Using the brahamastra — diverting rivers; think again!

Image result for pics of Imran Khan and General Bajwa

(PM Imran Khan and Pak COAS Gen. Javed Bajwa)

The over-the-top public breast-beating with everybody a jingo demanding telling retribution for the Pulwama terrorist suicide attack has forced a, national security-wise, disinterested political class to hyper-ventilate. In this situation, there’s the ready danger of a government’s response decision, prompted by the media-driven frenzy and hysteria, being very, very wrong. With general elections in sight, moreover, the  government is more interested in impacting public consciousness than embark on a well thought-out punitive strategy, which’s all the more reason that cool heads prevail in the South Block and the Prime Minister calmly tones down the rhetoric, while instructing his cabinet colleagues and BJP minions to do the same. This won’t happen of course because, as is virtually an Indian norm in crisis, political leaders without a clue about what sensibly to do, spout blood in their speeches and fire up the public anger still more. The danger of the government being led by the nose by public sentiment is nigh and results in fiasco.

Recall the immediate aftermath of the hijacking of Indian Airlines flight IC 814 to Kandahar on 24 December 1999, when families of passengers on board sat on dharna on the pavement across from the Race Course Road prime ministerial complex with TV cameras airing in endless loops heart-rending scenes of mothers, wives and children hollering for PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee to give into the terrorists’ demand and save their kin which, minute by minute, hour by hour, eroded the first BJP regime’s resolve to halt the Jaish terrorists in their tracks by preventing the plane captured by them from taking off from Amritsar for Dubai. Had Vajpayee steeled his heart and decided that he’d not be swayed by public cries but by national interest, the 176 passengers in the Airbus A 300 may have died but the message would have gone out strong and clear to all terrorist quarters that they wouldn’t enjoy easy victories by aiming at soft targets. Instead, the farce at the Amritsar airport was played out when the aircraft was refueled and flew out of Indian air space and the situation got out of India’s control. At the mercy of the Taliban government, the Indian government had to eat crow on the bare airfield in Kandahar as external affairs minister Jaswant Singh handed over known terrorist kingpins — Maulana Masood Azhar, Mushtaq Ahmed Zagar, and Omar Saeed Sheikh until then in Indian jails. The precedent, however, was established exactly a decade earlier, in December 1989, with the kidnapping of Rubaiya Sayeed by members of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, who demanded the freeing of 13 militants for the release of the daughter of the then Union Home Minister in Prim Minister VP Singh’s coalition government cabinet, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, and sister of the erstwhile Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti. The Indian government complied with the terrorists’ demand, and the  exchange went through despite being opposed, to his credit, by the then J&K Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah.

Blood counted for Mufti Sayeed more than national interest. Vajpayee in the Kandahar episode extended that principle democratically to mean that thereafter any terrorist outfit holding Indians hostage would also hold the Indian nation hostage to its whims. The terrorism problem in J&K has been out of a reactive-passive India’s control ever since.  Over subsequent years, heinous strikes against army, paramil and police personnel in Srinagar Valley was escalated by the Pakistan ISI-sponsored terrorist gangs to attacks on Parliament in 1999 and, nine years later, the 26/11 sea-borne strike on Mumbai. And still Delhi was not stirred from its lassitude to think up and articulate a long term strategy to deal with the terrorist scourge, to lay down a protocol and SOPs and train all agencies in following them once a terrorist action is underway. The Indian government time and again settled instead for passion-rousing rhetoric, public cries for vengeance to match the people’s mood, followed by some slapdash response or the other. In recent times,  thunderous threats of “surgical strikes”, etc. are regularly mouthed, leaving the IS to meticulously plan the next incident to spring on India.

Post-Pulwama, an infinitely more serious, even reckless reaction was voiced by the only hard performing minister in Modi’s cabinet who is his also own man, perhaps, because of his direct access to RSS HQ in Nagpur, the Road Transport and Water Resources Minister Nitin Gadkari. Addressing a public rally in IP yesterday he said, “When India and Pakistan were divided, three rivers were given to Pakistan and three to India. However, India continuously gave the river water supply to Pakistan, but now we will use that river water supply to nurture the Yamuna river through the Yamuna project.” Hr elaborated that view in another political rally today to inaugurate numerous water projects in Uttar Pradesh.  “Our government has decided”, he informed the country, “to stop our share of water which used to flow to Pakistan. We will divert water from eastern rivers and supply it to our people in Jammu and Kashmir, and Punjab.” He added: “Three of our rivers have been flowing into Pakistan. So water which we rightfully owned was going into Pakistan. …Construction of dam has started at Shahpur-Kandi on Ravi river. Ujh project will store our share of water for use in Jammu and Kashmir and balance water will flow from second Ravi-Beas link to provide water to other basin states. Above projects are declared as national projects.”

