Shadow boxing over a distant Indo-Pak war

Amidst the jingoism on display Debbir B. Dasgupta sees hope for democratic voices in India and Pakistan's civil society

Shadow boxing over a distant Indo-Pak war
Even under seemingly normal circumstances, the relation between India and Pakistan is fraught with distrust and animosity. So it was welcome news, yet again, when the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, met on the sidelines at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in the Russian city of Ufa and agreed that their national security advisers would meet to discuss “all issues connected to terror.”

This isn’t the first time, nor would it be the last, that the estranged rivals are making such a gesture. Over the past 67 years, they’ve fought four wars over Kashmir – both militarily and by proxy when armed militants continue to infiltrate across the de facto border – the Line of Control.

While the two leaders may have displayed public bonhomie, the simmering tension below the façade tells a different story. Nothing between India and Pakistan can ever be taken at face value. Whenever India and Pakistan accuse each other of not doing enough to combat terrorism, it’s actually a proxy for what’s unsaid and what bilateral negotiations between the two countries, with entirely different agendas, obscure from public view.

Right now, the proxy fight is over an inconclusive war they fought fifty years ago. Its outcome stokes a sense of triumphalism in India, while in Pakistan, it stirs deep angst. Not surprisingly, both nations claim victory in that war. It really depends on how the two countries seek to remember the war and define victory: they simply have two competing narratives.

The September 1965 war, according to most military analysts and South Asia experts, essentially ended in a stalemate. The seventeen-day war, fought on their western frontiers, had its roots in a stealth Pakistani attack in April of that war. Its well-armed soldiers easily overran lightly-defended Indian border outposts in the Rann of Kutch – a 10,000-square mile desolate, marshy tract in the state of Gujarat (Modi’s home state) that abuts into Pakistan’s Sindh province. Pakistan’s initial success emboldened the Ayub Khan regime into provoking an uprising in Kashmir.

When that ill-conceived venture failed, Pakistan launched a pre-emptive strike across the Kashmir border. In retaliation, the Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri ordered an armored thrust into Lahore, barely 30 miles from Amritsar in Indian Punjab, thus forcing Pakistan to simultaneously fight on two sectors.
This isn't the first time, nor would it be the last, that the estranged rivals are making such a gesture

Armed with American tanks, jet fighters and bombers, Pakistan on paper had matériel superiority. But, when President Lyndon Johnson imposed an arms embargo under the Mutual Security Act that barred the use of American weapons, Pakistan’s ability to fight was significantly eroded. For India, the cost of the war was also steep, but its larger economy was better able to cushion the fallout.

A ceasefire on September 26 came as a relief to both countries, culminating in the Tashkent agreement, under Soviet auspices, that Shastri and Ayub Khan signed. India returned 740 square miles of captured Pakistani territory; Pakistan vacated 212 square miles of Indian territory. The war also took a heavy toll on both countries. Shastri died of a massive heart attack in Tashkent, a day after signing the treaty. Pakistani generals, who had enthusiastically supported Ayub’s misadventure, replaced him with yet another military dictator – the army chief of staff, Gen. Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan.

The month-long celebrations in India, which begin in late August and run through the end of September, will conclude with a grand finale, complete with a military band performance in New Delhi’s Vijay Chowk, with President Pranab Mukherjee as chief guest. In addition, the army’s Western Command will hold seminars within its operational theater.

It is India’s planned “commemorative” celebrations of the war’s fiftieth anniversary – the first grand event of its kind – that have ruffled Pakistan, which has no plans for any celebrations. But, it’s this disconnect in perception that really explains Pakistan’s paranoia and the two diverging story lines.

Ostensibly, the official Indian position is to remind “the younger generation of what happened 50 years ago” and pay homage to its soldiers. To Pakistan and its armed forces, the optics are different. They see it as a provocative muscle-flexing by the aggressively nationalist Modi administration. Retired major general Athar Abbas, a former senior official of the country’s intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, and now a peace activist, characterized the 1965 war as “a substantial victory in which a big country, a big army was stopped and failed to achieve its objective.” Sherry Rehman, senior vice president of the People’s Party of Pakistan, commented that “muscular articulations” of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, made during his recent trip to Bangladesh, “will do very little in the way of resuming dialogue, which the BJP leader has stated his government is interested in.”

In India too, many civil society members have not bought into the triumphant memorializing narrative. Sushobha Barve, executive director of the New Delhi-based think tank Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation that organizes regular symposiums on the India-Pakistan peace process, has argued that the war might spur India to “initiate the process of dialogue with Pakistan to bring peace and stability to our region, and anything other than that could be counterproductive.”

So far, India has not indicated it would pare down the celebrations. Closer to time, it can also be predicted with reasonable certainty, Pakistan will ratchet up the rhetoric and accuse India of saber-rattling by proxy. Predictably, India too will reject the charge and reiterate its official stance.

What can be expected now? For democratic voices in India and Pakistan’s civil society, the hope is that once the celebrations are over, they will tamp down their invectives. The fear also is they would revert to their old bellicosity as soon as a fresh contentious issue triggers a fresh round of verbal slugfest. Hopefully, calmer winds will prevail now that the two governments have pledged to discuss the issues at the national security advisor level, and a more nuanced approach will help tamp down the differences.

Debbir B. Dasgupta, an independent political analyst based in New York, writes about South Asian politics and governance