Checkmate: Pulwama Divides India on War and Peace

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An illustration published by India’s www.oneindia.com hours after a suprise airstrike inside Pakistan on Feb. 27, 2019, before Pakistan Air Force retaliated.

The terror attack on February 14 has sharply divided India and has made it difficult for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to use nationalism and anti-Pakistan sentiments to win the upcoming elections. Whoever advised the Indian premier to end the policy of self-restraint and send fighter jets into Pakistan — for the first time in last half-century — did not anticipate that Islamabad has the capability and will to do the same: ditch self-restraint and deliver a similar surprise in self-defense. The resulting dogfight — where Pakistani Air Force jets shot down two intruding Indian Air Force fighter planes, busted a pilot, and then released him in a move that captured global attention — has embarrassed New Delhi.

The Pakistani response, in self-defense, has tested Indian military and diplomacy, and has divided India on war with Pakistan on how to handle Kashmir and on India’s military preparedness. These are not topics that Modi wanted raised as he enters the elections season.

The biggest setback suffered by the Indian Prime Minister, who represents India’s religious extremist constituency, is internal division. By releasing the captured Indian pilot, Prime Minister Imran Khan has become more popular among Indians, more so than Modi is. Khan’s move to release the pilot checkmated the diplomacy of a country five times larger, which is no small feat.

India’s Hate-Mongering Problem
For the first time in seventy-one years, an internal resistance is emerging to New Delhi’s policy of fostering hate against Pakistan. Slowly and gradually, Indians are speaking up against the official policy that brings out the worst in the country: hate, war-mongering, religious extremism, and celebration of bloodshed.

India started fostering anti-Pakistan sentiments in the late 1990s with the rise of Indian religious extremism. But Prime Minister Modi has turned ‘anti-Pakistanism’ into an official Indian policy first when he was Chief Minister of Indian state of Gujarat and later when he became Prime Minister.

India started fostering anti-Pakistan sentiments in the late 1990s with the rise of Indian religious extremism. But Prime Minister Modi has turned ‘anti-Pakistanism’ into an official Indian policy, first when he was Chief Minister of Indian state of Gujarat and later when he became Prime Minister.

One of the most chilling examples of this hate-mongering is what happened in December 2012 to the captain of the Pakistani team in Twenty-20 World Cup Cricket Tournament for the blind at the Indian city of Bangalore. Captain Zeeshan Abbasi, who is partially blind, was served acid in a glass of juice at breakfast. He was rushed to the hospital and survived after a medical procedure. The government in Islamabad at the time ignored the incident, likely in the interest of maintaining good relations with India. But the incident is significant because it highlights the level of hate that New Delhi fosters in India, teaching ordinary Indian citizens to hate Pakistan and Pakistanis. This level of state-sponsored hate-mongering is unprecedented in any democracy.

For those in Pakistan and saner elements in India who thought it could never get worse, the state-sponsored hate-mongering in India touched new heights after the Pulwama attack on February 14. After fanning these sentiments against Pakistanis for years, India broke new ground with a spike in hate-mongering and violence against Kashmiri citizens living and studying in India.

According to media reports, up to 2,000 Kashmiri male and female students have abandoned their education and returned to Kashmir after physical threats by Indian Hindu extremists following the February 14 attack. This is stunning considering how India has been telling Kashmiris for seven decades that they are Indian citizens.

The attacks against Kashmiris are probably a watershed in India’s relationship with Kashmir. This moment could be remembered in history as the time when both Kashmiris and Indians realized that Kashmir will never be a part of India. This is no small development. The attacks against Kashmiris come when the United Nations has called for an international investigation into major abuses in Kashmir by the Indian army and paramilitary forces. This is in addition to the idea of a referendum in Kashmir, which remains an active agenda item in the Security Council.

Pakistan Divides India
Pakistan shooting down two Indian fighter jets and then Islamabad’s decision to honorably release the pilot are two masterstrokes that have divided India.

Five-times smaller Pakistan appeared much bigger than India both militarily and diplomatically after this move. But, beyond the battle for perceptions, Islamabad’s skillful handling of the Indian provocations led to an unexpected result: a rebellion against Modi and Indian extremists from within Indian public opinion. There was shock at how Modi’s rhetoric did not match India’s capability to counter Pakistan, and a growing number of Indians were enamored with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s televised speech on February 27, where he advised Modi that war, if started, will eventually spin out of control of both leaders. He announced the release of the captured Indian pilot in the same speech. The Pakistani Prime Minister assumed a higher moral ground, further proving that any decision by his Indian counterpart to attack would show him as an aggressor. Better still, the speech encouraged reluctant Indians to speak up in opposition to Modi’s war agenda. Even the wife of an Indian soldier killed in Pulwama supported Pakistani leader’s call for peace and criticized Modi’s government for failure to diffuse tensions in Kashmir that ultimately led to her husband’s death.

