Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprise goodwill visit to Lahore last Christmas seems so far back in time as we witness India-Pakistan ties slide into yet another unfathomable chill. The public recriminations have, not surprisingly, followed violence and unrest in Kashmir with Pakistan-based terrorist groups now taking centre stage in anti-Indian protests.
The Lashkar-e-Taiba’s Hafiz Saeed has warned the Pakistan government of countrywide protests — including in major cities like Lahore, Islamabad Karachi, Peshawar, Multan, Faisalabad and Muzaffarabad — if home minister Rajnath Singh is allowed to attend the Saarc home ministers’ conference in Islamabad. Hizbul Mujahideen’s Syed Salahuddin, who has warned of more attacks in India, has asked Nawaz Sharif’s government to recall its high commissioner and suspend trade and diplomatic ties.
The activities and activism of anti-Indian terrorist groups are to a significant extent regulated by the Pakistan State. Salahuddin, for instance, kept a low profile when India and Pakistan were discussing a non-territorial solution to Jammu and Kashmir between 2004 and 2007. The LeT orchestrated the 2008 Mumbai attacks with the active support of elements in the ISI but Saeed’s public posturing has been relatively scaled back in recent years owing to Indian and international pressure. That he is now openly attacking India and brazenly challenging the Sharif government points to the support Saeed and the others are getting from sections of the political and military establishment in this round of posturing. And given the dynamics between the army and the civilian government, these kinds of activities serve to further undermine the standing of the latter.
The Sharif government may privately argue with Indian interlocutors that this is no more than a letting off of steam about civilian casualties in Kashmir. There are two problems with this line of thinking. For one, it is a bit rich for terrorist groups who unscrupulously maim and kill to be concerned about the loss of civilian lives. And second, what does it say of the power of the Pakistani State that it has to use non-state actors to lobby on a particular issue? More critically this underlines that Islamabad is yet again failing to recognise the cost of enhancing the authority and stature of terrorist, extremist organisations within its polity. The ‘deep state’ in Pakistan clearly thinks that a few weeks of anti-Indian posturing by extremist groups is worth undermining its own society and further sullying its international image abroad.
Mr Singh is rightly pressing on with his visit. Both sides must keep lines of communication intact and they need to frankly exchange perspectives on the current impasse. He arrives in a fraught climate made worse by non-State actors — and is exactly the kind of situation both sides should be preparing for. It is a setting tailor-made to discuss our crisis management processes.