Modi tests Pakistan’s Kashmir strategy

C. Raja Mohan

FOR more than three decades, the Kashmir question has been at the very top of Pakistan’s foreign policy agenda. The origins of Pakistan’s dispute with India date back to the independence and partition of the subcontinent in 1947 and have led to a series of conflicts. But the issue has acquired a much sharper political edge and a higher diplomatic salience since the late 1980s and has been the most important factor driving the bilateral relationship with India. Since then, the political initiative on the Kashmir question was with Pakistan, and Islamabad had successfully put India on the defensive. A series of weak coalition governments in Delhi struggled to deal with the Pakistani offensive on the Kashmir question. Narendra Modi’s tenure as India’s prime minister since 2014, however, has seen a major effort to challenge Pakistan’s Kashmir strategy.

Modi, the first leader since Rajiv Gandhi in 1984 to win a majority in the Lower House, and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with its strong nationalist orientation and an ideological approach to the Kashmir question, has taken the offensive on the question. Although it is too early to state that Modi has turned the tables on the Kashmir question, Pakistan’s ability to dominate the discourse has been constrained.

This essay analyses Pakistan’s shifting fortunes on the Kashmir question. It examines Pakistan’s unprecedented leverage over India on Kashmir at the dawn of the 1990s and India’s attempt to neutralise it under Modi. Underlying this outcome is the steady shift in the regional balance of power favouring India.

Pakistan’s diplomacy on Kash-mir and its correlation with the balance of power with India can be understood by looking at three important dates. The first was 1971, which marked Pakistan’s division; the second was the acquisition of a nuclear deterrent by Pakistan in the late 1980s that restored the balance of power; and the third was in 2014 when Modi departed from traditional Indian policies on Kashmir – on both the internal and external dimensions of the Kashmir question. Modi’s efforts to change the terms of engagement with Pakistan on the Kashmir question culminated in the August 2019 decision to change the constitutional status of Kashmir in the Indian Union.

Modi’s moves have begun to test Pakistan’s Kashmir strategy. Equally challenging are the changed international conditions. If the global environment seemed to favour Pakistan’s Kashmir offensive in the 1990s, the new international context has begun to  favour India. Yet, the dramatic elevation of the Kashmir question in Pakistan’s domestic politics and the intensity of emotional energy that is now attached  to it makes it hard for Islamabad to refashion the strategy. On the one hand, it is quite clear that Pakistan’s ability  to force the issue on India has declined. On the other hand, any weakening of  Islamabad’s position on Kashmir will inevitably draw objections from sections of the deep state and the political class. This, in turn, will signifi-cantly constrain any political attempt at crafting creative compromises in the unsustainable Kashmir strategy.

India’s decisive victory in the 1971 war made the Kashmir question dormant. India’s successful vivisection of Pakistan and the liberation of Bangladesh altered the territorial  map of the Subcontinent defined by partition. It also altered the balance of power between India and Pakistan. The July 1972 Simla Accord outlined a framework to resolve the Kashmir question that met India’s basic preferences – a settlement on territorial status quo in Jammu and Kashmir. But the issue went on the back burner as Pakistan focused on recovering from the loss of its eastern wing. However, a number of factors helped push the Kashmir question back on the front burner by the late 1980s.

For one, the Pakistan Army, which was humiliated by the 1971 defeat and the division of the nation, saw the 1972 agreement as a victor’s pact imposed by India. Reopening the Kashmir question was quite central to the Pakistan Army’s thinking. That, in turn, demanded reversing the balance of power produced by the 1971 war.

That brings us to the second factor – Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons that restored the balance of power by neutralising the conventional superiority of India. That China and the United States (US) could not prevent India from breaking up Pakistan underlined the importance of nuclear weapons as the ultimate deterrent for Pakistan. Through the 1970s, Pakistan made a determined effort to develop nuclear weapon capabilities. The US, which initially cracked down on Pakistan’s nuclear quest, had acquiesced at the turn of the 1980s as Washington focused on reversing the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan with the help of the Pakistani army. By the late 1980s, Pakistan had acquired the basic nuclear deterrent. Many thought that nuclear weapons might help stabilise Pakistan’s relations with India by giving it assured security. Instead, Pakistan saw the nuclear deterrent as offering it the strategic impunity to force a reopening of the Kashmir question.

That leads us to the third factor – Islamabad’s support for an insurgency in Kashmir was based on the successful use of jihad to drive the Soviet troops out of Afghanistan at the end of the 1980s. And as luck would have it, the post-1971 internal stability in Kashmir broke down in 1989. As massive protests mounted against Delhi in Kashmir, Pakistan had a political opportunity to extend support for dissident groups and unite them under the banner of the Hurriyat. At the same time, Pakistan launched terror organisations devoted to the pursuit of jihad in Kashmir.