Five-times smaller Pakistan appeared much bigger than India both militarily and diplomatically after this move. But, beyond the battle for perceptions, Islamabad’s skillful handling of the Indian provocations led to an unexpected result: a rebellion against Modi and Indian extremists from within Indian public opinion.

After Pakistani premier’s speech, the divide sharpened inside India and Modi appeared isolated in his war agenda both domestically and internationally. This was one of the rare moments when Pakistan, diplomatically and militarily smaller, checkmated India on the global stage. Some Indian observers believe that Pakistan’s Prime Minister gained more popularity in India after this crisis. In fact, a news site accused Modi of plagiarizing Prime Minister Imran Khan’s speech during his recent election campaign, where he told Muslim Indians that he had raised the question of jailed Indian immigration violators in Saudi Arabia with the visiting Saudi Crown Prince.

It is too early to predict how this divide in India will play out. A red line has been crossed by many Indians who ripped through the blanket of state-sponsored hate-mongering and came out praising the Pakistani leader and Pakistan’s remarkable simultaneous use of restraint and self-defense. Could this turn the tide against years of anti-Pakistan hate-mongering in New Delhi? Could the Indian civil society take back their country from the hands of hate-mongering politicians and promote reconciliation with Pakistan and Kashmiris? Are we witnessing that historic moment when ordinary, peace-loving Indians seize the narrative from the hands of Indian religious extremists?

It is too early to get answers to any of these questions. But one thing is for sure: Pakistan’s deft handling of Modi’s war agenda has turned the tables on the war party in New Delhi.

Global Embarrassment
India’s bold attempt to test Pakistan’s conventional military threshold backfired spectacularly, losing two jets and possibly several pilots. But a bigger embarrassment is India’s international positioning as a military power capable of operating in vast regions from the Indian Ocean to the mountains with China. Particularly affected is New Delhi’s ability to contain China.
The dogfight with Pakistan Air Force brought another fact to light: India has no war experience, and its military, though gigantic by size and training, is not battle-hardened. New Delhi has not seen any major war in fifty years. The military has tackled low-intensity conflicts in Kashmir and insurgencies in the northwest. In contrast, in the past five decades, Pakistani military, smaller in size and budget to India’s, has dealt with two Afghan wars, a fully-fledged war with India in 1971 and a conflict in 1999, and a war on terror for the past two decades. This list does not include the protracted conflict at the highest battleground in the world, at Siachen in the Himalayas, where Pakistan and India are pitched against each other.

Pakistan has been sanctioned, destabilized and stabilized several times during these years but each time, Pakistanis have managed to bounce back. This national resilience is one of Pakistan’s greatest assets. India has not seen nearly as much action as Pakistan has in these years.

After India’s defeat to Pakistan in the air battle after Pulwama, questions about India’s military preparedness are beginning to emerge. This discussion has just started, and probably one of the first best articles to explore this is The New York Times’ report titled, “After India Loses Dogfight to Pakistan, Questions Arise About Its ‘Vintage’ Military.”

New Hope
The failure of India’s attempt to test Pakistan’s conventional threshold and “call Pakistan’s nuclear bluff,” as many Indian commentators boasted after the Indian airstrike on February 26, has emboldened a segment of India’s population to reject the war agenda of their government in New Delhi.

For many years, Indian planners thought New Delhi did not have to resolve disputes with Pakistan and Kashmiris, thanks to India’s conventional military superiority.

Pakistan shot down this Indian strategic thinking with the two MiG-21s in Kashmir. The idea that India can go on without resolving conflicts is buried in the Valley of Kashmir.

India has no option to end its seven-decades-old conflict with Pakistan in Kashmir except through sincere conflict resolution. And there are two good news on this: one, many Indians are impressed with the peace overtures of Prime Minister Imran Khan after Pulwama dogfights and are smitten after Khan’s release of the Indian pilot. Many Indians believe Khan has the moral high ground over his Indian counterpart, and that India should reciprocate. That exactly is what the international community also expects from India. The second good news is that Pakistan is ready to reciprocate India’s steps for peace. This is in addition to the fact that Pakistan itself is changing. Pakistan is dealing with the legacy of the two Afghan wars, cleaning up the mess, focusing on prosperity and regional connectivity.

This is the best time to have a partner in peace in Pakistan, if someone in New Delhi is listening. But the real question is: Is India ready?

Published in Pakistan Armed Forces monthly magazine, Hilal, on March 12, 2019.

Originally published at https://hilal.gov.pk.

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