‘We have just witnessed a pilot project. The real project is yet to come.’ This was Narendara Modi’s cryptic response to Pakistan’s peace overtures. The irony of his comments, it seems, was totally lost on him, since his remarks came at a time when Pakistan had yet to release the Indian pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan. Yet within the obscure confines of Modi’s unsophisticated pun lies an element of subtle truth. The post-Pulwama crisis is indeed a test case for India and Pakistan- a ‘pilot’ project that may be executed on a much larger scale sometime in the future. It is a trial run that has turned out to be an embarrassment for India on the military front, while exposing some sober truths that invite deeper introspection from the Pakistani establishment and the nation in general.
Since the Uri attack in 2016, India has tried, but badly failed, to establish a ‘new normal’ in its tense relations with Pakistan. Posing itself as ‘Israel’ and taking Pakistan for ‘Palestine’, it seeks to establish an undisputed right to retaliate against any significant attack on Indian soil by carrying out military action inside Pakistani territory. This it first claimed to have done in September 2016 in the wake of the attack on its airbase in Pathankot by sending its special forces across the LoC to attack Pakistani posts. The Pakistanis claim the whole episode was a farce, a Bollywood inspired concocted tale dramatized on Indian news channels and turned into the stuff of films (of Indian standards though). In the Pulwama attack on the CRPF, which claimed the lives of 40 paramilitary soldiers, the ruling right-wing BJP, the 450 or so Indian news media outlets, and an army of armchair generals all found the perfect opportunity to whip up nationalist sentiments and create a war frenzy. This was the predictable outcome of an aura of supremacy which has clouded India’s self-image, a psychosis which makes India behave as if it is indeed a world power in the same league as China, America or Russia. What could be a better way to breathe life into this illusion by bullying a neighbor which India perceives as being far inferior to the great power that it is. Armchair generals and media pundits carrying out simulated war games and from the comfort of their studios fantasizing about an Akhand Bharat devouring Pakistan further reinforce in the Indian psyche this superiority complex.
The initial Pakistani response to Indian war mongering was cool condescending silence. The Pakistani side used the visit of MBS as a cover to feign ignorance of Indian threats of military action. After the fanfare of the visit was over, Imran Khan offered India cooperation if it provided proof of Pakistani involvement in the Pulwama attack, while at the same time warning that any Indian misadventure would leave his country with no choice but to retaliate.
That the Indians would try to avenge Pulwama with some theatrics was a no-brainer, but to what extent they would raise the bar this time was anyone’s guess. In a vicious cycle of delusion and hysterical self-aggrandizement, the much-hyped ‘surgical strike’ of 2016 had inspired a Bollywood film, and the Bollywood film inspired this time another botched attempt at sheer madness. The race is on in India for patenting the name ‘Balakot’ as the title of the next Bollywood blockbuster; what national psychosis that will inspire in India is anyone’s guess! What made things different this time, however, was the Indian use of airpower on Pakistani soil for the first time in fifty years, resulting in the first ever air engagement in history between two nuclear powers. According to Pakistani accounts, it all began with three attempted air incursions on the night of February 26, the first in the Bahawalpur sector, the second in the Lahore-Sialkot sector, and the last in the Muzaffarabad sector. The Pakistanis say that the first two were thwarted due to intensive air patrols on their side of the border, while the third was detected only when four Indian jets had already crossed the LoC. It is equally possible that Indian air activity along the International Border had been a deliberate act of deception to cover the real incursion for which 12 Mirage 2000 accompanied by made-in-Israel radar jamming AWACs and surveillance planes had taken off from Gwalior, deep inside the Indian mainland, rather than from forward bases in Kashmir or Punjab. The fact that the Indians were only able to chop down a few dozen trees with Israeli laser guided ‘SPICE’ ammunition, kill a crow and injure an elderly man in the process provides no comfort to the Pakistani side, since the very act of intruding deep inside Pakistani airspace without being shot down by Pakistani air defense is an extremely unnerving proposition. Within Pakistan, even as some commentators lauded the PAF for chasing away Indian jets, many questioned how the Indians escaped unscathed from this risky adventure which brought their BVR missiles within range of Abbottabad, the home of Pakistan Army’s Sandhurst, the PMA. Even if it proved to be an embarrassing failure in terms of missing its targets completely, this was no artillery strike across the LoC; it was an air incursion deep inside the other side’s territory, a red line that wasn’t crossed by either side even at the height of the Kargil War in 1998.
