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Tunnel at the tunnel’s end

The Indo-Pak equation may be entering one of its worst phases. The simmering tension at the LoC is a barometer of that impending fever. Barkha Dutt writes.

columns Updated: Oct 11, 2013 23:45 IST
Barkha Dutt

In the one central demand that India made of Pakistan in a meeting that was otherwise a spectacular non-starter, is the answer to the question of what is next for relations between the two countries. The short answer is: pretty much nothing. At least, not till there is some clarity on whether Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif can (or even wants to) assert control over the Pakistan army and not till a new government takes charges post-elections in India.

In New York, India’s condition for any normalisation of ties was that Pakistan had to first contain violations along the Line of Control (LoC). Since we now know that the Keran infiltrations (notwithstanding the debate over the missing bodies of 12 terrorists) were unfolding at about the same time as the two prime ministers were barely managing a smile for the cameras, it is even more ironic that the only conclusion that a lacklustre summit was able to reach was that the two Director Generals of Military Operations (DGMOs) would meet soon to find a mechanism for reducing tensions at the LoC.

But what worth can such a meeting possibly have (if it still takes place) after no less than India’s army chief has bluntly blamed the Pakistani military for “trying to keep Kashmir simmering” with “desperate” infiltration attempts that he warns will only worsen with the pull out of American forces from Afghanistan.

The multiple ceasefire violations — more than 100 in the last two months alone, 165 this year — reinforce the paradox of Sharif’s prime ministership. He is the first civilian politician in Pakistan who has dared to say that the country’s prime minister is the Boss, not its army chief.

The prime minister claims that he was ousted from power in the coup of 1999 because he advocated peace with India. He has made all the right noises on the dialogue process since being elected. Yet, in the 10 years of the 2003 ceasefire agreement, these few months right after Sharif got elected as prime minister, have been easily the most volatile and violent phase at the LoC.

Sharif is already battling his army on two different fronts. He’s at war within after his decision to open talks with the Pakistani Taliban, talks in which his outgoing army chief has already said “terrorists will not be allowed to set the terms”. But the Pakistan security establishment shows no such allergy to the Lashkar-e-Taiba or its founder and ideological patron Hafiz Saeed, who lives with impunity despite a $10-million US bounty for information resulting in his arrest.

In early September, Saeed was allowed to lead an inflammatory anti-India rally, right in the heart of Pakistan’s capital and not too far from its National Assembly.

Even more critical than the equation between Nawaz Sharif and his army is the relationship between his party base and Islamist groups in Pakistan. The Punjab government led by his brother has been repeatedly charged with looking the other way as Saeed mocks Indian concerns on the Mumbai attacks and the still-elusive action against its perpetrators and patrons.

In many ways Sharif’s bête noire — the man who forced him out of power and now finds himself in jail in a remarkable levelling of history — represents why Pakistan’s new prime minister could find it impossible to get his army to endorse any significant peace missive with India. General Pervez Musharraf does not even bother to deny reports that he violated the sanctity of the LoC himself, as the Chief of Pakistan’s Army.

Not just through the seriously botched misadventure in Kargil, but by crossing over into Indian territory in 1999 and spending a night 11 kilometres inside India with Pakistani soldiers.

In an old interview to me he said he would neither confirm nor deny what he called “military matters... but, but I’m telling you that I have been spending nights with my troops.” His claim may well have been an empty boast, rubbished firmly by Indian Army Chief General VP Malik.

But what is critical is his description in the same interview of the LoC as “violable.” Arguing that it was hardly significant whether he was on the Indian side of the LoC or in his own land, Gen Musharraf went on to tell me, “The LoC is not a permanent international boundary. That’s the first part. The second part is, why should I say whether I was on the other side of line of control or not. Why are you interested?” That a man who led Pakistan’s army and the country as president should so openly question the sanctity of the LoC is enough indication of what Sharif is up against.

In New York, both Nawaz Sharif and Manmohan Singh went through the token ritual of extending invitations to the other for State visits. As things stand, that is not just unlikely, it’s pretty much impossible. On the contrary, it’s pretty clear that the situation along the LoC is going to remain intensely inflammable for the next few months, and more so, as the uncertainty in Afghanistan spills over.

When Sharif and Singh met in New York both were weakened by the domestic politics of their own countries. One is a new PM grappling with the entrenched biases of his security establishment and trying to manage the optimism that followed his win swiftly turn into scepticism and cynicism; the other is an outgoing PM who has been beleaguered by scams, listless leadership and a party that sees him as far too fixated with his Pakistan project.

The best that can be said about the handshake in New York was that it was a non-event. In fact, India-Pakistan equations may be entering one of their worst phases in recent memory. The simmering LoC is a barometer of that impending fever.

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, NDTV
The views expressed by the author are personal