By: Tridivesh Singh Maini
India-Pakistan ties have hit rock bottom in the past year, with the tipping point being the Uri terror attacks in September 2016, when terrorists attacked an army base killing 18 soldiers. India retaliated with surgical strikes across the Line of Control (LOC), which saw the death of 38 terrorists and two soldiers killed.
Tensions between the countries have been on the rise since the terror attacks on the Pathankot air base in January 2016, exactly one week after India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprise stop over in Lahore when returning from Kabul.
In 2016, Pakistan stoked fires in Kashmir, with Hizbul Mujahideen terrorist Burhan Wani, who was neutralized by Indian security forces in June, dubbed a martyr by Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in July. Sharif, who in the past has spoken about a better relationship with India, also praised Wani during his address at the United Nations in September that year.
It is important, however to take note of certain developments in the context of the bilateral relationship, which offer some hope.
Firstly, India agreed to attend the Permanent Indus Commission meeting being held in Pakistan on March 20-21, after previously refusing in protest against the terror attacks in Uri. The Permanent Indus Commission was set up under the Indus Waters Treaty between the two countries to discuss key issues, and is supposed to meet in India and Pakistan.
The Indian government also reviewed the 56-year-old treaty post the Uri attack, with Prime Minister Modi saying that: “Blood and water cannot flow simultaneously during a meeting.”
The treaty, which was signed in 1960, has survived two wars (1965 and 1971) and many near war situations between the two. According to the treaty, Beas, Ravi and Sutlej are to be governed by India, while Indus, Chenab and Jhelum are to be taken care of by Pakistan. Pakistan gets 80 percent of the water, and there have been suggestions that India is looking at ways for a rethink on this.
“We have decided to route the water from the Indus, which currently flows into Pakistan, which does not have the right over this, to the farmers of Punjab, who rightfully deserve it,” Modi said at an election rally in Punjab in January. “Punjab’s farmers, India’s farmers will get water from India’s rivers. Indus water flowing to Pakistan will be diverted to Punjab.”
Pressed by analysts to scrap the treaty, India has so far refrained from doing so, with the government stating that it would exploit to “the maximum” the capacity of Pakistan-controlled rivers - Indus, Chenab, Jhelum - as per the terms of the treaty. India has also decided to expedite construction of three dams on the River Chenab - Pakul Dul Dam, Sawalkot Dam and Bursar Dam.
Secondly, the new South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Secretary General is a Pakistani national, and India supported his election. This was an important goodwill gesture given tensions over the past year.
Thirdly, India recently announced plans for a trans-continental container train full of goods from Dhaka in Bangladesh to Istanbul, Turkey, traversing 6,000 kilometers across five countries – Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey. This project is a clear signal that India is not averse to strengthening connectivity with Pakistan. Officials from these countries are likely to meet in April in New Delhi to take the project forward.
On the Pakistani side, it has been making the right noises, such as Hafiz Saeed, co-founder of Pakistan-based terror group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and chief of terror group Jamaat Ud Dava (JUD), being placed under house arrest after eight terrorist attacks in Pakistan, including on a famous Sufi Shrine, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, in Sindh.
Pakistan’s army too has so far backed the actions against Saeed according to sources. Defense Minister, Khwaja Asif, addressing the Munich Security Conference last month, said: “Saeed can pose a serious threat to society.”
Addressing the 19th Asian Security Conference held at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, former National Security Adviser to the Pakistan government Maj. Gen. Mahmud Durrani, who in the past has been quite candid about terror emanating from Pakistani soil, said: “Hafiz Saeed has no utility, we should act against him.”
India has been cautious in its reaction to the house arrest, after making the point that only a credible crackdown would send a message that Pakistan is serious about taking action against Saeed, who has been placed under house arrest and then released in the past.
Reasons for skepticism
The actions being taken by Pakistan against Saeed need to be viewed with a degree of skepticism, as a sort of face-saver vis-à-vis the outside world. Most analysts argue that it was done to send the right signals to the outside world, especially the US. Interior Minister, Chaudhry Nisar, after the arrest of Saeed said: “The organization has been under observation since 2010-11. Since it has also been listed by the UN Security Council [sanctions committee], we are bound to take some steps and we are taking those steps to fulfill our obligations.”
It would also be pertinent to point out that Saeed’s organization still does not face any ban, and that Pakistan Punjab’s Law Minister Rana Sanaullah came to the defense of Saeed, saying that JUD supports the Kashmir cause. In an interview with the Associated Press, he said: “They are related to Kashmir. They feel Indian brutality in Kashmir is unacceptable. Why is the world not concerned about India's violence in Kashmir? There is no evidence of Saeed's involved in state terrorism.”
Pakistan’s Punjabi elite needs to take a firm stand against terrorism, and cannot run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. Recent terror attacks in Lahore clearly indicate that the province is no longer immune to terror, and the state can not be selective in targeting certain groups.
While groups like JUD may not target Punjab, their ire is not restricted to India, but also to those within Pakistan who want a working relationship with India. In the past, Hafiz Saeed has targeted the PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League) government. It is also time that some concrete action is taken against Masood Azhar, chief of the Jaish-E-Mohammed group.
It is not just the Pakistan army, but also the political class, which needs to be bold and stop being in denial. The ruling PML-N government, for instance, has made the right noises on certain occasions. Yet, it has kowtowed to the army, and instead of dealing firmly with Punjabi terror groups, it has handled them with kid gloves, instead seeking to divert attention from these terrorist groups by being more aggressive on Kashmir and blaming the outside world.
India, for its part, should not be rigid, and should not totally close its doors to engagement with Pakistan. Recent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) triumphs in state elections have given more elbowroom to open channels of engagement, although something substantial does not seem on the cards. But, at the same time, it will need to be more aggressive in pushing Pakistan to act against its terrorist groups. Aside from depending on the US, India should also make use of countries like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, with whom its relations have witnessed a significant improvement in recent times.
In conclusion, while India has its task cut out given the increasing closeness between Pakistan and China, Islamabad should stop thinking tactically.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based Policy Analyst associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat.