India, Pakistan

Fences & Windows

Tuesday 24 March 2009, by Praful Bidwai

As India responds to multiple crises in its immediate neighbourhood, it needs to rethink its strategic vision and policy radically.

Pakistan, which was teetering on the brink of an all-out confrontation between President Asif Ali Zardari’s regime and the combined forces of the lawyers’ movement and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), has pulled back from the precipice, at least for the moment. In a dramatic development, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gillani announced on day five of the Long March for the restoration of sacked Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary that his government has conceded the demand and will also petition the Supreme Court against declaring former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother and former Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif ineligible for elected office.

Political reconciliation seems to be in the air. But the real test of Pakistan’s civilian leadership has only just begun. It speaks volumes about Pakistan’s instability and the depth of its systemic crisis that it was only after the intervention of Army Chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani that the crisis was defused at the very last hour. Crucial, too, were mediatory efforts by the United States and the United Kingdom demanding that Zardari, Gillani and the Sharifs sort out their differences – or face an aid cut-off.

Clearly, Pakistan’s turbulent political situation is no longer amenable to resolution on the basis of its internal and civilian resources and processes alone. Its institutions, damaged and corrupted by prolonged military rule, and weakened by its inept and fractious civilian leadership, cannot ensure a secure transition to democracy with a bare minimum of legitimacy and stability.
A political catastrophe has been staved off, but only just. The consequences of Chaudhary’s reinstatement are yet to be seen. If he rules against the October 2007 National Reconciliation Ordinance, which dropped corruption cases against Zardari and his assassinated wife Benazir Bhutto and allowed them to be rehabilitated, the existing political arrangements in Pakistan would come down like a house of cards.

If Chaudhary declares the November 2007 Provisional Constitutional Order of former President Pervez Musharraf null and void, a large number of appointments made to the higher judiciary would be annulled. If he pursues the cases of “missing people”, some of them believed to have been handed over to the U.S., that can open a can of worms.

However much Zardari pretends otherwise, it is incontrovertible that he has lost face. It is not clear how he will act in the coming days and weeks in an effort to shore up his authority – without the manipulative legal instruments that were available to him under outgoing Chief Justice Abdul Hamid Dogar.
By all reckoning, Zardari has also lost a good deal of the support he enjoyed within his Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP), to whose co-chairmanship he was catapulted after Benazir Bhutto’s tragic killing. Not only did he not have a sustained and organic relationship with the PPP, he also marginalised and antagonised its better-known leaders, including former presidential aspirant Makhdoom Amin Fahim, lawyers’ movement leader Aitzaz Ahsan, and Benazir Bhutto’s confidants Naheed Khan and Safdar Abbasi.

However, three things are clear. First, Zardari will be under intense pressure to abide by the Charter of Democracy that Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif signed in May 2006, pledging to work cooperatively towards full democratisation and to keep the Army and external powers out of meddling in civilian affairs.

Second, he will be asked to define the precise functions and powers of the President vis-a-vis the Prime Minister and Parliament. The present dualism – of an executive presidency and an elected Prime Minister – is not sustainable. Nor can the President legitimately hope to continue to wield the excessive powers he has under the much disliked Article 58(2)(b) of the Constitution, including the power to dismiss an elected government and dissolve Parliament. This could trigger changes in power balances and launch new contestations.

Third, and most important, the present formula to defuse the confrontation centred around Choudhary’s reinstatement in no way resolves the long-term, profound and foundational crisis in which Pakistan is trapped, which is at the root of its political turmoil, social disarray and growing ungovernability.
This crisis manifests itself in pervasive and rapid growth of religious extremism and jehadi terrorism in society; the Taliban takeover of the Swat valley, large chunks of the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA); imbalances between civilian and military power centres; ethnic strife and insurgencies in the smaller provinces; discontent at the preponderance of people from Punjab in government and the Army; increasing lack of integrity and efficacy of the law-and-order apparatus; unaccountability of the intelligence services; and declining personal security and forced migration.

Militancy gone awry

Pakistan is wracked by a rising tide of terrorism and religious extremism. The Army has no coherent strategy to deal with it. It has allowed the Afghan Taliban’s Quetta Shura to flourish and provided sanctuary to its militants in the border areas. But its calculation that it would achieve its objective of creating “strategic depth” in Afghanistan and still control Pakistan’s internal jehadi militancy has gone awry. Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, the Marriott Hotel attack, and the recent Lahore attack all bear testimony to this. The Army is either unwilling, or worse, unable to fully join the fight against the Taliban in Pakistan.

Nor is it wholeheartedly cooperating with the U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, which would help break the nexus between the Al Qaeda-Taliban in Afghanistan and Baitullah Mehsud’s Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. This has only aggravated the Army’s legitimacy crisis.

With all its institutions in disarray, the Pakistani state is unravelling. Pakistan is not quite imploding, but power within it is increasingly fragmented and the State does not control large swathes of its territory.

Failed States Index

This phenomenon is captured by the notion of the failed or failing state. Pakistan ranks ninth in the Failed States Index compiled for 2008 by Foreign Policy, a magazine of the Fund for Peace (U.S.). Somalia holds the first rank, Sudan the second, and Zimbabwe the third. Pakistan is just two ranks below Afghanistan, and marginally higher than war-ravaged Central African Republic and Guinea.

The Index may not be perfect, but it is a good pointer. Twelve criteria are used to compile it, including the state’s criminalisation and delegitimisation, progressive deterioration of public services, widespread human rights violations, “a state within a state” security apparatus, legacy of vengeance-seeking groups, the rise of factionalised elites, uneven economic development along group lines, sharp and/or severe economic decline, movement of refugees and internally displaced persons, and so on.

