The massive protests in Pakistan over the past few days ought to cause some introspection in South Block. Clashes between protesters, mainly of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, and the police have left many dead and injured on both sides over the past few days. Worse, Sunday witnessed a trickle of policemen, with rifles, and army soldiers switching sides to stand with the protests.
Fury at the French
The protestors have demanded that the French ambassador be expelled over France’s trenchant defence of blasphemous cartoons. Demands to strengthen domestic laws against blasphemy have become interwoven with that.
The street demands echoed in Pakistan’s parliament, where too some members stridently demanded the expulsion of France’s ambassador.
Back-Channel Talks Could Be Weakened
On the face of it, all this is an internal matter of Pakistan—at least until action is taken against any ambassador. So, why do I say South Block’s policymakers should be concerned?
The Kashmir issue too is emotive on the political, geopolitical, indeed nationalist plane.
What concerns me is the series of whispers over the past couple of months about back-channel talks between India and Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir issue.
The agreement to enforce a ceasefire at the Line of Control that divides the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir was apparently the first step in that process. The ceasefire, announced almost two months ago, came five weeks after the Biden administration took office in the US.
Involvement of Top Policymakers
The agreement was said to have emerged from a chat between the directors-general of military operations (DGMO) of the two sides, but that was just for the birds. It was agreed upon at the highest level. Word is that India’s NSA, Ajit Doval, and Pakistan’s COAS, Qamar Bajwa, are the point persons for the negotiations which the ceasefire kicked off. Recently, the UAE publicly confirmed that it was facilitating the talks.
Key negotiators have indeed visited the UAE recently. In fact, the two foreign ministers were in Abu Dhabi on Sunday.
Well-placed figures in the political establishment have told me that the government has been hopeful that these negotiations would lead to an agreement to turn the Line of Control into an international border.
I have been cynical about this from the beginning.
Although I very much hope that the two countries can reach an agreement, I believe that no Pakistan government can survive if it cedes that country’s longstanding claim to the Kashmir Valley.
Gilgit: The Geo-Strategic Angle
My second reason for cynicism is that I believe an agreement on the LoC would not be in India’s long-term interest. Gilgit, and surrounding areas, is the really vital portion of the erstwhile state from a geo-strategic perspective.
Of course, the Kashmir Valley occupies vast mind-space, since it is a loud talking-point. Britain has repeatedly used human rights concerns about the Valley to leverage advantage in Gilgit, ever since 1876.
The Government of India has remained blissfully oblivious to such patterns, but Gilgit matters even more since it has become the key to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). It should be front and centre in South Block’s strategic thinking.
Echoes of 1972 Shimla Conference
Arguments about geo-strategic importance may turn out to be just academic, however, in light of the recent events in Pakistan. Those events have underlined the fact that that country’s government could never agree to turning the LoC into an international border.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was able to convince Mrs Gandhi at the 1972 Shimla conference that his government would fall if he agreed to this outright. That has become even more likely now, for the power of the street has increased even as the subcontinent has become more polarised.
The recent protests in Pakistan have been centred at the heart of its Punjabi power base.
Spectre of Mutiny: Emotions Running High
If army soldiers, even just a few score, could mutiny over tough action against protestors demanding the expulsion of the French ambassador, how much more intense would resistance to ceding Pakistan’s claim to the Kashmir Valley be? It has, after all, been described as the ‘life-blood’ of Pakistan.
Given the extraordinary discipline of a professional army, one has to take seriously the possibility that the soldiers who resigned got a wink and a nod from some of their officers.
A soldier who tweeted a video message specifically asked the army chief, who he called the ‘trustee’ of Pakistan’s interests, to unseat the government.
There are several ways to read the possibilities behind that neatly-crafted message. It could even be the kernel of a revolt against Bajwa from within his army’s ranks.
At a deeper level, the popularity of the protests across a wide swathe of Pakistani society—there are even photographs of young men wearing the colours of the ruling party attacking policemen—makes one wonder, whether increasing religious polarisation could prove to be an insurmountable challenge in both countries, even if the authorities in both were to reach an agreement.
(The writer is the author of ‘The Story of Kashmir’ and ‘The Generation of Rage in Kashmir’. He can be reached at @david_devadas. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)