A fourth factor also strengthened Pakistan’s upper hand on Kashmir – pressures on India from the Bill Clinton administration in the 1990s to engage Pakistan to resolve the dispute. The US’ concerns on Kashmir also fused with the new emphasis on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons in South Asia. As military tensions rose between India and Pakistan in the late 1980s, the idea of Kashmir as the ‘world’s most dangerous nuclear flashpoint’ took root in the US policy discourse on South Asia.

Finally, a fifth factor reinforced Pakistan’s Kashmir diplomacy. The post-Cold War international focus on human rights opened up enormous possibilities for Pakistan to mount a relentless campaign against India on the Kashmir question. It successfully mobilised liberal opinion in the West and the Islamic world against Delhi’s Kashmir policies. Together, these five factors reversed all of India’s post-1971 gains on Kashmir.

As Pakistan rejected the Simla Agreement and demanded the reopening of the Kashmir question, a weakened Delhi had no choice but to engage Pakistan to explore a new set of terms. Inder Kumar Gujral, who was the foreign minister and prime minister in the coalition government that ruled India between 1996 and 1998, put Kashmir back on the negotiating table. Ex-prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, took the next step of opening parallel negotiations with the Hurriyat within Kashmir and with Pakistan on the dispute itself.

Vajpayee’s initial outreach was marked by a visit to Pakistan in February 1999 that produced the Lahore Declaration that provided a new basis to engage Pakistan and was more in tune with the new circumstances in South Asia, including the acquisition of nuclear weapons by India and Pakistan. But the outreach broke down within a few days as the Pakistan Army’s aggression in Kargil came to light.

If the Army Chief General Pervez Musharraf, actively undermined the peace process initiated by Vajpayee and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, he became a champion of productive dialogue on Kashmir once he took charge of Pakistan in a military coup at the end of 1999.

An attempted high stakes negotiation on Kashmir forced by Musharraf on Vajpayee sputtered at a summit in Agra in 2001. But the two sides found a framework in January 2004 to advance the peace process. It involved a commitment from India to negotiate seriously on Kashmir, Pakistan’s promise to create a violence-free environment, and joint pursuit of confidence-building measures (CBMs) in a broad range of areas.

Although Vajpayee lost power in the general elections that followed, the peace process gained momentum in Manmohan Singh’s first term. The two sides expanded a range of CBMs, came close to solving some difficult issues like the dispute over the Siachen glacier and negotiated a broad understanding of Kashmir. The two sides had negotiated a draft agreement on Kashmir during the period 2004 to 2007 through a backchannel1 that involved four broad elements: greater autonomy for the two regions of Kashmir under the control of India and Pakistan; no change in the territorial disposition of Kashmir between India and Pakistan; cross border cooperation between the two administrations of Kashmir; and demilitarisation along with reduction of violence.

However, the breakthrough in the negotiations were never formalised by the two sides. And support for the settlement along those lines seemed to evaporate. In Pakistan, Musharraf’s power began to ebb by late 2007. His successor as the Army Chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, did not seem too interested in taking the Kashmir framework forward. In India, Singh was not bold enough to persuade a reluctant Congress leadership to take political risks on the issue.

The Kashmir policy of Modi, who took charge in May 2014, would turn out to be very different from that of his predecessors. Five changes stand out.

First, Modi broke the persistent cycle of terror talks that trapped Indian diplomacy towards Pakistan since the early 1990s. India would suspend talks every time there was a major terror attack but resume the talks after a brief interval. Modi took a firmer line that there would be no talks until cross-border terror came to an end.

Second, Modi discarded the pretence that the Hurriyat in Kashmir had a role in the talks with Pakistan; Modi’s predecessors were willing to let visiting Pakistani leaders meet, as a matter of routine, with the Hurriyat leaders in Delhi. The Modi government put an end to this practice. Delhi could not ignore the reality that Pakistan had a political handle in Kashmir but the Modi government was unwilling to legitimise it.

Third, Modi challenged Pakistan’s nuclear impunity. His predecessors were restrained in their military response to terror attacks, fearing the potential escalation to the nuclear level. Modi, in contrast, was ready to test the potential for escalation. Modi called Pakistan’s nuclear bluff by raising the intensity of cross-border shelling to stop infiltration, undertaking cross-border raids by the Indian Army on terror launch pads, and ordering the Indian Air Force to bomb an alleged terror camp in Pakistan as a response to a major terror attack at Pulwama in February 2019.

Fourth, Modi also mobilised international pressure on Pakistan to rein in its terrorism. India had a major success in getting the Financial Action Task Force, the global watchdog on money laundering and terror financing, to put Pakistan on the grey list since 2018. This probably has been the single biggest international pressure point on Pakistan to reconsider its support for terror.

Fifth, in a major move after he returned to power in 2019, Modi got the Parliament to approve fundamental changes in the constitutional status of Kashmir. Modi separated the Ladakh region from Jammu and Kashmir and designated the two entities as union territories; he abrogated Article 370 which gave the region considerable autonomy from Delhi; and he lifted the restrictions on non-residents from owning property in the regions. Surprised by Delhi’s sudden move, Pakistan embarked on a major international diplomatic offensive, including an effort to raise the issue in global forums, including the United Nations (UN) Security Council. However, barring China and Turkey, no other country was willing to bat for Pakistan in the UN.

