Since the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, for many years India has maintained a pacifist stance with Pakistan. Several Indian Governments have repeatedly sought talks with Pakistan over numerous border disputes, trade ties and regional pacts, staying the course despite multiple insurgencies and attacks by Pakistan based terror groups. Indian armed forces have also maintained a state of ‘self-defence’, targeting infiltrators and terror cells but never launching pre-emptive strikes on Pakistani soil.
The Pakistan narrative from many Indian governments has been quite subdued, an effect of the ‘Cold Start’ military doctrine, which focuses on military buildup to spark economic instability in the rival nation, along with a focus on international and diplomatic levers to maintain pressure. India continues to adhere to this doctrine, yet under PM Modi’s guidance, there is an increased focus on optics with India waging a public relations battle on the diplomatic stage. The status quo remains the same between the two nations, but the Modi Government has taken a more aggressive political stance. Modi has suspended talks over Pakistan officials meeting Jammu and Kashmir separatists, set the agenda for bilateral engagements namely removing Kashmir from the joint-statement at the Ufa summit, repeatedly raised the threat of terror from Pakistan on the international stage and most recently, highlighted atrocities of the Pakistan army in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and Balochistan via the forum of his Independence Day speech. Enforcing ‘red lines’ comes in conjunction with a highly emotive and globally recognised image of Pakistan as under siege and even controlled by terrorists and fanatics. It is a perception bolstered by news and images of multiple terror attacks, thousands attending rallies organised by extremists and the killings of secular activists and media personalities. It is an image that popular culture has latched on to, showcasing it in movies, TV shows and video games, feeding on the ‘civil war’ in the nation to sustain the terror narrative in the West.
At the same time, Modi made a historic move inviting Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif and other South Asian heads of state to attend his swearing-in ceremony. In December in 2015, the Prime Minister made an unscheduled visit to Lahore to attend Nawaz Sharif’s granddaughter’s wedding a week after both sides agreed to a Comprehensive Bilateral dialogue. Prime Minister Modi also invited a Pakistan probe team to survey the site of the Pathankot terror strike, even though India was denied permission to assess the probe across the border.
In the book ‘The New Public Diplomacy: Soft Power in International Relations’, academic Jan Melissen says that, “Both public diplomacy and public affairs are directly affected by the forces of globalisation and the recent revolution in communication technology, in an era in which it has become increasingly important to influence world opinion.” While maintaining and publicising outreach to Pakistan, Modi has toughened India’s position on multiple bilateral issues where earlier jibes from across the border would go unanswered. Modi understands and is capitalising on this public relations game, fitting neatly with the communication tactics and politics of neo-diplomacy in the 21st Century.
A different aspect of this strategy has been to de-legitimise separatist leaders in Jammu and Kashmir. Even as the state remains tense in the aftermath of the death of terrorist Burhan Wani, separatist leaders have been absent in the national dialogue. The notion of a separate state of Kashmir or union with Pakistan has been sidelined by the basic political squabble over handling of the violence in the valley. Many separatist leaders like Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik have been behind bars or under house arrest during the violent protests in the valley. Their narrative has been isolated from the discussion to counter the impression that they are stakeholders in the Jammu and Kashmir debate, something created by the coverage they receive in the national media. Separatists in Jammu and Kashmir are a minor group who have gained prominence only because of the widely accepted narrative of the ‘disputed’ Kashmir region, but have almost no political power in the state. They are only active in 5 of the 22 districts in the state – Srinagar, Anantnag, Baramullah, Kulgam and Pulwama and their writ has some say only over 15% of the population of J&K. As the media tends to be their only source of power, the government is using police powers to target their movement to isolate them from the mainstream discussion on Kashmir, targeting Pakistan’s political narrative in the region. The Government wants neglect to kill the ideological weed Pakistan planted in Kashmir.
The effect of Modi’s strategy has been that he has goaded the Pakistan Government to become increasingly vocal about Kashmir. As the Prime Minister talks tough on Kashmir, highlighting human rights atrocities in Pakistan’s disputed territories, and strips the political power of separatists, Nawaz Sharif has stepped in to fill the void to maintain the friction. After his party the PML-N swept the legislative assembly elections in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, Sharif gave an animated speech at a victory rally in Muzaffarabad where he pumped his fists and said, “Kashmir will become part of Pakistan”. In the wake of Burhan Wani’s death, Sharif declared him a martyr observing a ‘Black Day’ against India, and even offered to treat pellet gun victims in Kashmir. The re-focus on Kashmir also works to counter the heat the Pakistan Prime Minister is facing over the Panama Leaks scandal involving his children, but Kashmir is a tried and tested political pitch in Pakistan as it is central to the anti-India narrative
Prime Minister Modi’s Independence Day speech on Gilgit-Baltistan and Balochistan has also sparked protests in the two regions, with hundreds burning Indian flags and effigies of Prime Minister Modi. It is nothing more than a political tactic to counter Modi’s pitch, as the two regions are central to Pakistan and China’s newfound economic and diplomatic bonhomie, namely the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Not only has Sharif named Masood Khan, a former Ambassador to China as the new President of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, reports suggest Pakistan will soon shed its military-centric view of Gilgit-Baltistan, elevate it from the status of a ‘buffer zone’ and absorb it into the nation’s Constitution as well as grant representation to elected leaders. It is ironic that a nation yearning for Kashmiri liberation has for so many decades not given the region representation in its National Assembly. Clearly, the move comes to appease and maintain Beijing’s support, but it also smacks of how Islamabad used to view the people of Bangladesh, as second-class citizens, residents of a region nothing more than an economic colony.
Philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” The optics surrounding India-Pakistan ties are far more malleable than tangible changes on the ground. Only military intervention has shifted the borders and the status quo, but in the nuclear age, war is the biggest enemy. The Modi Government has used the world’s negative view of Pakistan over the rampant plague of terrorism to boost India’s narrative on the global stage, enforcing the red lines of engagement, even sidelining Kashmir as an international issue. For many years, the Kashmir debate has only focused on the region in India’s control, but Prime Minister Modi has expanded the debate to PoK and Balochistan, re-directing Pakistan’s narrative against itself, putting a spotlight on human rights violations the Sharif Government cannot hide, deny or ignore. At the same time, Modi has come across as magnanimous, reaching out to the Pakistan Government to keep channels of engagement open.
‘Shake and slap’ is how one can describe the nature of Pakistan’s engagement with India for over 50 years. Prime Minister Modi seems to be returning the favour.