hindu zealots as the biggest threat to national unity. He understands the need for economic success but showed worrying signs of economic illiteracy in his first term. Making essentially incremental changes, he has given no indication that he grasps the need for transformative structural reforms to drive the economy forward, improve service delivery by a modern, efficient and responsive bureaucracy, and position India to be globally competitive over the next few decades by dragging its education system – from the primary through to the tertiary sector – into the 21st century. This is why the Indian economy continues to grow mainly at night, when the government is asleep.


Ramesh Thakur is Emeritus Professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.


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