For India to dominate the escalation ladder is a tricky question and one that Modi conveniently chose to ignore. It is tricky because it has the potential to burst the bubble in which the Indians wanted to live forever… and could have lived forever, only if they had not confused illusions and aspirations with reality. In the face of a blatant and publicized Indian attack, Pakistan has no choice but to retaliate. It is a question of its survival if it wants to merely exist alongside a bully which seeks to flex its muscles every now and then. Indecision is simply not an option in the face of belligerence from the East, for it not only puts into question the raison d’être of maintaining a large armed force that lives off billions squared away from the public’s hard earned money, but equally gives the Indian side a free hand to use Pakistan as a convenient punching bag to deflect attention away from the abject failure of its iron fist policy in Kashmir. Historical experience, besides a correct reading of the Hindu mentality, attests to the fact that the only language that the chauvinist Hindu mindset has ever respected is the language of force. Appeasement, peace overtures, the mantra of ‘aman shanti’, extending olive branches… for the opportunist Kautiliyan mindset these are all signs of weakness that invite ruthless exploitation. The ‘Baniya’ comes with an inbuilt cost-benefit calculator; it is a default setting of the Hindu mindset that has not changed over the course of history. As soon as he recognizes that the dividends of a misadventure are not worth the costs imposed by the other side, he carefully steps back from his aggressive posture, calibrates his stance, and speaks in a more measured and restrained tone. In this context, Pakistan’s swift military response, in broad daylight in contrast to India’s sneaking in at midnight, was not only appropriate, but much needed.
The political handling of the military success is a different story though. If only the Pakistani PM had done a more careful reading of history, or taken advice from saner heads, if any exist around him, before delivering one loose delivery after another. The critical situation facing Pakistan today vis a vis India demands a statesman, someone at least as intellectually sharp, bold and witty as Zia ul Haq or Bhutto (irrespective of the controversial nature of both personalities). A leader’s every word, every pause, every gesture counts in such a delicate situation. Not just his words, but his body language is carefully read by the enemy. If you are not Churchill or Jinnah, you are better off reading out from a carefully drafted statement, reviewed by a group of speech writers and policy experts more articulate than yourself. (In fact, even the likes of Churchill or Jinnah preferred to deliver carefully prepared speeches with the text in front of them rather than going extempore.) The ‘Kaptaan’ unfortunately badly fumbled with words in his televised addresses, whether before the attack or after it (or even in Parliament), leading to a heavily edited Adobe Premiere version of his ‘address to the nation’ being released on both occasions, which required some DIY fill-in-the-blanks to make sense. No self-respecting statesman comes out on state television to say, ‘Hey, I tried to call my counterpart on the enemy’s side, but he doesn’t lift the phone. The guy simply ignores me!’ This might not be what he exactly said, but this is what it translates to in political parlance when you say, ‘I tried to call Narendara Modi, but there was no response from the Indian side.’ Someone from the Foreign Office needs to give the Kaptaan some introductory lessons on back-door diplomacy before he delivers still more costly no-balls.
Worse still is the utter failure of the IK government to raise its voice on the unending sufferings of Kashmiris. The Pulwama crisis was the perfect opportunity to do so since it demonstrated that everything the world feared at the height of the Cuban missile crisis could possibly transpire today in the Subcontinent: a nuclear hara-kiri… mutually assured destruction… a nuclear winter leading to worldwide famine and potentially the death of over a billion people, God forbid. The irony is that the trigger to this Armageddon lies not in the hands of the Indian nuclear command or the Pakistani NCA, but in the hands of brutally repressed, frustrated and downtrodden Kashmiri youth. All it took to bring South Asia to the edge of a nuclear showdown was a 20-year-old Kashmiri boy from Pulwama who sought vengeance for the humiliation of being forced by the Indian security forces to rub his nose in dust. India’s reckless use of lethal force against Kashmiri civilians and its hyperbolic knee-jerk reactions to every act of revenge directed against its occupation of Kashmir has ironically empowered the Kashmiri youth to a level beyond what any resistance fighter could have ever dreamt of. To those who vent their rage by pelting stones at Indian forces, Adil Ahmad Dar has shown that it just takes 150 kg of RDX to drive the Indian political elite and armed forces to suicidal levels of senility. For an ordinary Kashmiri living a hellish existence on a land termed as ‘paradise on earth’, what could be sweeter than teasing a jittery India to jump into a large-scale conflict which, if it spirals out of control, might throw India decades back, undo all the economic progress it has made in recent history, and possibly leave its army too crippled to rein in the Kashmiris. And it is not just the Kashmiris who have nothing to lose, but 230 million Muslims in India who are considered by most Hindus to be malech, i.e. even worse than the lowest of the low untouchable Hindu caste of Shudars. Does India even realize that by taking away the last semblance of a dignified existence from young Kashmiri Muslims, it has given them the power to decide when to throw India off the edge and shove it down a nuclear pit?
