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Diplomatic damage from latest India-Pakistan border clashes August 21, 2013

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Stephen Westcott

The recent killing of five Indian soldiers by Pakistani troops has put the Indian Government under pressure. The incident is likely to cause the suspension of the scheduled dialogue between the two countries.

Background

On 6 August 2013, five Indian soldiers were shot dead in an ambush in Indian-controlled Kashmir, near the India-Pakistan Line of Control (LoC). While it is unclear who was responsible for the attack, blame has been attributed to either militants backed by the Pakistan Army, or the Pakistani Special Forces themselves. Although Pakistan has denied any involvement and its Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, has sent his condolences over the killings, tensions have markedly increased. Intermittent exchanges of small arms fire across the LoC have occurred throughout the week, wounding several soldiers and civilians. The most recent incident occurred on 11 August, with both sides using machine guns.

Comment

While the incident on 6 August and the following border skirmishes are unlikely to escalate into more serious military actions, they are likely to damage the efforts of the Indian and Pakistani governments to improve relations between their countries. Both governments are showing restraint and a willingness to co-operate at the moment, but political pressure over a similar incident in January 2013, forced the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, to suspend the official dialogue with Pakistan.

Talks between Indian and Pakistani bureaucrats over their territorial disputes were scheduled to restart this month, but that is now doubtful; many in India’s opposition are stridently opposed to them taking place. The main Indian opposition party recently demanded that Singh’s government cancel a planned meeting with Sharif in New York next month and even scale down relations with Pakistan by recalling the Indian High Commissioner to Islamabad.

With elections in India due next May, Singh’s government is particularly susceptible to agitation from the Indian opposition and the notoriously jingoistic media, which could force it to take a harder stance against Pakistan. Although the current administration favours dialogue to reach a consensus with Pakistan, the public mood in India will make this politically difficult. Singh’s government is frequently painted as being weak on border protection, owing to the incursions by Chinese and Pakistani forces at various times through the past year. Since the Indian Government is already contending with domestic anger over the rising cost of living, it is likely that it will heed calls to take some action to shore up its support, rather than just wait out the media storm before quietly restarting talks. While India’s reaction is unlikely to be as extreme as the opposition and sections of the media are calling for, the government will almost certainly suspend the talks and make a diplomatic protest.

Perhaps a greater concern not just for relations in the sub-continent but for the region and beyond, is that this event highlights the Pakistani government’s lack of control over at least some elements of its military forces and the militants aligned with Pakistan. The government of Prime Minister Sharif has been seeking to re-engage in dialogue with India for some time now, making it highly unlikely that it would have authorised such an attack. Consequently, although the efforts by Sharif to ease tensions and rebuild trust are widely seen as sincere, questions will again begin to rise about his government’s ability to deliver on its peace agreements.

When India, or indeed any country, enters into security-based talks with Pakistan, the issue of how Pakistan can control its rogue elements and prevent them from tarnishing any deal, will need to be factored into the discussions. Given that Pakistan’s democracy is newly established, it is unlikely to be able to give any reliable guarantees in this area. That alone may provide the Indian Government with a reasonable excuse for suspending the talks with Pakistan, now that it is politically expedient for them to do so.

Stephen Westcott is a research assistant in the Indian Ocean Research Programme at Future Directions International.

This post first appeared in Future Directions International on 14 August 2013.

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