After Pulwama: South Asia’s Fragile State of Play

In the wake of heightened tensions between India and Pakistan and a deteriorating regional security climate, we turn to a panel of senior experts to solicit their views on the aftermath of the Pulwama attack and options before Pakistan.

Sherry Rehman, President Jinnah Institute

Crisis may have become a clichéd trope in our polarised and escalation-prone regional landscape, but last week’s suicide attack in Indian Occupied Kashmir is an unpleasant reminder of just how precarious peace in South Asia can be. Let’s be clear: Pakistan makes no gains from either regional instability or the unhelpful hyperbole that Indian politicians and media’s routinely traffic in as it looks to defuse electoral tensions at home. Here in Islamabad, political representatives across the aisle have consistently supported the need to improve ties with neighbours both to the east and the west. Indeed, this has led to a series of important bilateral gestures and CBMs over the years, documented by the Jinnah Institute, all of which have been squandered by a BJP government that is intent on thumbing its nose and black-boxing Pakistan as the spoiler in its attempt to rewrite its own Nehruvian history. The fact is that next door, the Modi sarkar’s pathological need to placate hard right galleries’ thirst for war has led it down a dangerous road of looking for scapegoats for its domestic failings, including its brutal repression in the Occupied territories. In this surcharged atmosphere, India should know that knee-jerk reactions to locally conducted attacks of terror are neither mature nor helpful. India should also know that responses like the bid to isolate Pakistan, or cutting off cultural exchanges and delisting Pakistani artists and sportsmen, will not help change the mood of anger in Kashmir nor give any talks a chance. But this is also not the first time that India has tried to deflect attention away from a chafing indigenous insurgency at home by both scaling up and reversing the burden of proof on Pakistan. Instead, cooler minds must prevail, even if it is just to map out contingencies in the face of a crisis that might lead to war. The floor is littered with escalatory tripwires.


Tariq Fatemi, Former Special Assistant to the PM on Foreign Affairs

Another suicide attack; another wound to India’s bloated sense of its military superiority; another round of accusations between South Asia’s two largest neighbours; another ritual wringing of hands in major capitals! While New Delhi and Islamabad threaten to hurl fire and brimstone at each other, the major powers and other do-gooders appeal to the two antagonists to behave as responsible nuclear powers. A couple of weeks of this diplomatic dance, before things settle down into what has become the new normal between India and Pakistan — a sterile and hostile relationship, rapidly losing even the slightest semblance of social and cultural graces that was once their panache. The worst sufferers have been the tormented and traumatised people of Kashmir. Kashmiri youth are losing hope, and when you lose hope, you lose the will to live. This explains Pulwama. While India shelters itself behind accusations of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, the international community, with scant regard for the United Nations Charter, sees no advantage in exposing India’s nefarious game plan and pushing for implementation of the UNSC resolutions. True, the international community’s complicity has permitted India to strengthen its iron grip over Kashmir, while its economic gains and military prowess have brought many an eager suitor to its doorsteps. But these are, at best, transient gains. India must know that the human spirit may be cowed, but not extinguished. Every act of brutality further steels the Kashmiri will to stand up for its rights. Pakistan does not have to aid or assist the Kashmiri resistance. India, with its brutal policy, is doing this extremely well. India may sound and act smug in its belief that it can extinguish the flames of freedom in the occupied territory. That is a grave error, made by many a colonial power. In India’s case, it has seen its image tarnished, and its claim to being a liberal, tolerant, secular democracy, shredded. India’s refusal to engage with Pakistan is also the result of a myopic policy that defies logic. In fact, there can be no resolution of the issue of Kashmir, or for that matter, of any one of the half-a-dozen issues affecting this region, without the active participation and involvement of Pakistan. This is the reality. It cannot be wished away.


Zahid Hussain, Author & Senior Fellow Jinnah Institute

The suicide attack on a convoy of Indian paramilitary forces in Kashmir that killed more than 40 soldiers has brought the two nuclear-armed nations to the brink of conflagration. Blaming Pakistan for sponsoring the attack, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has vowed to retaliate with full force. The timing of the attack, the worst in the last four decades, is ominous. With Indian general elections only months away, the response from the Modi government has been predictable. There have already been indications of increased Indian military manoeuvring along the Line of Control (LOC) to garner support in the Hindi belt where Modi’s party is facing formidable challenges from the opposition alliance. Responsibility for the attack was claimed by Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), an outlawed militant group that began in Pakistan, and so the finger is being pointed outwards despite the fact that the attacker is, in fact, a homegrown militant. It is also questionable whether the militant group indeed has the capacity to launch cross-border attacks of such magnitude. Several Indian security experts have already said it could not have been possible to bring such massive amounts of explosives through border infiltration. It is also evident that most Kashmiris involved in militant attacks are not coming from across the Pakistani border. Kashmiris are turning to militancy because of the suppression of democratic rights and growing state brutality. Hundreds of young Kashmiris have been killed in the last four years, ever since the Modi government came to power in 2014. Ultimately, India is pursuing a policy that some analysts describe as vertical and horizontal escalation against Pakistan, and this includes toying with the idea of military strikes.  Any military adventurism by India will be a costly gamble. Such reckless action could easily spiral out of control and turn into full-blown military confrontation. The calculation underlying India’s policy escalation is that India can afford brinkmanship given its growing global influence. But cross-border military strikes could have serious ramifications for the region and beyond.


Ammara Durrani, Public Policy Specialist

The post-Pulwama grandstanding between India and Pakistan is the latest in a series of zero-sum play-outs. Rather than inspiring either side away from brinkmanship, it further drags both countries down to predictable bilateral bluster. This shrill melodrama reflects the wounds of Occupied Kashmir and pushes the central question of justice for Kashmiris to the periphery. The now widely reported factors that led 20-year-old Kashmiri youth, Adil Ahmad Dar, to ultimately kill more than 40 Indian soldiers along with him, should have led to a hot-lined collaborated stand-back and coordinated counter-terrorism action, as per international CT frameworks. It should also have led to a backchannel aimed at qualified policy reflection on why India and Pakistan have repeatedly failed to control the menace of violent extremism. Never mind the familiar minority voices of sobriety calling for sober policy measures, Pulwama demonstrates an ugly reality of 21st century South-Asian geo-politics: domestic politics of aggression continues to trump modern-state approaches for trouble-shooting. If both countries continue to give political and electoral space to forces of bigotry and intolerance, and keep building arms and armies for instant aggression, the regional model will automatically remain that of war-on-demand. The question of crisis management, then, becomes fallacious. After two World Wars, Europe mastered the art of de-escalation and crisis mitigation as means to a larger, visionary end – prevent war and make it unusable, redundant as a rational policy choice for the continent. On the contrary, and since Kargil (1999), both our countries have done crisis management to varying degrees but towards what end? Twenty years of weary crisis management has led us to stalemate. Our jingoistic brand of crisis management has not broken this stalemated circle towards a tangent that could propel us onto a higher plane of imaginative statecraft for collaborative stability – the kind of permanent stability that could unlock the destinies of millions of Adils trapped in a death wish. We continue to anchor our crisis management approaches in war – rather than cooperation — as a permanent rational choice for national behaviour. Sadly, it is the stateless Kashmiris who bear the brunt of this self-defeating nation-state choice.