February 22, 2020
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General Peacenik?

A Pakistani general and a dove? It would usually be an oxymoron. But AfPak, BRICS all set a new context.

General Peacenik?
Photograph by Getty Images
General Peacenik?

In Pakistan, which has been under the baton of one army general or the other for nearly half of the 70 years since its emergence as an independent republic, a military takeover as a cure for a political crisis is never too far from the realm of possibilities. Even when the country has had its—usually trunca­ted—trysts with parliamentary democracy, the army has been loath to relinquish control over defence and foreign policy. The grip of the military and the ominous ‘deep state’ tightens when the spectre of India hoves into view—a country that occupies an inordinate amount of strategic mindspace in Pakistan, perceived as a threat and used as a constant, bitter scale of comparison. Then there is the lynchpin of India-fixation—the ‘unfinished business’ of Kashmir. The ill-will over control of the province has prompted Pakistan to trigger three wars and repeatedly foment insurgency. Weighted down by contentious history and frozen in accusations, counter-accusations, a bloody militancy and divided by one of the most heavily armed borders in the world, only its resolution can unlock the unrelenting hostility between the neighbours.

Given the primacy of Kashmir, the Pakistan army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s statement on the need for looking at “political and diplomatic solutions” to deal with Kashmir has come as a beacon of hope for some in India; others scoff at it. Both parties have compelling reasons.

Opinion in the Indian foreign policy and security establishment is still divided on the reason—the strategic drift—behind Gen Bajwa’s remarks. But predictable scepticism in New Delhi notwithstanding, the statement has given many Indian opinion-makers a cause for a thoughtful pause.

The fact that this placatory signal would elicit caution was evident from the view of former MEA secretary Vivek Katju. “I don’t see anything new in Bajwa’s statement,” says he, pointing out that the need for a ‘political solution’ had been spouted by Pakistan in the past too. “But the big question was what that solution would entail.” According to Katju, this usually implied that from a maximalist point of view Pakistan would favour Kashmiri ‘self-determination’, or from a minimalist stance, a state where Pakistan will continue to play a role.

Other opinions, however, suggest a sustained look into the statement of the Pakistani army chief. “Gen Bajwa’s rem­arks ought to be studied objectively and not be disparaged or dismissed in a Pavlovian manner,” says strategic thinker C. Uday Bhaskar, anticipating the predictable reaction from hardliners. “Exploring a path towards equitable peace is a worthy objective, however much the interlocutor may be disliked or hated,” says Bhaskar.

After Musharraf, successive Pakistani regimes, along with the army, quietly buried the agreement reached in the backchannel talks.

Since his appointment as chief of the Pakistani army in November last year, Gen Bajwa has been assuring his countrymen that the army should have no place in politics. Significantly, therefore, the 57-year old soldier’s recommen­ded reading for top officers is the 2015 book by Yale political science professor Stephen I. Wilkinson, Army and Nation, where Wilkinson explores how India’s success as a flourishing democracy was based on its ability to keep its army away from politics. The book further notes how the Indian army—diverse in caste, religion and caste—is a cohesive unit whose security concerns are adequately heeded by the polity, thereby making any conflict between the two unnecessary.

Does all this automatically qualify Bajwa as a liberal or a general with foresight? Is he the leader in uniform who is longing for that elusive peace? Or is this also part of a practised charade his predecessors had played earlier in their attempt to make a virtue out of a necessity? Such questions are apt in the wake of his welcome comment on Kashmir—the one quarrel that subsumes all.

Pakistan’s ‘Defence Day’ on September 6, the occasion on which Gen Bajwa made his conciliatory remarks about resolution of the Kashmir issue, is its­elf mired in controversy. In Pakistan’s version, that was the day in 1965 when India attacked the country; India says it’s “fake military history”, for the (ultimately indecisive) war started with Pakistan’s abortive attempt to push in armed intruders into Kashmir to start a rebellion.

Consequently, Indian hawks are refusing to accord any imp­ortance to remarks made on an occasion they see as based on falsehood. They feel that Bajwa’s remarks were aimed not so much at India as at the United States and China, since both countries have in recent days been publi­cly critical of terrorist groups operating out of Pakistani soil.

On Pak Radar

Presidents Trump and Xi in Florida

“They are worried about Trump,” says Katju, referring to the Afghan policy announced last month by the US President and his public rebuke of Pakistan for going easy on the terror groups they control. “But they are adept at playing the Americans,” he says, warning that not much remedial action is expe­cted from Pakistan. “Pakistan has traditionally managed to put Americans on their side even when under pressure, but without making much compromise on the Indian front,” points out Katju.

Debates and commentaries in the Pakistani media reflect the seriousness of American pressure bearing down on Pakistan. The fact that Trump plans to link financial and military assistance to Pakistan’s action aga­­­­inst terror groups has worried policy planners. An additional concern has been China’s recent decision to join others, as it did in the BRICS Summit in Xiamen, to criticise Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed—terror groups active in Kashmir.

Bhaskar points out that though much of the American pressure on the Pakistani establishment or the ‘nudging’ by the Chinese would be away from the public eye, there is little doubt that it’s happening. But whether Rawalpindi or its ‘deep state’ will tear its links with terror groups they have assiduously nurtured for so long and used so effectively against India is a question commentators are treading lightly on. “It remains to be seen how Rawalpindi is willing to review and reset its linkage with Muridke. If even the Peshawar army school tragedy could not lead to this lobot­omy or fundamental change of mindset, will these external prods work? That remains the moot question,” says Bhaskar.