Pakistan scores badly on (8 or higher on a worsening scale of 10) on all but two of these criteria. Pakistan’s slow unravelling will have dreadful consequences for the entire South Asian region, including Afghanistan. We cannot afford to be indifferent to this or to indulge in finger-pointing.

The Indian State’s attitude

However, the Indian state shows few signs of comprehending the full dimensions and consequences of Pakistan’s unravelling. Many in the Indian establishment show a certain schadenfreude at Pakistan’s plight and claim it represents just deserts for its past use of terrorism as an instrument of state policy. They indulge in self-congratulatory contrasts with India. Some, especially in “strategic community”, are undecided if they accept the proposition that peaceful coexistence between Indian and Pakistan is impossible.

This speaks of dangerous complacency and smugness. A collapsing or Talibanised Pakistan will be a grave danger to India in every way. If Pakistan is unable to control the extremist militancy that is now devouring it, the violence will inevitably spread to India and endanger our citizens’ already fragile security. The jehadis will find new recruits here. A Hindutva backlash to this will put pressure on the state to take draconian (but eventually counterproductive) measures to contain violence. This will degrade and devalue Indian democracy, jeopardising our greatest achievement, and disorienting the society and distorting its priorities.

India needs to develop a comprehensive and holistic paradigm which would help it understand, analyse and respond to Pakistan. This will mean addressing some of Pakistan’s insecurities vis-a-vis India by, for instance, pulling out troops from Jammu and Kashmir and further pacifying the border, and by curbing military expenditures and negotiating nuclear risk-reduction measures. It also entails engaging Pakistani civil society and political parties, and building strategic alliances with all the forces that stand for moderation and democratisation in Pakistan.

India needs to develop similar cooperative approaches towards its other neighbours too, especially Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal, each of which confronts India with difficult choices.

Sri Lankan crisis

The topmost priority is Sri Lanka, where a massive humanitarian crisis has arisen as the Sri Lankan Armed Forces (SLAF) pursue their war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The war is largely justified. But the fate of the 1,50,000 to 2,50,000 civilians trapped in the war zone is a cause for concern.

According to several independent reports – by the Human Rights Watch, the International Crisis Group and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethan Pillay – both the SLAF and the LTTE have been targeting civilians or using them as human shields. Since January 20, over 2,800 people have been killed and 7,000 injured. “The current level of civilian casualties is truly shocking, there are legitimate fears that the loss of life may reach catastrophic levels if the fighting continues this way,” says Pillay.

India has a special responsibility towards the trapped civilians, on two counts. First, India has provided crucial logistical support, including radar surveillance and tracking, and helicopters, to the SLAF. Without India’s support, the SLAF could not have prosecuted the war successfully. But New Delhi has done little to translate this leverage – and the considerable diplomatic clout it enjoys – to secure verifiable assurances that civilians will not be targeted and will instead be allowed to leave the war zone through safe corridors.

Second, India has had a history of intervening in Sri Lankan affairs in ways that have greatly complicated the situation there – by training and arming the LTTE in 1983-86, and sending the Indian Peace-Keeping Force in a disastrous operation in 1987. India cannot suddenly wash its hands off by refusing to mobilise a diplomatic initiative through the U.N. to press Colombo to allow the civilians safe passage, and provide them sorely needed food and other supplies, and above all, medical treatment.

India has just sent a 52-member military medical mission to Pulmoddai in the northeast. But this is not adequate. A much bigger international effort is called for, which India must catalyse – all the more because the U.S. has reportedly shelved the evacuation plans which it was earlier considering.


India similarly needs to engage Bangladesh and Nepal, where new governments are in power. The Bangladesh Rifles mutiny was an alarming development. It was reportedly planned in response to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s decision to open war crimes cases against hardline-Islamist collaborators of Pakistan during the liberation struggle of 1971 and the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975. There is reason to fear that the conspirators were Jamaat-e-Islami leaders closely allied with Pakistani intelligence agencies and jehadi groups.

That apart, India needs to express solidarity with the Hasina government without being seen to be playing Big Brother. Many past Indian actions, including unilateral diversion of the waters of the Ganges through the Farakka barrage – which caused enormous water scarcity and economic distress – have indeed created that impression. India must correct it.


Nepal is perched at a fateful moment in its history as it makes a transition to a constitutional republic. New Delhi has played its cards all wrong several times in Nepal, supporting the King just as he was about to be sent packing by the pro-democracy movement. It must correct its course by honouring the Nepali government’s wish to renegotiate the trade, and transit treaty and work out an equitable water-sharing agreement.

Water will be a crucial component in India’s relation with Nepal (and Bangladesh). India’s access to the shared waters of rivers originating in the Himalayas hold a key to sustainable development of hydroelectricity and water resources in the underdeveloped east. It is imperative that India and Nepal launch a major cooperative development project in which river waters and downstream industry based on hydroelectricity play a vital role.

To do all this, India must overcome and discard the Curzonian legacy of its foreign policy thinking, which aims to establish India as the dominant power in Eurasia as its “natural” destiny derived from the British Empire.
New Delhi needs an equitable, generous, inclusive and cooperative relationship with its neighbours, with which they feel at ease. To develop this, the government should move out of the narrow confines of consultations with the incestuous and closed group of serving and former diplomats, soldiers, and “strategic experts”.

Instead, it should involve a much broader set of people, including social scientists with genuine expertise in South Asian languages, cultures and political traditions, international relations theorists, and civil society organisations, in the process of strategic review and policy formulation for the region. •

From: Frontline: Volume 26 - Issue 07 :: Mar. 28-Apr. 10, 2009

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