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On the INDO-Pak crisis after the attack on Balakot


Indian prime minister Narendra Modi has achieved the unthinkable: he has pulled his country back from the precipice of peace.

PM Modi was not even born in 1948 when India, following an appeal to the United Nations for help in Jammu & Kashmir, was handed in April 1948 a toothless UN Resolution No. 47 which called for ‘a free and impartial plebiscite’ to determine the wishes of the Jammu & Kashmiri people. That plebiscite was never held. India’s action created a precedent, though, for after that, whenever there was any tension or confrontation between these two irascible neighbours, one or the other or both scurried to third parties for mediation.

It did not matter whether it was the United Nations Security Council, the United States, the Soviet Union, and latterly China. They expected someone else to coax them into accepting what they doggedly denied each other. For example, the World Bank acted as the broker for the Indus Waters Treaty in 1960, and the Soviet Union mid-wifed the Tashkent Agreement in 1966. It was only in the aftermath of the war over Bangladesh in 1971 that Pakistan and India conceded the unavoidable. They agreed to talk to each other, not at each other.

The preamble to the Shimla Agreement of July 1972 was piety incarnate. Both countries admitted that they needed to ‘put an end to the conflict and confrontation that have hitherto marred their relations and work for the promotion of a friendly and harmonious relationship and the establishment of durable peace in the subcontinent, so that both countries may henceforth devote their resources and energies to the pressing task of advancing the welfare of their people.’ The first clause reiterated their acknowledgement of the supremacy of the purposes of the Charter of the United Nations [i.e. non-interference and sovereignty.] The second clause expressed the resolve of both India and Pakistan their resolve ‘to settle their differences by peaceful means through bilateral negotiations or by any other peaceful means mutually agreed upon between them.’  Both countries decided to let the UN Resolution No. 47 hang out to dry while they washed their dirty linen in private.

Before leaving for Shimla in the last days of June 1972, Mr. Z. A. Bhutto’s was all too aware that he was hamstrung: over 5,000 square miles of his country’s territory was occupied by India; over 73,900 POWs and 16,400 CUPCs (civilians under protective custody, not protected by the Geneva Convention) were held in concentration camps scattered across India; and the United Nations had been palpably ineffective in getting India to hold the promised plebiscite in Jammu & Kashmir. To Bhutto, bringing India to the negotiating table yielded parity to Pakistan with a larger, stronger and adversarial neighbour.

For Mrs Indira Gandhi, a concession to hold bilateral negotiations cost her nothing. She had succeeded in removing the UN flailing fly off the table, and she had decided in her mind that she would delay all bilateral negotiations on J & K by postponing them. She knew that no one – not the United States nor the Soviet Union - could coerce her to sit at any negotiating table.

By 1999, with Pakistan’s misadventure in Kargil and India’s swift unflinching retaliation, the dynamics in the subcontinent changed. PM Nawaz Sharif hurried to Washington and over a July 4th holiday weekend, implored President Bill Clinton to protect him from the Indians in Kargil and from his own military in Rawalpindi. This was an ironical replay of Pandit Nehru’s panic-ridden appeal during the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict. He approached not the Non-Aligned Movement nor the communist Soviet Union but the arch-capitalist US President John F. Kennedy for ‘two squadrons of B-47 bombers’ and ‘twelve squadrons of supersonic fighters manned by American crews.’  This plea went unfulfilled. Even if had been, US conditions attached to arms supplies remained clear – US weapons to nations in the subcontinent were intended for use only against communism states, not against each other. That is why during the current crisis India, which could not prevent the purchase of F-16s by Pakistan, is desperate to have the United States condemn Pakistan for violating the small print of the supply contract. Subtly, the US has responded by telling India that the F-16 could not be used offensively. It reminded the Indians that they had been the aggressors in the attack on Balakot. They had violated Pakistan’s territorial boundary, therefore, technically, Pakistan was justified to use (if it had) the F-16s in self-defence.

The Chinese – ‘Pakistan’s all-weather friend’ - have no such qualms. They do not mind where their arms are used or against whom. In its armaments supply policy, it follows the dictum of Deng Xiaoping: It doesn't matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice. China cannot have been unconcerned when its JF-17 aircraft (manufactured by Pakistan with Chinese assistance) engaged in actual combat against Russian designed MiG 21s and Su30s. The JF-17 passed the test and vindicated Pakistan’s decision to rely upon China rather than the United States which asks for its money in advance, and then delays delivery.

Pakistan and China have come a long way since the mid 1960s when China would give in to Pakistan’s petulant and importuning demands for military hardware. Ambassador Sultan M. Khan, in his Memories & Reflections of a Pakistani Diplomat (1997), describes a visit to China in 1966 by a Pakistani delegation of senior service personnel. They had come to seek replenishment of Pakistan’s stockpile, depleted by the 1965 war with Indian. Ambassador Khan recalled that on the final day of its stay, the Pakistani Military Delegation called on Premier Zhou Enlai. He told them that ‘all the requirements on their list would be met’, and then ‘remarked that he had seen our list but was not clear in his mind in what basis the quantity of ammunition had been calculated. One of the generals replied that there were based on fourteen days’ reserve supplies, which prompted Zhou Enlai to ask, “And what happens after fourteen days?  How can a war be fought in that short time?” The General explained that Pakistan had hoped that during that time, the Security Council would meet and call upon both parties to ceasefire and withdraw armed forces to their respective borders.’

