The Pulse

Politics Clouds Progress on India-Pakistan Tensions

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The Pulse

Politics Clouds Progress on India-Pakistan Tensions

As tensions mar the anniversary of statehood this week, some see political opportunity.

India and Pakistan have entered their 67th year of statehood this week, with celebrations marred by heightened tensions along the Line of Control in the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir. It has become increasingly clear that time does not heal all wounds, and in India, relations with Pakistan have been reduced to a domestic political plaything with little regard for the serious international consequences that may follow.

Friction began last week, with the killing of five Indian soldiers on Tuesday in the Poonch district. The situation has since escalated, with both India and Pakistan accusing each other of violating the 2003 ceasefire agreement

Given that India and Pakistan have fought two wars over their competing sovereignty claims in Kashmir, the international community has been particularly alarmed by these developments. While Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Manmohan Singh were quick to reaffirm their commitment to peace, both the Pakistani and Indian Parliaments have passed resolutions condemning each other’s actions along the Line of Control

In the lead up to general elections in 2014, the incident has become fair game for Indian politicians of all stripes, and social media is serving to accelerate the pace of attacks. For the Hindu nationalist BJP, the situation in Kashmir has presented an opportunity to reinforce the perception of the UPA government led by Manmohan Singh as weak and ineffective on national security.

Narendra Modi, widely touted to be the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate in 2014, was quick off the mark, tweeting that “from China’s intrusions to Pakistan’s ambushes – the UPA Government has been absolutely lax in securing Indian borders. When will the Centre wake up?”

The official statement of Defence Minister A K Antony about the incident also came under fire from the opposition. The statement, which attributed the ambush to “20 heavily armed terrorists with persons dressed in Pakistani army uniforms,” caused so much chaos in Indian parliament that the session swiftly had to be adjourned.

The BJP argued that the cautious wording of Antony’s statement handed Pakistan the opportunity to deny its role in the attack by shifting the blame to non-state actors, and went as far as to demand that Antony make a formal apology to the country over his remarks. Remarkably, under intense political pressure, Antony retracted his statement and issued a correction which instead pinned the blame on specialist troops of the Pakistan Army.

This is clearly a political win for the BJP. The government’s unwillingness to defend its position on something as straightforward as a version of events demonstrates how difficult it will be to garner leadership on implementing concrete peace initiatives. However attempting to bring anti-Pakistan sentiment into the domestic debate is more than just political point-scoring, and has serious potential to inflame communal tensions.

The consequences of communal rivalries are already being witnessed in Kashmir, where riots erupted between Muslim and Hindu communities following prayer services for the Eid al-Fitr holiday. Resulting in the death of three people and injury of many more, a curfew has since been imposed on Kishtwar in an attempt to curb tensions.

The BJP has termed the riots an “anti-India flare-up” of Pakistani designs, and called on the Jammu and Kashmir government to investigate whether the violence is sponsored by Pakistan. Under pressure from opposition parties, the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir was forced to seek the resignation of Sajjad Ahmad Kichloo, the Minister of State for Home, over his inability to prevent the clashes. Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir Omar Abdullah accused the BJP of attempting to escalate the situation for the possibility of electoral gain, whilst himself dredging up the past with tweets criticizing the BJP’s response to communal violence during the 2002 Gujarat riots .

This political mud-slinging points to deeper problems. More than six decades after partition, is clear that relations with Pakistan still represent an extremely sensitive and politically charged issue in Indian domestic politics. The results of the Lowy Institute’s 2013 India Poll reveal strong skepticism towards Pakistan; 94% of Indians think that Pakistan will pose a threat to the security of India over the next 10 years, and 93% of these respondents think this is because Pakistan claims sovereignty over Kashmir.

The interplay between domestic politics and international policy will be the key question here. The fact that talks between India and Pakistan’s Water Secretaries were called off after the tensions along the Line of Control rose in January certainly doesn’t bode well for the bilateral relationship.

Singh is already under immense pressure to renege on his commitment to meet with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on the sidelines of a UN General Assembly meeting in New York, which will further stall the resumption of the Composite Peace Process. On top of all this, the BJP and other Hindu nationalists are planning to launch further agitation over the Kishtwar riots following Independence Day celebrations.

At the same time the outlook isn’t all bad; 89% of Indians agree that ordinary people in India and Pakistan want peace, and 77% agree that as the bigger country, India should take the initiative in seeking peace with Pakistan. However these voices are all too often drowned out by the din of alarmism and nationalism. The imperative now will be for creative leadership to establish initiatives that enhance people-to-people links, so as to grow this constituency to the point that they begin to be heard.

Danielle Rajendram is a Research Associate in the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute. Follower her on Twitter @DRajendram.