A number of factors explain the difficulties that Pakistan face in compelling India to make concessions on Kashmir.

The first is the dramatic reversal of the economic fortunes of Pakistan and India. Until the early 1990s, when Delhi launched its reforms, Pakistan’s economy grew at a much faster pace than that of India. By 2020, the Indian economy at US$ 2.6 trillion was nearly 10 times larger than Pakistan’s at US$ 260 billion. Once the poorer cousin of Pakistan, Bangladesh has become the second-largest economy in South Asia at US$ 320 billion.

The second is the weakening of Pakistan’s strategic bonds with many of its traditional partners. The US and the West that followed a ‘Pakistan First’ policy in the region during the Cold War now attach higher importance to relations with India for both economic and strategic reasons.

The third is India’s growing ties with key Islamic states, especially the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia. The UAE, for example, described India’s constitutional changes as internal to India and is now considering investments in Kashmir.2

Fourth, on the nuclear question, the US and the international community have accepted India’s nuclear weapons as a political reality and have agreed to accommodate its interests; they have not extended the same privilege to Pakistan. The idea of parity with India has long driven Pakistan’s global ambitions; that has become difficult to sustain in the current situation.

Finally, the concern for human rights and preventive diplomacy that dominated the 1990s no longer drive international relations amidst the return of geopolitics. Kashmir has largely fallen off the international agenda, and it will remain harder for Pakistan to make it a central element of its global engagement.

As a new government led by Shehbaz Sharif takes charge in Pakistan, Islamabad will have to come to terms with the changed international conditions on Kashmir and its declining leverage over India. The big policy question is about the tight linkage between Kashmir and the normalisation of bilateral relations. The Imran Khan government had ruled out even minimal engagement with India until Delhi reversed the constitutional changes in Kashmir. The tightness of this linkage varied over time during the last three decades.

Pakistan’s civilian leaders, especially Nawaz and Asif Ali Zardari, sought to loosen that linkage and put greater emphasis on economic cooperation and people-to-people contact when they were in power. However, the army vetoed such proposals. In a major departure, General Qamar Jawed Bajwa called for a reorientation of Pakistan’s policies away from geopolitics to geo-economics and seeking peace with its neighbours. He took the lead in negotiating a ceasefire agreement with India in February 2021. He also signalled flexibility on Pakistan’s Kashmir terms for a renewed peace process, but the internal reaction has not been enthusiastic.3

As Bajwa comes to the end of his term in November 2022, it is not clear if he can work with the new government to reorient policy toward India. With Khan mounting a campaign against Bajwa and accusing the new government as an ‘import’ from the US, it will be quite hard for the new government to take political risks with India.

Could India make it easier for Pakistan to take a more creative approach to Kashmir and the normalisation of bilateral relations? On the face of it, the Modi government and the BJP do not believe they must make compromises on Kashmir for a good relationship with Pakistan. However, it remains a fact that Modi has agreed to talk about Kashmir if Pakistan addresses India’s concerns on cross-border terrorism. This was implicit in the statement on the ceasefire issued by senior military officials on 25 February 2021, that said the two sides ‘agreed to address each other’s core issues and concerns’.4 ‘Core issues’ have long been the code for Pakistan’s emphasis on Kashmir and India’s on cross-border terrorism.

While optimism must be kept firmly in check when it comes to Kashmir and Pakistan’s relations with India, there might be a bit of room for renewing a formula that will allow simultaneous movement on the two core issues – Kashmir and terror – that will facilitate incremental steps towards the normalisation of relations. Pakistan does need flexibility on Kashmir as it focuses on getting its economy and foreign policy in order. The shift in the regional balance of power in favour of India is real but may not be enough for Delhi to impose a Kashmir solution on Pakistan. Even a limited pause in the Kashmir conflict would be a welcome relief for India amidst its deepening military tensions with China and the post-Ukraine churn in regional and global geopolitics.

Footnotes:

1. See Happymon Jacob, The Kashmir Back Channel: India-Pakistan Negotiations on Kashmir from 2004 to 2007. Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, Georgetown University, Washington DC, 2021.

2. Navdeep Suri, ‘Shipping, Shopping, and Saffron: India-UAE Strategic Partnership on Display in J&K’, ORF Online, 24 January 2022. https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/india-uae-strategic-partnership-on-display-in-jk/

3. Fahd Husain, “Indian offer led to ‘quiet’ talks on all issues”, DAWN, 25 April 2021, https://www.dawn.com/news/1620230; and Fahd Husain, “Engaging the enemy”, DAWN, 8 May 2021, https://www.dawn.com/news/1622675.

4. Ministry of Defence, ‘Joint Statement on Ceasefire’, Press Information Bureau, New Delhi, February 2021. https://pib.gov.in/PressReleasePage.aspx?PRID=1700682