“Please forgive me,” Zhou Enlai said,“ if I appear to be confused by your reply. But if the outcome of a conflict has been predetermined to be a restoration of the status quo ante, then why fight at all? Why unnecessarily waste human lives and economic resources?  Wars cannot be fought according to a time-table, and one has to be ready for a prolonged conflict”.’

That conversation took place in the mid 1960s, before China became a nuclear superpower and before Pakistan developed its own nuclear capability, when the threat of nuclear attacks and retaliation could begin and end within 48 hours.  

People today, even pseudo-statesmen, talk glibly about nuclear war, as if it was a Republic Day parade in which nuclear-armed missiles will be ignited instead of fireworks. They have perhaps forgotten that the last time a nuclear device had been detonated had been in August 1945, when US president authorised his forces to drop A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In retrospect, President Truman’s diary entry seems almost naive in its expectation: ‘This weapon is to be used against Japan between now [July 1945] and August 10th. I have told the Sec. of War, Mr. Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children. Even if the Japs are savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic, we as the leader of the world for the common welfare cannot drop that terrible bomb on the old capital [Kyoto] or the new [Tokyo]. He and I are in accord. The target will be a purely military one.’

The bomb – nicknamed The Little Boy - contained about 64 kg (141 lb) of uranium-235, and took 44.4 seconds to fall from the aircraft. Its descent was slowed by a parachute to allow the B-29 bomber aircraft to fly clear. The atomic bomb detonated 1,900 feet (580 m) above Hiroshima. The bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki resulted in the deaths of 220,000 people. They did not distinguish between military and non-military victims, nor were these bombs gender sensitive. Everyone within reach a four mile radius either died or was unspeakably maimed.

Since that searing August 1945, no nation has dropped a nuclear bomb on another. They have tested them, certainly, to assess their efficacy. But the world has yet to see a nuclear conflagration. And with good reason. No one will live long enough as Truman did to record his approval in his dairy afterwards.

Historians trying to make sense of these past few weeks need to understand this background, if only to comprehend why the conflict began with Balakot and had to end with a mirrored de-escalation, brokered by (guess who? ) the United States.

Both India and Pakistan have decided (to borrow Winston Churchill’s juvenile phrase) that ‘it is better to jaw-jaw than to war-war.’  The first cautious step this week has been the restoration of contact between the DGMOs of the two countries. The second is to ensure that High Commissioners return to their posts in New Delhi and Islamabad. The all-important third would be a meeting between the two prime ministers in a neutral venue.  Saigon last month proved to be unlucky for Trump and Kim Jon-un. Helsinki in 2018 might have succeeded, had Trump not tried to avoid any discussion with Putin on Russian interference in the US presidential elections. Tashkent and Shimla are out – too many ghosts.

For the time being, the venue of such a prime ministerial meeting is less important than the outcome of the Indian general elections in May 2019.  If Mr Modi returns with a working majority (albeit in coalition), he might interpret that as an endorsement of his belligerence. He could blunt that with an invitation to PM Imran Khan to attend his swearing-in ceremony in New Delhi.

Will PM Imran Khan peck at the olive branch? PM Nawaz Sharif did in 2014. But, as PM Imran Khan has demonstrated, he has stronger nerves than Nawaz Sharif showed during Kargil. He has not run to Washington and begged for protection from the Pakistan army. He stayed put in Islamabad and remained silent. Imran Khan may have begun his stewardship, as his detractors still claim, as a ‘selected’ prime minister. They forget that no prime minister in our history has had to face a war within the first seven months of assuming office. In 1939, Winston Churchill came over-prepared; he had been Lord of the Admiralty. In 1945, when Harry S. Truman succeeded Franklin D. Roosevelt as president, had already served as Vice-president, albeit for only a short time.

It is clear from his brief but pithy speeches that PM Imran Khan does not intend to be swayed in his dealings with India by sentiment. He can afford to wait until May and some years thereafter. If there is anyone who is feeling the heat, it is PM Modi. He is having to watch his BJP ministers trip over each other’s lifeless lies. He has had to listen to his IAF chief, when asked the number of actual terrorists killed in Balakot, pass the buck to the New Delhi government. His ambition to violate Pakistan’s borders with a swift, surgical strike has festered into a gangrenous failure. His hopes of uniting India under his singular unquestioned command have disintegrated into a non-nuclear ash, incinerated not by Pakistani opponents but his own Indian opposition parties. 

Had Mr Modi read history instead of trying to make it, he would have learned that on 22 October 1971, before the Indo-Pak conflict over Bangladesh, Dr Henry Kissinger (then Assistant to President Nixon for National Security Affairs) met Premier Zhou Enlai in Beijing. They discussed the fomenting crisis. Zhou Enlai had already conveyed to Dr Kissinger China’s principled stand on the sanctity of international borders and on non-interference. Dr Kissinger’s reply has not lost its relevance even after forty-seven years: ‘We [the US] are totally opposed to Indian military action against Pakistan. I do not normally see ambassadors, but I have warned the Indian ambassador [L.K. Jha] on behalf of the President that if there is an attack by India we will cut off all economic aid to India. We have told the Russians of our view, and they have told us they will try to restrain the situation, but I am not sure that I believe them.  We believe there is a good chance that Indian will either attack or provoke the Pakistanis to attack by driving the Pakistanis into a desperate action in the next month or two.’

A generation of Indians and Pakistanis lived through that Armageddon. Another has these days seen a vision of the next Armageddon. They see no purpose dying in it.



[The Herald magazine, March 2019]  


15 March 2019
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