Friday, May 9, 2014

The Message Behind Raheel Sharif Raking up Kashmir

In a speech on the occasion of Martyrs Day, the Pakistan Army chief, Gen Raheel Sharif, parroted a nearly seven decade old, and by now tired and worn out cliché that Kashmir was Pakistan’s ‘jugular vein’ and demanded a resolution to the issue in accordance with the UN Security Council resolutions and ‘aspirations of the Kashmiri people’, adding for good measure that there can be no ‘durable peace’ in the region if the Kashmir issue is not resolved, presumably according to Islamabad's wishes.

Coming as it does in the midst of India’s General Election, Gen Sharif’s speech was bound to raise hackles in India and it was quite natural for the main political parties to close ranks and attack these remarks. The reaction in India was a lot stronger this time as compared to what happened just a couple of months back when Pakistan's Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, had said the same thing in his address to the UN General Assembly. Although there is neither anything new nor anything novel in what Raheel Sharif or for that matter Nawaz Sharif have said on Kashmir, this sort of statement is offensive to the Indian ears. More importantly, India cannot and should not remain blasé about the signals that are coming out of both Islamabad and Rawalpindi because, if nothing else, Pakistan’s position has once again significantly regressed from the ‘out of the box’ thinking during the Musharraf years. In other words, the Kashmir solution that was being worked out on the back channel is now history.

The rhetoric of ‘jugular vein’ is in itself quite empty and illogical: if Pakistan could survive for seven decades without what it imagines to be its ‘jugular vein’, then Kashmir clearly is not its jugular vein. That aside, the timing and the occasion of the reference to Kashmir by Gen Raheel Sharif is important in terms of the message that is being sent. The speech has been made in the backdrop of rising tensions between the civilian government and the military over the trial of the former military dictator Gen Pervez Musharraf, the government’s efforts to normalise relations with India by pushing ahead on the trade front, and the differences between the government and the Army on the issue of talks with the Taliban. Adding to the tensions is the stand-off between the army and Pakistan's largest media network, Jang/Geo Group, after the botched assassination attempt on journalist Hamid Mir which has been blamed on the ISI. With the government caught in a bind on this issue, Gen Sharif’s speech was the army asserting itself and drawing red-lines for the civilian government on Kashmir, media freedom and Taliban talks.

The occasion too is important. This is the first time that in a ceremony to mark Martyrs Day, an army chief has thought it fit to talk about Kashmir. It is one thing for a military dictator to talk about political and diplomatic issues on such an occasion and quite another for a ‘professional’ army chief to do so. In no other democracy does an army chief make a statement that pretty much draws a line in the sand for the civilian government like Gen Raheel Sharif has done. What this has done is bust the myth of civilian supremacy in Pakistan. Even though Gen Sharif paid lip service to democracy, constitution and the rule of law in his speech, he has sent out a clear message that the Pakistan Army continues to retain the veto on issues traditionally handled by it– relations with India (Kashmir included), Afghanistan, US and nuclear programme. This should serve as a wake-up call for those in India who harboured the illusion that Nawaz Sharif would use his mandate to push ahead on normalising relations with India and the Pakistan Army would have no choice but to follow his lead. Quite aside, the fact that there are serious doubts in India about Nawaz Sharif’s own intentions, recent events, including the scuttling of the trade agreement by the Pakistan Army, prove that when it comes to India, the civilian government is subservient to the army.

For quite some time, Track-II seminarists have been trying hard to sell the line in India that the focus of the Pakistan Army has shifted from India to its internal troubles and its western borders. India is being told that the Islamist terror groups have now replaced India as enemy no. 1 and that both the civilian government and the military is on the same page as far as normalisation of relations with India is concerned. But Gen Sharif’s speech makes it clear that while the page may be the same, the understanding of the civilians and the military appears to be poles apart over what’s on that proverbial page. If anything, the Pakistan Army remains ideologically unreconstructed and unreformed when it comes to its irredentist claims over the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. India was and remains the enemy no. 1 and the sooner Indians get over their tendency to deceive themselves on this issue, the better. This means that the apprehensions being expressed in India for some time now that the Pakistanis will once again ratchet up the export of terrorism into India, and particularly in Kashmir, are likely to unfold in the not too distant a future. Gen Sharif’s speech is also a warning that the next government in New Delhi will be tested by the Pakistani sponsored terrorists within weeks, if not days, of taking office.

The Pakistanis tend to be rather economical with the truth when they complain that unlike in India where Pakistan is an election issue (even if not a central one), in Pakistan there is a general consensus on improving relations with India. The fact is that India remains a convenient bogey that all sides in Pakistan use to target their rivals. In the recent civil-military scrap, the army has used its ‘assets’ in the media, ‘civil society’ and political parties and its jihadist auxiliaries to drum up public opinion in its favour and target people who refuse to toe the army line by insinuating and sometimes directly accusing them of being on the Indian payroll. The point is that if even the remotest association with India is seen as tarnishing someone’s patriotic credentials in Pakistan, then what does it say about all the talk of a consensus on improving relations with India. In order to browbeat and bludgeon those in Pakistan who speak in favour of good relations with India, banned terrorist organisations have been unleashed to hold street demonstrations to express their love and loyalty to the army and ISI. In the process, not only have the organic links between the ISI and these jihadist terror groups been exposed, but also an open threat has been hurled at those who demand civilised and constitutional behaviour from the army to either fall in line behind the state actors or lose their lives to bullets fired by the non-state actors acting at the behest and on the instructions of the state actors. So much for Pakistani democracy, freedom of expression, and civilian supremacy.

Some incorrigible optimists in India would argue that it is precisely for this reason that India must continue to engage Pakistan as it will strengthen those favouring normalised relations and, at the very minimum, deepen the cleavages within Pakistan. But what these people need to understand that it is better to prepare to confront a strong enemy than to depend upon a weak friend. Before India clasps that hand of those who advocate good relations with it, let them first prove their strength in their own country before they expect some concession from India to strengthen their hand. In this, India should take lead from the example of Bangladesh where Sheikh Hasina has proved her credentials as a reliable partner in solving problems and improving India-Bangladesh relations.

Like his other countrymen, Gen Raheel Sharif has also spoken about how there cannot be durable peace without a resolution of the Kashmir issue. There can be no two views about the desirability of peace. But the urgency of peace is more for Pakistan than for India. Ever since Pakistan started sponsoring large scale terrorism in India in the late 1980s and early 1990s, its economy has gone into a tailspin, in large part because Pakistan is seen by the international community as a net exporter of terrorism. India, on the other hand, has been the toast of the world in these years and, but for the interregnum of the Manmohan Singh years, would have had an economy far more vibrant and strong than what it is today. In other words, while India’s USP has been its manpower, market and economy, Pakistan’s USP has been that it is a country too dangerous to fail, ‘an international migraine’ to quote Madeleine Albright! As an international basket case and a country being torn apart by its self-created terrorist monsters, it is Pakistan which has a greater need for durable peace. People like Gen Raheel Sharif should, therefore, do their own country a favour and pipe down on their war-mongering, which neither impresses India nor does anything for Pakistan.

Published Date: 5th May 2014, Image source:

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