In an unexpected development, India issued a notice to Pakistan in January to amend the 1960 Indus Water Treaty. For Pakistan’s policymakers, the Indian move is aimed at threatening Pakistan with unilateral changes to the treaty if Islamabad doesn’t accommodate New Delhi’s interests and projects on the Indus and its tributaries.
The Indian approach is highly problematic and could lead to confrontation and long-term implications for both India and Pakistan.
The Indus Water Treaty allots the water of the western rivers (Indus, Jhelum, Chenab) to Pakistan and of the eastern rivers (Ravi, Beas, Sutlej) to India. The treaty, which was mediated by the World Bank, is considered one of the great success stories of water diplomacy globally. It has not only successfully survived countless major and smaller battles between India and Pakistan but also emerged as a symbol of cooperation between the two countries.
However, this may not be the case anymore. India seems to have decided the Indus Water Treaty is a new means to coerce Pakistan.
In November 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi talked about not allowing even a drop of water to reach Pakistan from the eastern rivers. India’s proposed projects on the eastern and western rivers have raised suspicions in Pakistan that New Delhi may not adhere to the treaty any longer.
The latest Indian move asking Pakistan for renegotiation of the treaty is an indication that India appears to be willing to go as far as ending the role of the World Bank as an arbitrator and facilitator in the agreement.
If India unilaterally terminates the agreement, perhaps because it no longer suits its interests, Pakistan will be forced into adopting a similar hostile attitude. For instance, Pakistan could raise the stakes across the Line of Control (LoC) and elsewhere, including Afghanistan. More than anything, the development may permanently close the door for negotiations between the two countries.
Arguably, Pakistan has no other option but to keep the Indus Water Treaty intact. New Delhi needs to understand that the water treaty is Pakistan’s lifeline and that ending the decades-long status quo in place due to the agreement could stem a new wave of instability in the region.
In the past, India has pondered using the treaty to put pressure on Pakistan. If the move is aimed at a similar objective, it will prove counterproductive yet again.
There are recent examples showing that talks between the two countries can work if both sides commit to it. For instance, in February 2021, Pakistan and India recommitted themselves to the 2003 ceasefire agreement at the LoC and mutually agreed to tackle the “core issues” that could undermine peace and stability. That agreement has lasted almost two years now and is likely to hold in the months to come as both sides benefit from it.
For some time now, India has not had the opportunity to make claims of cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan as the issue probably doesn’t exist anymore.
Former Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa reportedly pushed for rapprochement with India, particularly during his second term in office. It was reportedly part of these efforts that resulted in former Director-General of Inter-Services Intelligence (DG-ISI) Lt. General Faiz Hameed and India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval meeting in 2021 to discuss Modi’s visit to Pakistan and the reopening of bilateral trade.
However, the visit didn’t materialize. It was during Bajwa’s tenure as army chief that India accidentally fired a missile at Pakistan, a massive mistake that was commendably handed by both countries due to the backchannel conversations.
The key takeaway here is that all of this worked while Pakistan and India remained declared enemies and continued to publicly air hostility toward each other.
Many in Islamabad believe India’s threats on the Indus Water Treaty are meant to strengthen Modi’s electoral prospects as the country nears general elections. In the past, Modi’s Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) has resorted to similar rhetoric to shine at the polls. This political logic suggests that Pakistan should expect a more charged rhetoric from Modi on issues like the Indus Water Treaty in the months to come.
Even if Modi deems it necessary to resort to such problematic rhetoric for electoral reasons, Pakistan should not take the bait. Islamabad should avoid resorting to similar acrimony toward India.
More importantly, both countries should not close backchannel talks that were taking place months ago. For dialogue to work, communications channels should be kept open, which is not happening at the moment. It’s time for both countries to build on the comprehensive dialogue that took place some time ago rather than making efforts to end the confidence that may have been developed due to these recent efforts.