Dawn Exclusive: A time for restraint

TENSION between Pakistan and India is dangerously high. Indian Prime Minister Modi has decided to give a “free hand” to the Indian army to take retaliatory action for Pulwama. India has threatened to “isolate” Pakistan and to strangulate its economy besides taking the symbolic step of withdrawing MFN status. This fraught situation can spark a conflict with incalculable consequences for both Pakistan and India. Can they pull back from the brink?

Pulwama is not Mumbai. Scores of innocent civilians were the target of a terrorist attack in Mumbai. In Pulwama, a suicide bomber hit a convoy of security forces being deployed to suppress an active youth uprising rooted in the longstanding Kashmiri struggle for their right to self-determination. Post-Mumbai the Indian government chose restraint, avoided military response and instead reached out to the international community to put Pakistan on the back foot for the alleged association of the terrorists with Pakistan. This time when the signature is clearly that of an indigenous operation, New Delhi has resorted to beat the drums of war. Pakistan faces the challenge to avert a catastrophe that Indian actions may precipitate in South Asia.

Take a look: IED blast kills 44 Indian soldiers in occupied Kashmir: police

First and foremost, Pakistan must be ready to deter any possible aggressive action, without being provocative. Preparedness will itself pre-empt escalation.

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Prime Minister Imran Khan’s offer to investigate any actionable information needs a serious response on the part of India and, of course, sincerity in the process on the part of Pakistan. Simultaneously, Pakistan is engaged in and must continue robust diplomacy at every level internationally, bilaterally and at the United Nations. If formal diplomatic channels with India are paralysed, there is always room for informal contacts. In India, already questions are being raised about the wisdom of abandoning dialogue with Pakistan and with the Kashmiris, and pursuing almost exclusively a military course that cannot bring a solution. Even pro-India leaders in IOK find the policy exasperating.

The situation prevailing between Pakistan and India can spark a conflict with incalculable consequences for both countries

At the international level, with P5 and all major powers and friends, our focus should be intercession for de-escalation and dialogue. Such intercession can help calm the situation. The world must also take note of the grievous human rights violations in IOK, recently documented in the report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on Jammu and Kashmir, which fuel widespread protests and agitation especially by the new generation of Kashmiri youth. Hopelessness engenders violence.

Also read: Pulwama explosives obtained locally, says Indian commander

Pakistan sympathises with and supports the Kashmiri struggle. We have emotional links of centuries of common history, common heritage and blood ties. But to say that acts of violence in IOK at present, such as the Pulwama incident, are sponsored by Pakistan defies not just facts on the ground but basic logic of Pakistan’s policy. Every act of violence in the past, be it the attack on the Indian parliament or the Mumbai attacks or Pathankot and Uri incidents have been exploited to the maximum by India to malign Pakistan and detract attention from the deteriorating human rights situation in IOK. All these acts have damaged the Kashmiri cause and Pakistan. There is no conceivable advantage that Pakistan could expect from Pulwama.

This argument is challenged by the view that in the past Pakistan’s policy encouraged non-state actors, such as the proscribed JeM and LeT. Pakistan carries this baggage of history, like most other nations inherit burdens from the past. Pakistan has suffered massively on this count. Thousands of our soldiers were martyred and tens of thousands of our people lost their lives in fighting terror. We still have unfinished business, but we have to overcome this difficult challenge. Autonomous armed groups in a country are a recipe for doom. Pakistan must implement its National Action Plan in letter and spirit.

Extremist militancy has ravaged the Greater Middle East. The phenomenon has a complex history with ideological, political and economic underpinnings. Now it is on the wane. In Pakistan, there is clarity as never before. Terrorism attracts universal abhorrence. But the Kashmiri freedom struggle cannot be held hostage to concerns over terrorism; as it did not help to paint the Afghan Taliban as terrorist, who regardless of their antiquated outlook, are part of Afghanistan’s political landscape.

Many political observers suggest that escalation suits BJP’s election prospects. However, India must not allow political expediency to put on hold better sense and to risk vitiating peace and the future of the region.

Recent developments relating to Afghanistan have raised hopes that the country may finally emerge from four decades of warfare. Pakistan desires to see a peaceful and stable Afghanistan playing a vibrant role for the promotion of economic activities and connectivity in the region. Pakistan-India tension can negate that prospect.

In his first address to the nation as Prime Minister, Mr Khan extended the hand of friendship to India. He stated: “You take one step, we will take two.” This is important as his election represents a unique transition in Pakistani governance when both the political and the military leadership in the country are firmly and visibly on the same page. They are together in pursuit of peace with India and a better, cooperative regional environment. And, they are one alongside the nation if faced with aggression.

In the nuclear age, it is axiomatic that an all-out nuclear conflagration is unthinkable. So it should also be unthinkable for the two nuclear neighbours to initiate a conflict that has the potential of getting out of control. They must learn to prevent and manage crises rather than spawn and fuel them. It is painful to watch media these days where there appears to be a no holds barred frenzy to stoke fires of hatred. From India, there are reports of instances of whipping up mob passions against Kashmiris and Pakistan. The leadership, intelligentsia, public opinion makers in the two countries, all have an urgent responsibility to exercise restraint and take measures to bring some equanimity to the troubled environment.

The writers have served as foreign secretaries of Pakistan

Published in Dawn, February 24th, 2019

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