The tragedy is that we have a government in Pakistan that has proven itself extremely capable of doing the PM’s PR campaign on social media but utterly incapable of launching an international diplomatic offensive to raise the issue at the heart of the conflict and use the tensions to invite international intervention and discredit the Indian stance that Kashmir is an internal issue. Even a total sell-out like Pervez did not stoop to the level of referring to acts of resistance in Kashmir as ‘terrorism’. Diplomatic niceties and playing to the international gallery on international forums may be ignored by one, but when the PM consistently refers to instances such as the one in Pulwama as ‘terrorism’ which he ‘strongly condemns’, and keeps his lips sealed or at best babbles when it comes to HR violations in the valley or state-sponsored terrorism directed at Muslims across India, he is only affirming the Indian stance on Kashmir and undermining the Pakistani claim that the Kashmiris are fighting for a just cause.
It takes no wit to prove to the world that Narendara Modi is a classic case of a psychotic fascist and that the BJP wants to go to the elections beating the drums of war so that it can win a 2/3rd majority in the Indian Parliament that will enable it to fulfill its dream of a Hindu Reich. It is hardly hidden from anyone that the BJP, established in the early 80s, is the political wing of the hyper-nationalist Hindu militant organization, the RSS, and that the prime purpose of the establishment of a political party by the RSS was to fulfill, through political- even constitutional- means the Hindutva agenda of turning India into an exclusively Hindu state. If the BJP does gain a 2/3rd majority in Parliament, it will be able to amend the Indian Constitution and make the Hindu identity the sole basis of Indian nationality and citizenship, thereby repeating the Rohingya experiment of Burma on a scale never seen before by depriving 230 million Muslims of citizenship.
If the history of all previous Indo-Pak wars teaches us anything, it is that weak political leadership or bad policy can undo all gains on the battlefield. Returning a PoW may make you look magnanimous and statesmanlike in the eyes of the world, but it is never a decision that should be taken in haste. De-escalation is not a one-way road, neither can it be achieved unilaterally. If the only ‘positive’ signal coming from the other side is that it wants to follow up the not-so-surgical strike with missile strikes, in coordination with the Israelis, on major targets including urban centers such as Karachi and Bahawalpur, why bend backwards and make yourself look desperate for peace? Such gestures may elicit words of praise on the international stage or secure for you a large fan base Facebook and a #nobleprizeforIK hashtag on Twitter, but the effect of such actions on the adversary must also be calculated first. In the world of realpolitik, an unrestrained desire for peace with an enemy bent on your ruin is at best appeasement, at worst an obvious sign of inherent weakness. The irony is that no matter how magnanimous, morally lofty, and statesmanlike a gesture the return of the pilot may be, the haste with which it was done has simply added another feather to Modi’s electoral cap.
Every single slap that Abhinandan received on his face at the hands of outraged Kashmiris was a slap on India’s face.
Modi’s electoral strategy centered on winning the elections by chopping down a few trees on Pakistani soil using the most expensive and risk-prone methods imaginable. He had barely gotten away with his adventure when Pakistani pilots successfully ruined the day for him by making the gamble backfire in his face. The nirvana that Modi and hyper-nationalist Indians experienced for a brief 24 hours between the night of Feb 26 and the morning of Feb 27 ended with a loud bang above the skies of the LoC. The bubble finally burst with the rudest of awakenings: the scene of a bloody-nosed Indian pilot being humiliated by poor unarmed Kashmiri villagers. Abhinandan’s bloody nose will be etched in Indian memory forever. The images of his blood smeared face conveyed a message more powerful, meaningful and to-the-point than anything Imran Khan or anyone in Pakistan could have ever articulated. Every single slap that Abhinandan received on his face at the hands of outraged Kashmiris was a slap on India’s face. It was not just Abhinandan who got a bloody nose, it was India itself; and while Abhinandan’s nose might have healed, India’s will take some time. It sure takes time to emerge out of a deeply ingrained superiority complex and face the real world, especially when the hallucination is on a national scale.
