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August 4, 2020

Grading Pakistan’s August 5 gestures


August 4, 2020

Some of the public-facing symbolic gestures that Pakistan is making in solidarity with Kashmiris to observe one year since the annexation of Occupied Kashmir on August 5 are being criticized. It is worth examining the substance of the criticism.

Most Pakistanis are not insensitive to the Kashmir cause, and the particular brutality of the August 5 decision by a religious extremist regime in India has helped mobilize mainstream Pakistani opinion on Kashmir in a manner not witnessed since the early 1990s. Why then, many government supporters would ask, would any Pakistani criticize the renaming of Kashmir Highway, or the observance of a minute of silence in solidarity with the victims of India’s brutality in Occupied Kashmir, or the production and release of a new song praising the resilience and resistance of Kashmiris to occupation and annexation?

For the same reason that opponents of the previous government criticized a head of government speech at the United Nations General Assembly in 2016 that was a forty-minute-long ode to Burhan Wani. Pakistan’s partisan affliction is all-consuming. This is why no Pakistani win is a real win, and no Pakistani strategy is truly Pakistani. The lament here isn’t some flowery appeal to national unity (though that would be nice). The lament is that constant, sustained and unrelenting partisanship helps fuel the rich potential of Pakistan’s internal fissures (for Pakistan’s enemies) and defines the insipid joylessness of Pakistan’s several strategic advantages.

In short, the partisan lenses that are driving much (though not all) of the critique of Pakistan’s August 5 gestures merit consideration as an issue with implications for how Pakistani strategists think about the country’s strengths and weaknesses, its power and its vulnerabilities.

The fact is that Pakistan has chosen three different tactics to deal with the occupation of Kashmir in the last quarter century: and this government’s tactics post August 5 are not the worst of the three, and may possibly be the best of them.

First, there was the non-state actor option of the 1990s that helped manufacture the permanent international liability of UNSC 1267 organizations in the shape of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM). Second, there was the diplomacy of ‘normalization’ option beginning in 2000 and lasting to this day: normalizing the Line of Control, normalizing Indian hegemony, and normalizing what essentially amounts to Pakistani strategic retreat. And third, there is the symbolic gestures option, beginning in roughly 2014, and escalating in the current post August 5 ‘campaign’ – renaming highways, singing songs, and observing silence (even if for a minute).

Do critics of this third tactic prefer Lashkars or Jaishes? Of course not. Perhaps they prefer ‘normalization’? Some certainly would – but among them would largely be either extreme peaceniks or intellectually lazy infinite-loop observers of regional and global events. The fact is that the oxygen for the Pakistan-India normalization community has thinned dramatically in both countries. In India, it was most likely the Mumbai attacks of 2008 that relegated normalization to a fringe. In Pakistan, the last few nails in the coffin were fired at Balakot in 2019.

The almost decade long post-Mumbai ‘window’ in which so many Pakistanis (including this writer) were invested in identifying and working with Indian strategists, thinkers and public intellectuals that wanted a resolution of key points of contention between the two countries now seems sealed shut. Track I, Track 1.5, or Track II, it doesn’t matter. The model of the composite dialogue framework, or the comprehensive bilateral dialogue (or whatever new name will be given to the post August 5 detente that is now almost assuredly either already underway in a shroud of secrecy, or will be sooner or later) is obsolete.

The window for Pakistan and India to find a path to normalization is now shut. There can be no normalization of Indian hegemony now. Not after August 5. Not after Balakot. And not in an India that has already graduated from the Hindutva Light of the Indian National Congress, to the Hindutva Mainstream of Narendra Modi. And certainly not as Hindutva Hardcore grows more muscular under leaders like Uttar Pardesh’s Yogi Adityanath.

Pakistan has its own mainstreaming of extremism problems, of course. It is probably half a century behind India, but the process is visible in the shape of a growing culture of assassinations in the name of religious duty. But the problem of mainstreaming of extremism in Pakistan is that both the perpetrators and the victims of murderous intent are Pakistani (and most are Muslim).

The rage that fuels Barelvi (and now Deobandi) counter blasphemy aggression is rooted in class, not in religion. It is potent and deadly, for sure. But it has no strategic dimension to it. The journey of this extremism is from shabby neighbourhoods to nice ones. It has no intercontinental ballistic missile aspirations, no hardware or software capability, and it does not understand or even seek to engage with the tactical importance of the Rafale fighter plane, or the F-22 or F-35 that must counterbalance it. In short, the Pakistani extremism problem is an internal one that doesn’t shape in any way, Pakistan’s policies on Kashmir, Siachen, Sir Creek, the Samjhota Express terror attacks, or the predations of Indian spies in Kabul, Herat or Mazar-e-Sharif.

India’s extremism problem on the other hand is very much an international one. The swag that Hindutva seeks and demands will always be unrequited because it far exceeds any historic or material truth about India or Hindu supremacy. In fact, Hindutva rage is fuelled, at least in part by a very keen awareness in India, of India’s limits. India’s vulnerability to British Raj, its continued inferiority complex with respect to Western powers, its failed attempts to dominate Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, and its embarrassing daily defeat in Srinagar and across the Kashmir Valley. The more India fails, the more deeply it invests in Hindutvavadi rage, both as the solution to its domestic problems of poverty, a lack of sanitation, and the teeming illiteracy and desperation of hundreds of millions, as well as the solution to its regional and global ambitions.

The global reaction to August 5 was of course weak and immoral. India’s Western sponsors, all of whom ache for the market access that they believe is the natural cure for their already broken and dysfunctional demographic disasters, almost underwrote the August 5 annexation. But Western institutions like the free press, and parliament, still have a pulse. So despite the quid pro quo that Indian Foreign Minister Jaishankar and terror king Ajit Doval have helped negotiate between Western capitals and India’s Hindu extremist leaders, August 5 was treated by many quarters as the brutal annexation of an occupying force that it was and is. And once again, the old Hindutva bugaboo reared its ugly head: strong, weak, bold, or shy, India can’t get no respect.

August 5 has cost India dearly. But it isn’t Pakistan that has exacted the price. That heavy lifting was done by the PLA soldiers that beat over two dozen Indian soldiers to death. Like so many of India’s other humiliations, this is a product of a fundamental mismatch between the ambitions of Hindutvavadi (and secular) hawks, and the realities of half a billion Indians that survive on less than two dollars a day.

Pakistan too suffers from a mismatch in its ambitions and its realities. Symbolic gestures like the renaming of a highway (which costs only the paint job on a few road signs) or minutes of silence (which cost nothing) are tools that offer dramatically more bang for the buck than the internationally sanctioned terrorist groups that have done little to free Kashmir from the clutches of occupation, but done much to weaken Pakistan.

The current tactics must therefore be welcomed for what they are: the best of the available options.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.