On the eve of the second anniversary of the Balakot aerial strike the Director-Generals of Military Operations of India and Pakistan issued a joint statement emphasising that the two countries had decided on “strict observance of all agreements, understandings and cease firing along the Line of Control (LOC) and all other sectors”. The agreement went into effect on the night of 24/25 February.
The cease fire along the LOC and the International Border (IB) in Jammu and Kashmir is important and welcome. It will come as a relief to people in both countries who live in the vicinity of the LOC and the IB.
A plain textual analysis of the statement establishes though that the Modi government may be shifting from the tough posture it adopted on Pakistan since especially after the Uri terrorist attack of September 2016. That tough approach had hardened after the Pulwama terrorist attack on February 14, 2016 as demonstrated by the Balakot aerial strike.
Reading Between the Lines of DGMO Joint Statement
In addition to the text of the statement, the jubilation expressed by Moeed Yusuf—Pakistan’s chief of the National Security Division who is not the exact counterpart of India’s National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval but who India, for all practical purposes, accepts as such—is poignant. Yusuf called the joint statement as Pakistan’s “big win”.
This, too, shows that Modi may be resiling from his strong position on Pakistan terror and may be willing to revert to the conciliatory Pakistan policy he had adopted towards Pakistan from his inaugural till the surgical strikes launched after the Uri attack.
The significant sentence in the text of the DGMO’s statement which lends itself to the apprehension of Modi’s softening on Pakistan is “In the interest of achieving mutually beneficial and sustainable peace along the borders, the two DGMOs agreed to address each other’s core issues and concerns which have the propensity to disturb the peace and lead to violence”. The key term in this sentence is “core issues”.
Pakistan has always used this term in the context of what it calls the J&K dispute. It has said over and over again for decades that the core issue between India and Pakistan is that of J&K. It has become a code word for J&K. Indian diplomats with experience of handling Pakistan affairs know about this code word. India’s Pakistan watchers should also be aware of the connotations of this word.
Has India Softened Its Stance on Kashmir — Pakistan’s ‘Core Issue’?
Thus, its inclusion in the joint statement is inexplicable from India’s viewpoint. The preceding words “In the interest of achieving mutually beneficial and sustainable peace along the borders” and “each other’s” do not provide sufficient justification for the concession. Another word could and should have been found to express India’s top concern of Pakistan ending infiltration and terrorism.
This is not being semantic nor is it splitting hairs for joint statements even if they have been issued by the two DGMOs should fully conform to the diplomatic terminology followed by India. In any event the Pakistani DGMO represents the Pakistan army which has been and will continue to be the final arbiter of that country’s India policy.
To turn to Moeed Yusuf’s comments and the obviously officially leaked account by a section of India’s official establishment of what led to the joint statement. Yusuf told a select group of Pakistani journalists that the joint statement was a product of Pakistani efforts behind the scenes. However, he tweeted denying the same.
The account of a prominent Indian journalist more explicitly states that Doval and Yusuf were in behind the scenes contact directly and through intermediaries. Also, that they had direct contacts too. This also establishes that the joint statement is not a product of the two militaries but of the two governments. Hence, its wording cannot just be dismissed as relevant only to the two forces without larger ramifications for bilateral ties.
Yusuf claimed that India was “pressured” to accept the ceasefire which it had “not agreed to all these months and years”. He went on to add that the ceasefire was Pakistan’s diplomatic success and that “God willing more roads will open in the future, so that the resolution of Kashmir that we want, the way we want will happen”.
India’s Response to Pakistan Changed With Balakot Strikes
All this has come on just as the country marks the second anniversary of the Balakot aerial strike. That step marked a decisive step in India’s approach to combatting Pakistani terror. It also represented a milestone in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Pakistan policy.
All through the period after the Balakot strike, India has continued to emphasise that bilateral dialogue cannot take place unless Pakistan gives up terror. It is unlikely that the Modi government will shift from this position. Indeed, it will be wrong if it did so especially after the doctrine of pre-emption that it announced after the Balakot strike.
In view of the joint statement and Yusuf’s comments it is essential for the government to clarify its approach on dialogue with Pakistan immediately. In its absence confusion and doubts will prevail.
This is all the more so for the media leak indicates that sections of the Indian establishment see some softening in the Pakistan army’s approach to India.
It is also necessary for the government to clarify that it holds firmly to the doctrinal changes announced after the Balakot strike on India’s approach to Pakistani terror. To appreciate the significance of these changes a look at India’s traditional approaches and the most significant changes made by Modi needs to be noted.
Why Balakot Strikes Were a Turning Point?
India’s traditional response to unacceptable Pakistani terrorist attacks was to break off the bilateral dialogue and stress that no bilateral engagement can take place unless Pakistan gives up the use of terror. However, successive Indian governments, including initially that of Modi, did not adhere to the principle that they had laid out.
Dialogue was renewed after a cooling off period when the engagement was suspended. This occurred even after the Mumbai terrorist attack of 2008. And Modi, in order to preserve his December 2015 initiative which witnessed his Lahore visit to meet Nawaz Sharif continued to maintain ties with Pakistan even after the Pathankot attack of January 2016. Indeed, he went so far as to allow a Pakistani investigation team which included an ISI officer to visit the Pathankot airbase.
It was the Uri terrorist attack of September 2016 that first indicated a change in Modi’s thinking on the handling of Pakistani terror. Instead of just keeping bilateral relations on ice he went in for a kinetic response through the surgical strikes.
Pakistan denied that they had occurred. It did so to preserve its view that Indian armed action would set in motion a dangerous escalatory spiral in a nuclearized environment.
The Balakot action did not allow it to take such an approach. Hence, its response which led to the aerial dog fight and the capture of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman.
What Happens to India’s Post-Balakot Policy of Pre-emption?
Notwithstanding, the Pakistani response the Balakot action clearly spelt out that India will respond kinetically to unacceptable Pakistani terrorist attacks. No longer will it accept the international community’s plea for patience. India signalled that it was not an Indian response but Pakistani terror that was the first step in the escalation ladder between two states possessing nuclear weapons. Hence, it was essential for the international community to pressure Pakistan to stop terror.
A senior Pakistani politician has revealed that the fear of a major Indian attack after the dog fight and the capture of Abhinandan caused the generals and the Khan government to panic. That led to the quick release of the Indian officer to ease the tension.
In all this the caution that India had spelt out through the words of then Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale have not gained the focus they deserve. India had clearly implied that if it learnt of the preparation in Pakistan of a major terrorist attack it reserved the right to take action to protect its interests.
India had actually signalled that it would pursue a policy of pre-emption. The Indian people would naturally expect the Modi government to act in accordance with this doctrine.
Is Modi Optimistic About Pakistan Yet Again?
Clearly, the Balakot strikes and Modi’s policies since then have demonstrated that India is no longer willing to accept the ‘dialogue-terrorist attack-interruption of dialogue- cooling off period -resumption of dialogue’ cycle that had continued since 1990 to 2016. The Balakot air action finally put an end to that cycle. It also put an end to Modi’s hope that Pakistan would dilute its enmity towards India—his invitation to Nawaz Sharif to attend his oath taking ceremony in 2014 and his Lahore visit showed that he had, like most of his predecessors, harboured such hopes.
Have Modi’s initial hopes on Pakistan resurfaced? And is there now going to be a new approach on Pakistani terror and dialogue? An urgent clarification would help in reassuring the Indian people.
(The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He tweets at @VivekKatju. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)