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26 August, 2014

Between rhetoric and reality

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The India-Pakistan peace process, which got a boost when Nawaz Sharif joined other South Asian heads of government at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in last May, has suffered another setback.

The Foreign Secretary-level talks, scheduled for Monday, were cancelled by India in a peevish response to Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit’s meeting with Kashmiri dissidents.

At the weekend, the two sides were counting the dead and the injured after troops exchanged fire across the border and the line of control in Jammu and Kashmir.

Ups and downs have been a regular feature of India-Pakistan relations since they emerged as free nations 67 years ago. The latest developments have not, therefore, caused any great concern on either side. However, there are some worrying elements.

Pakistan’s envoys had met Kashmiri dissidents even when the Bharatiya Janata Party was in power last time without provoking Indian protests. Many, therefore, believe that the Modi administration scuttled the talks for other reasons, and there is intense speculation on what they are.

Former diplomat MK Bhadrakumar has suggested that Modi has no roadmap for proceeding towards the goal of good neighbourly relations and ducked the bilateral meeting to avoid the danger of exposing his cultivated image of being a visionary. He has also raised the question whether Modi ducked on his own or at the instance of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the fountainhead of the BJP’s Hindutva politics.

Ajai Sahni of the Institute for Conflict Management has ridiculed the cancellation of the meeting, saying the government has acted as though it is ready to tolerate Pakistan shooting Indian soldiers but will not forgive its envoy having tea with secessionists.

More than 50 cases of ceasefire violation have occurred so far this year, a dozen of them in the last fortnight. When encounters take place, each side accuses the other of resorting to unprovoked firing, and patriotic citizens readily accept their government’s version of events.

The current spurt in exchange of fire by forces on the border is attributed to Pakistani forces providing cover for militants to cross over to India. Such infiltrations usually take place ahead of the winter months when cross-border movement is not easy. An Indian corps commander recently said that 150 to 200 militants were waiting to cross over.

In last week’s incidents 22 Indian border outposts and 13 villages came under shelling. Both sides reported two civilian casualties on their side of the border. The Indian side said four militants were also killed. Following the incidents, authorities in Jammu moved the residents of a few villages to safer locations.

The cancellation of talks and the ceasefire violations have come at a time when militancy is at a low level and the Kashmir valley is comparatively peaceful.

According to conventional wisdom tension on the border helps the Pakistan army by strengthening its position vis-à-vis the civilian government in place in that country.

It may now be of help, on this side of the border, to the BJP, whose leadership has reportedly formulated an audacious plan to seize power in Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir in the Assembly elections due later this year.

The state’s constitution provides for a 100-member Assembly. However, the effective strength of the house is only 87 since the remaining seats are earmarked for the areas now under Pakistan’s control.

Of the 87 constituencies where elections are to be held, 46 are in Kashmir, which has an overwhelming Muslim majority, 37 in the Hindu-majority Jammu region and four in Buddhist-majority Ladakh.

So far the largest number of seats the BJP has won in the Assembly is only 11, all from the Jammu region. However, it believes the highly fragmented polity of the Kashmir valley offers it an opportunity to make a bold bid for power. In the event of a sharp communal division, its leadership feels, it can hope to bag most of the seats of Jammu and one or two from Ladakh, making it the largest single party in the house even if it gets no seat from the Kashmir valley.

Separatist leaders usually call for boycott of elections, and in recent years they have been able to evoke a good response in the valley. If this happens again, the BJP leadership reckons, it may be able to pick up a few seats from the valley too with the votes of the Hindu minority.

Such calculations may well impede Modi’s ability to make an early and smooth transition from the rhetoric of the election campaign, in which Pakistan serves as a good foil, to the ground reality that demands good relations in the best interests of both the nations.-- Gulf Today, Sharjah, August 26, 2014.

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