Indian-Pakistani relationship goes sour in wake of election

A decade of off-and-on detente between India and Pakistan has drawn to a close after months of deteriorating relations that began with the election victory in May of the Hindu nationalist Indian People’s Party and the appointment as India’s prime minister of a noted hard-liner, Narendra Modi.

The decline in India’s policy toward Pakistan became evident with the cancellation, with one week’s notice, of a scheduled meeting Aug. 25 between the countries’ top diplomats that Pakistani officials had expected would lead to a resumption of stuttering negotiations on a wide range of issues.

Now they’ve settled into a pattern of acrimonious accusations and cross-border exchanges of fire over Kashmir, the disputed Himalayan state that’s sparked four of the six conflicts the two nations have fought.

The rising tensions have raised fears that the withdrawal of U.S.-led international combat forces from Afghanistan would create space for India and Pakistan to wage a proxy war there.

The terms of diplomatic engagement had been agreed to in 2003 by a previous administration of the Indian People’s Party, and a framework for a comprehensive settlement of the two countries’ disputes was reached in August 2006.

But the agreement was never carried out, interrupted by political transitions in both countries and Indian anger over the Pakistani role in the three-day November 2008 terrorist rampage in Mumbai, which left 166 dead. The two countries re-engaged briefly after Nawaz Sharif’s election as Pakistan’s prime minister in May 2013, but Modi’s ascendency to lead the Indian government brought a new Indian strategy that Indian and Pakistani analysts say effectively ends hopes for resolving the rivalry.

“The composite bilateral dialogue is now on hold. Its framework is still there, but we’re not really doing much . . . and both sides are very clear that they are not going to allow any border provocation by the other to go unpunished,” said Ejaz Haider, a Pakistani political analyst who’s been involved in confidence-building “Track II” diplomacy between nongovernmental opinion-makers from both countries.

For one, Modi has made resuming the ailing 11-year peace negotiations conditional on Pakistan’s acceptance of Kashmir as an exclusively bilateral dispute.

The United Nations and the five permanent members of the Security Council have recognized Kashmir as disputed territory since Pakistan and India first fought over it in 1948-49. Its ownership was left unresolved in 1947 by the departing British colonial government. The Security Council has called for Kashmiri voters to determine whether they want to merge with India or Pakistan.

Pakistan has rejected India’s demand because that would require it to disavow the Security Council’s call and altogether exclude Kashmiri politicians who oppose Indian rule from any further negotiations.

The new tensions were evident at a regional summit of eight South Asian nations Wednesday and Thursday in the Nepalese capital, Katmandu. Rather than meeting on the sidelines to reduce those strains, Modi and Sharif barely acknowledged each other until the end of the summit, when, under pressure from other attending leaders, they shook hands and exchanged pleasantries for about 30 seconds.

Instead, fears that Indian and Pakistani security services might wage a proxy war in Afghanistan took center stage.

Pakistan has previously accused India of using its consulates in cities of southern Afghanistan to sponsor separatists who are waging a low-intensity insurgency in Pakistan’s western Baluchistan province. India has held Pakistan responsible for attacks on the consulates by militant groups linked to the Pakistani military’s security services. The most recent targeted the Indian consulate in Herat in May three days before Modi was sworn in as prime minister. The Pentagon has said that assault was carried out by Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistan-based militant group responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attack.

Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, who’s reached out to Pakistan since he was elected in September, issued a warning to both countries in his speech Wednesday to the South Asian summit.

“We will not allow our territory to be used against any of our neighbors. But we will not allow anybody to conduct proxy wars on our soil, either,” Ghani said.

Political analysts in both countries said the renewed tensions reflected the deep divergence of the countries’ political characters since the partition in 1947 created Pakistan as a separate homeland for Muslims.

“From the beginning, Pakistan was meant to be a homeland for Muslims, but India was for all Indians. That is the essential difference between the two countries now. Both have acquired new personalities and also very distinct natures. We have successfully demonized each other. It would be close to impossible to reverse that,” said Mohan Guruswamy, the head of the Center for Policy Alternatives, a research center in New Delhi, the Indian capital.

Modi’s diplomatic shift was accompanied by a radical switch in India’s military posture along the disputed Kashmir border with Pakistan, known as the Line of Control.

Bound by a U.S.-brokered cease-fire agreement reached in 2003, Indian forces had previously been under orders to shoot only if fired on and to respond with proportionate force. That remained the case in July to October 2013, when Pakistan-based militants resumed infiltrating Indian-administered Kashmir after a near-cessation of such activity once the cease-fire went into force.

Fighting then escalated in October into the most intense mortar battles seen in 30 years, as Indian forces responded punitively rather than proportionately.

Instead of retaliating exclusively at infiltration points along the mountainous, thickly forested Line of Control in Kashmir, the Indian military response was concentrated along a 125-mile-long low-altitude stretch of basmati-rice farmland at the northernmost point of the international border with Pakistan.

Indian military operations in Kashmir were focused on intercepting and ambushing the infiltrating militants, suggesting that Indian security agencies had infiltrated the Pakistan-based militant groups and passed on actionable intelligence to special forces units.

However, neither country has reinforced its forces during the recent cross-border firing, and analysts don’t see the surge in tensions as a preamble to another war between the countries. Instead, they expect a diplomatic stalemate.

The shooting has greatly diminished in November, but analysts’ fears remain that fresh border clashes might prompt Modi to take India’s fight against militant groups to Pakistan-controlled territory, something he’d spoken about while campaigning for the general election.

As if to highlight the risk of a further flare-up, four militants occupied a vacant bunker Wednesday 2.5 miles inside recognized Indian territory, sparking a gunfight in which the militants, three Indian soldiers and three civilians were killed.

“I won’t be surprised if these cross-border skirmishes go beyond their recent intensity. Indian troops may try to carry out limited-scale strikes on the Pakistani side of Kashmir in the name of destroying what it alleges is terrorist infrastructure,” said Yusuf Jameel, a political analyst based in Srinagar, the capital of Indian-administered Kashmir.