GEN Bipin Rawat, the recently installed army chief in India, was the surprise choice of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the country’s next top soldier. And now Gen Rawat has pulled a bit of a surprise of his own with his aggressive remarks against Pakistan that have elicited a swift response from army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa. In extensive and hard-hitting remarks about the alleged militant threat in India-held Kashmir emanating from Pakistan, Gen Rawat may well have been pandering to a domestic audience in India — with the state of India’s troubles in IHK refusing to go away, there appears to be a growing demand for tough official rhetoric against Pakistan. Among Pakistani hawks, however, a very different message may well have been heard. The growing influence of the Indian army in national security policy debates across the border has been charted for many years now by security hawks here and the appointment of Gen Rawat, who is believed to have been closely involved in the planning and execution of the alleged so-called surgical strikes along the LoC last September, has been interpreted as part of Prime Minister Modi’s get-tough approach on Pakistan. The potential for India and Pakistan to get their wires crossed — to have a different understanding of the same situation — remains high.

Gen Rawat’s comments and Gen Bajwa’s riposte underline the problem of militaries directly articulating policy positions rather than their parent ministries or civilian governments. The deliberately hawkish comments on Pakistan by Gen Rawat in a wide-ranging interview were always going to create headlines — both in India and Pakistan. A close examination of his words suggest he said little that was new or novel, but the comments were sure to have an impact on an already frozen bilateral relationship. Similarly, in responding to his counterpart in India, Gen Bajwa has guaranteed headlines in both countries — reinforcing in Pakistan the notion that India is the enemy, and in India that Pakistan does not ultimately seek peace. The combined effect will be to make it yet more difficult for a resumption of diplomatic contact between the two countries and for the stalled peace and normalisation process to be restarted. Some days ago, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif assembled his political and military leadership and reiterated his vision for a stable, peaceful and economically integrated region. India would do well to listen to his message.

Published in Dawn, January 7th, 2017

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