For Pakistan, the pilot was literally a gift from the sky which, if cleverly used, could have proved to be the undoing of Modi’s election campaign. To throw away such a political trump card without getting absolutely anything in return- except the dead body of a Pakistani supposedly killed by prison inmates in India- is as witless as it can get. The cold and crude Indian respond to this humanitarian gesture is in itself a somber lesson in how not to deal with a haughty and snobbish adversary.
At the domestic level, this episode provides an opportunity for some deep introspection and serious policy review. India has never been as menacing a threat since 1971 as it is today. The edifice of the WoT centered security paradigm that had been built around the Pervez-led establishment’s U-turn after 9/11 has been, for all practical purposes, torn down with the Indian airstrikes in Balakot. The confrontation with India today puts into question the validity of a policy dictated from Washington and adopted by a succession of generals from Pervez to Raheel Shareef and now the rather unsophisticated ‘general’ with a ‘doctrine’ (God knows how the man made it to this rank in the first place). The existential threat facing Pakistan comes not from Islamic armed groups seeking to overthrow the current system in Pakistan- which they rightly view as opposed to the teachings of Islam and designed to serve vested interests of the West and a highly Westernized elite- but by an increasingly belligerent India dominated by an anti-Pakistan establishment and right-wing militant and political groups like the RSS and the BJP which seek to implement the fascist Hindutva agenda of Akhand Bharat. The so-called internal ‘threat of Islamic militancy’ is a ‘threat’ only to a failed system and the political and military elite which props it; it is not a threat to the state of Pakistan or to its 200 million inhabitants. It is essentially a clash of differing visions of Pakistan which has been deceptively painted by the establishment and its mouth pieces in the media as a clash between the ‘state of Pakistan’ and ‘extremist’ groups bent on its undoing. It is questionable whether this entire Pandora box would have ever been opened in the first place if the Pakistani military under Pervez had not taken such a drastic U-turn and become slavishly subservient to American dictates. There are countless success stories in the region from Turkey to Iran which demonstrate how a country can intelligently preserve its vital interests without embroiling itself in somebody else’s war. If post-9/11 Pakistan had been the Pakistan of the 80s, or even the 70s, it is doubtful that the country would have been dragged into this pointless war. It is time to recognize that it was essentially for the sake of one man in uniform that the interests of 200 million Pakistanis were bartered away and the country dragged into a war that was never its own to begin with.
The time has come for a U-turn in the right direction and a reversal of policies that have brought things to a stage where Pakistan finds itself sandwiched between a pro-India Afghanistan, an RSS-Shiv Sena-BJP dominated India, and an extremely irritated Iran which views Pakistan as the latest abettor in the American-Saudi-Emirati alliance seeking to besiege it. The only non-hostile actors in Pakistan’s immediate neighborhood are China to its north and the Taliban to its West, both of whom barely figured in Pakistan’s post-9/11 foreign policy or national security paradigm (if there ever was one in the first place). China was never consulted before paving the way for an American foothold in the region, and the collapse of the Taliban government in Afghanistan would have been impossible without Pakistan’s active support for the American invasion. If one considers the fact that in case of an all-out Indian attack, Pakistan would have no one to rely on, after God’s help, except Chinese military/financial assistance and the strategic depth afforded by Taliban-controlled territories in Afghanistan, yet the entire foreign policy paradigm has consistently been US-centric for two decades at a stretch, it becomes clear that either those at the helm of affairs are there to serve foreign agendas, or the thinking process of the Pakistani security establishment is seriously flawed.
Balakot was a wake-up call for Pakistan; a potent reminder that some serious introspection and revamping of policies that have only divided the nation against itself are long overdue. However, the government’s continued obsession with NAP and the made-in-US ‘counter-terrorism’ narrative, in spite of the threat of Indian aggression looming over the horizon, shows that Imran Khan will continue to sell old wine in the bottle of a ‘New Pakistan’.