Mounting tensions

Published October 1, 2016

Nearly one and a half billion people in two countries — India and Pakistan — appear to be held hostage to conspiracy, rumour and reckless warmongering. That needs to stop, and it needs to stop immediately.

On Thursday, 11 days after the Uri attack and seemingly an eternity in Pak-India sabre-rattling and diplomatic tensions, another layer of confusion and chaos was added to one of the world’s most complicated bilateral relationships.

With the facts of the Uri attack yet to be established or shared with the world, a new, potentially larger, set of questions has now overshadowed an already fraught situation.

See: Pakistan and India: The art of peace

What happened along the Line of Control between midnight and early morning on Thursday is a story that Indian authorities appear to be very clear about and the Indian media has reported with relish. But virtually nothing has been independently confirmed about the events along the LoC, an area that is effectively cordoned off from the media in both countries and where the local population is unlikely to know the facts or be willing to speak candidly.

What is clear is that something did happen at several points along the LoC in the early hours of Thursday morning. At the very least, Pakistani and Indian forces exchanged fire in which two Pakistani soldiers died.

That is a sad, if long-standing, reality of the region: whenever tensions between the two countries are high, parts of the LoC see live ammunition fired, the lives of local populations disrupted and several casualties among security personnel and civilians.

Indeed, two summers ago, with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi newly installed in office, the LoC saw a series of skirmishes that progressively escalated until reaching crisis point around mid-October. That set of events was supposedly meant to herald the start of a new, so-called get-tough policy by India.

Eventually, better sense prevailed and by September 2015 the DG Rangers and DG Border Security Force met and agreed to renew the LoC ceasefire. The Pathankot attack earlier this year, which involved infiltration across the Working Boundary, did not materially change the situation along the LoC, but unrest in India-held Kashmir and the Uri attack appear to have done so.

At this point, it is imperative to establish the facts quickly. The wild cheering that greeted the government’s accounts of events in India may become a dangerous precedent and create a new set of expectations in a region where war in an overtly nuclear environment would be catastrophic for both countries.

Facts, however, would help nudge the situation towards de-escalation, given signalling from the Pakistani state and Indian government.

Pakistani policymakers, both civilian and military, have reacted sensibly, and appear to be resisting Indian attempts to bait Pakistan. But the media echo chamber — jingoistic, fiercely nationalistic and often removed from reality — can have unpredictable effects, especially when it comes to whipping up warlike sentiment among the populations of the two countries.

Quickly establishing two sets of facts, of events along the LoC on Thursday and the Uri attack, would switch a media narrative from punch and counter-punch and allow the two states to work on how to ratchet down tensions along the LoC.

The Modi government, despite its hawkish instincts and muscle-flexing, has indicated an awareness of the dangers of unrestrained rhetoric. Facts will help clear the miasma and introduce the necessary rationality into a debate that is increasingly unhinged.

Read: How Pakistan should respond to a dangerous time

Clearly, the problems in the region are not unilateral and one-directional. Pakistan has pursued flawed policies in the past and could do more to help end the menace of terrorism in the region. But this is not an area of straightforward cause and effect, nor are the broader issues of the Pak-India relationship of immediate relevance.

First and foremost, the priority of the leaderships of Pakistan and India should be to ensure that no matter what the circumstances and no matter what the concerns, the path to war is not taken.

India suffered a blow in Uri as it did in Pathankot. It has a right to expect justice and Pakistan has a responsibility to investigate any links to citizens of this country. But what has been unleashed in India since the seemingly exaggerated claims of so-called surgical strikes along the LoC is frightening and wildly destabilising.

If now is not a propitious time for a dialogue of peace, it is the time for some serious introspection.

Only a few days ago, the Indian prime minister talked of a joint war against poverty; he must now also resist the poverty of ideas and the temptation to take the low, dangerous road.

Published in Dawn, October 1st, 2016

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