However, another viewpoint gaining ground in the Indian establishment is that New Delhi should not let go of this opp­ortunity to resume a dialogue.

Doubters remain, but a section of the establishment feels that India should take this opportunity to engage with Pakistan.

“The ball is squarely in India’s court,” says Srinath Raghavan, senior fellow at Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research. “The door has been opened a little and it is for us to open it far wider,” says he. According to Raghavan, it serves little purpose to delve into Bajwa’s motive. “We may keep debating about his motive and never reach a proper conclusion. Every country and their leaders have their own reasons and objectives while making statements. It is important for India to see this as an opportunity.”

Even Bhaskar agrees with this to a degree and favours a dia­logue. “I think there is a signal waiting to be appropriately deciphered, and the received wisdom is that for any movement towards India-Pakistan peace you need the Pakistan army on board, as also the BJP and the RSS,” he says.

Yet, when the question of Pakistani sincerity arises, the overriding Indian reaction is one of caution, laced with scepticism, and it stems from past experience. The Lahore bus yatra led to Kargil. Later, with Gen Pervez Musharraf in power, then prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had travelled to Islamabad for the SAARC Summit and preceded it with a bilateral meeting with the dictator. Pakistan then had agreed to not allow terrorists to launch attacks against India from its soil. This not only brought down cross-border terrorism, but also ushered in a period of quiet along the Line of Control. When Vajpayee was replaced by the Manmohan Singh government, the peace continued, and what also began was a notable ‘backchannel’ diplomacy to find a solution to the Kashmir dispute. After three years of hectic parleys and backroom negotiations, Indian ‘special envoy’ Satinder Lambah and his Pakistani counterpart finally managed to convince the two governments to examine a formula for resolving the Kashmir issue (see Satinder Lambah interview). A breakthrough was within reach when Musharraf fell from power. Elusive as ever, a solution to Kashmir slipped away noiselessly. What has made India wary of Pakistani utteran­ces since then is the fact that after Musharraf, there was an attempt by civilian governments and the military establishment to give the hard-won agreement of the ‘backchannel’ diplomacy a quiet burial.

Though Islamabad has blamed the lack of progress on the resistance of Indian hardliners, Pakistani commentators agree that much of its failure was due to Musharraf’s refusal to communicate with the Pakistani military and other stakeholders the contours his peace initiative with India.

JeM founder Masood Azhar

But frosty relations did not prevent Prime Minister Narendra Modi from taking the initiative of reaching out to Pakistan. He took a bold step soon after coming to power, surprising everyone by inviting then premier Nawaz Sharif along with other regional leaders to his inaugural cerem­ony in May 2014. He followed it up by meeting Sharif on the sidelines of the Paris Climate Change Summit, and later by landing up on Sharif’s birthday in Lahore on December 25, 2015. Every single time, as Indians laughing off Gen Bajwa’s statement remind us, Modi’s initiatives were answered by a terror attack launched from Pakistan.

Whether the attacks were attempts by the Pakistani ‘deep state’ and army to scuttle Sharif’s move is debatable. But it increased the number of doubters in India about a Pakistani civilian leadership’s ability to deliver on peace. This and the relatively peaceful years of the Musharraf regime have led many to believe that Indo-Pak relations can only improve if the initiative comes from the Pakistani army. Does Bajwa’s statement then open an opportunity for India to start an eng­agement with the Pakistani army as well, crucial as it is to the success of Indo-Pak relations?

“The army opens up with us only when it assumes the political mantle and when it become absolutely necessary,” says Katju, who as a diplomat in South Block had years of experience of dealing with Pakistan. “Even when a general is in power he makes sure India has no contact with other members of the army,” he reminds.


Modi and Xi Jinping with BRICS leaders (from left) Jacob Zuma, Vladimir Putin and Michel Temer

Photograph by PTI

Be that as it may, Raghavan reiterates his view—this is the right time for India to take the initiative to resume the engagement with Pakistan. He argues that India now seems to be in a more confident position in Kashmir and has begun reaching out to different sections there, as was evident during Union home minister Rajnath Singh’s just-concluded visit. In addition, India’s position is bolstered by what Trump’s AfPak policy and the BRICS statement say about Pakistan-based terror groups. “The mood will not remain forever in India’s favour. And before the American and other friends of India start pushing it towards the talks table, it is better that the Modi government takes the initiative,” argues Raghavan.

Musharraf, a Mohajir—a migrant from India and therefore, to many in Pakistan, ‘outsider’—may have failed to convince the Pakistani establishment about his peace initiative. Bajwa comes from a Punjabi-Jat lineage steeped in military culture, his full-blooded Pakistani credentials are as immune to the charge of “going soft on India” as anyone’s.

A Pakistan cornered by the harsh remarks of its largest aid-giver might want to create some breathing space before it plans its next move—can Bajwa’s statement be seen in this bleak light? Many Indians craving lasting peace hope he is the bold peacemaker in uniform, a man who dares to dream in broad daylight. Such men, it is believed, mean business.

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