The test-firing of the Agni-V intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) on April 19 was greeted with a heartening absence of official bluster in Pakistan. The matter-of-fact counter-launch a few days later of a medium-range Pakistani Hatf missile likewise generated no heat here. It was a wonderfully sober, low-key exchange of signals — India’s to Pakistan saying this IRBM should not concern you, and Pakistan saying, well, okay, but just in case, here’s a demonstration. That was that — no gripe, no fuss.
Maybe the subdued Pakistani response to Agni was on account of the unfortunate avalanche on the west side of the Saltoro Ridge earlier that buried alive Pakistan Army soldiers from the Northern Light Infantry, bringing home to a grief-stricken nation the human cost of the Siachen deployment. It triggered a wave of popular resentment against it. Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League-(Nawaz) and Imran Khan of the Tehreek-e-Insaf Party called for unilateral withdrawal and hoped this gesture would be reciprocated by India. The mounting public pressure compelled the Chief of Army Staff (COAS), Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, to talk of “peaceful coexistence” and the need to resolve all disputes in a peaceable manner.
What is fascinating to see is how, for the first time in recent memory, the space for public and political discourse and debate within Pakistan about the best way to deal with India was seized, and the lead in thinking given, by mainline political parties and civil society, and how much the Pakistan Army’s room for manoeuvre on even national security issues has shrunk. India should have reacted to the Siachen tragedy with prompt offers of material and expert help, and proposed an immediate meeting between Gen. Kayani and his Indian counterpart, Gen. V.K. Singh, to explore ideas the Pakistani COAS might have for resolving disputes and coexisting peacefully. India had nothing to lose.
When I said this on a television programme featuring two Pakistanis — former foreign minister Gohar Ayub Khan and retired Maj. Gen. Rashid Qureshi — a former ambassador to Afghanistan Vivek Katju pointed out that because the Indian Army does not enjoy the same exalted position its opposite number does in Pakistan, it would be an interaction between unequals. What he, and the Indian government, fail to appreciate is that regular meetings between the two Army Chiefs will advance the rapprochement process and put the stamp of approval of General Headquarters, Rawalpindi, on a peace dynamic created by warming economic and trade ties.
In the context of the Indian government once again whining about Washington not arm-twisting Islamabad enough to contain terrorist Hafiz Saeed and the Pakistani Lashkars to the visiting US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, making a case for restoring links between the armies of the two countries with shared regimental histories and background would appear to be quixotic. However, as I had argued in a research paper published 16 years ago, in The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs in London, it is the soundest basis for confidence and security-building in the subcontinent. When Mr Gohar Ayub Khan referred to the strong “sentiment” of the shared past in the two armies, Mr Katju cut him short; negotiations, he harrumphed, cannot be on the basis of sentiment. Actually, between states that together once formed a whole, cultural ties, sentiment and fellow-feeling are exactly the right foundation to build a close relationship on — a line Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, perhaps, instinctively understands but lacks the political heft to push.
In India-Pakistan relations, among the low hanging fruit are military-to-military links forged by such things as joint sports meets, visits by officers to parent regiments and, dare I mention, seats allotted to Pakistan Army officers at the National Defence College in Delhi. Except, the Indian government’s atrocious treatment of Pakistani military attachés negates this possibility. We talk of “military diplomacy” but have failed since 1947 to do the obvious thing of cultivating Pakistan’s defence, air and naval advisers posted here — brigadiers, naval captains, and Air Force group captains headed for higher rank. Treating these officers well, according them courtesies beyond those enjoyed by big power defence attachés, making them feel special costs us nothing and the benefits are substantial. A growing group of such military professionals in Islamabad, with pleasant memories of their stay in India, will begin to temper the Pakistan Army and the government’s attitude.
Instead, the pettiness and small-mindedness encountered by Pakistani military-men posted to their high commission in Delhi is so sustained and unrelenting, it is a wonder more of them arriving here a little wary don’t turn bitter on the spot. That Indian defence attachés are similarly mistreated is no excuse. Once official India’s behaviour towards the Pakistani officers becomes less cussed, the situation of our representatives in the Islamabad high commission will automatically improve. Rather than dealing with them as honoured guests, however, they are subjected to indignities. They are not invited to any Indian military functions, invitations to passing-out parades at our various military academies are tardy, requests for meetings with Service Chiefs of Staff and their principal staff officers are rarely entertained, and they are not allowed to travel outside Delhi without permission, or even permitted to play golf in Gurgaon. This is entirely counter-productive behaviour.
Imagine the positive fallout from, say, encouraging the Pakistani defence attachés to observe our “integrated” military exercises, such as Operation Shoorveer now underway in the Punjab plains. It will help them experience at close quarters military formations being marshalled effectively by Indian commanders and to realistically compare their country’s capabilities and stamina with India’s. What’s there to be so secretive about? What new stuff could they possibly learn about our military that they don’t already know, or that departs hugely from how the Pakistani armed forces themselves practise fighting wars? It is amusing to recall, on this subject, what the late Israeli general, Moshe Dayan, said about the Indian and Pakistani armies. “They fight by the book,” he said, and, after a pause, with perfect comic timing, added, “the same book”.
[Published on May 10, 2012 in the Asian Age at www.asianage.com/columnists/brothers-in-arms-466 and in the Deccan Chronicle at www.deccanchronicle.com/columnists/bharat-karnad/brothers-in-arms ]