Throttling Pakistan by denying it water under the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty has been recommended by some as a heavy-punch strategy to visibly impose a devastating economic cost on Pakistan for persisting with its hugely successful policy of waging asymmetric war using willing Kashmiri proxies. Because no clarification has been issued by Prime Minister Modi, PMO or MEA, one supposes this is one of the two prongs of strategy the Indian government will now implement. The other prong being a military response at a time of the Indian army’s choosing. This last is an excellent ploy to keep Islamabad guessing and on tenterhooks, unleashing a destructive strike when Pakistan forces relax — because they can’t remain on alert forever.

If the diversion, in effect, of the waters of the Sutlej, Ravi, and Beas Rivers designated by the Treaty for India’s use that Gadkari  has promised is indeed state policy then there should really have been  much greater debate and cogitation within government circles about its regional and international ramifications than has evidently occurred to-date. Has the MEA informed PMO about what this significant step means? Under international law, for a lower riparine country to be denied its legitimate portion of shared river waters can be casus belli — cause for war. Fine, the onus will be on Pakistan to start one, and it is in no position to do so. The trouble is a war for such an elemental reason could quickly spiral into a war of annihilation unlike all the previous relatively harmless wars of maneuver that, I have argued in my books, India and Pakistan have engaged in since 1947. Because, let’s be clear, damming and diverting the Indus River tributary waters is a matter of life and death for Pakistan. It is the brahamastra — not nuclear weapons — that can, quite literally, turn much of Pakistani Punjab and upper Sindh, in no more than 30 years, into an arid extension of the Thar Desert.

Yes, emotions are running high and rational thinking is apparently another casualty. But the Modi government has to really THINK, strategically weigh the ill-effects that may follow in its train. The first thing to weigh is whether junking the Indus Waters Treaty is anywhere a proportionate response to the Pulwama provocation. Proportionality — whether anybody likes it or not — is an established central tenet of international law of war.

Secondly, and it is this consequence that I have harped on in my writings, it will immediately gift China the justification for pell-mell damming and diversion of all rivers originating in the Tibetan Plateau — the Tsang-po (Brahmapurtra River) as also the Indus. Beijing has been more hesitant in building upstream facilities to siphon of water from the Indus than it has been in paying ducks and drakes with the Brahamaputra waters because its all-weather friend, Pakistan, is at the lower end of this River. Assuming Pakistan cannot and will not initiate a suicidal all-out war to settle the water issue for once and for all, how long does the Indian government reckon it will be before Beijing, citing the Indian precedent on the Sutlej, Ravi and Beas, orders huge construction projects to redirect the precious Indus waters in Tibet itself and away from its natural pattern of flow south of the Tibetan watershed and into the subcontinent? Because then the Pakistan reason for caution will go missing.

What then? What case will Delhi make to mobilize international opinion against the Chinese action? As it is, Delhi has not anything other than squawk ineffectually about the Chinese civil works and dams at the great bend obstructing the Brahmaputra.  India will find itself squarely in Pakistan’s position of being unable to prevent diversion but also incapable of militarily taking on a far superior China. It is this aspect of Indus waters diversion that Delhi has to be most wary of. But then Indians have always been tactical minded, not strategically oriented.

(No need to go back to Prithviraj Chauhan, the various Battles of Panipat, et al — the upcoming Cricket World Cup will do! There are calls, for instance, to not play Pakistan — the biggest draw in the upcoming championship rounds, when doing so may cost India the chance of winning the World Cup — with Virat Kohli’s team rated as one of the two top teams in the game. So, we are prepared to forfeit matches, concede Pakistan 2 or even 4 points, and even help it get to the Finals for such small change of emotional satisfaction as can be extracted from this self-abnegating gesture.)

And India will once again end up paying the greater price. Talk of cutting off one’s nose to spite someone else’s face!!

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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24 Responses to Using the brahamastra — diverting rivers; think again!

  1. Bhaskar says:

    The water being stopped is from our share of 3 rivers which is outside the original treaty. Though it would really had not been necessary to declare it, yet do you see any issue when the treaty still stands..

    • True, the Sutlej, Ravi and Beas River waters have been designated for India’s use by the Treaty. But we also agreed in the Treaty to building “flow of the river” dams, which’s not the same thing as what Gadkari is promising — a diversion of these waters to, in effect, flush out the Jamuna River basin. Whether Nehru should have agreed to this provision in the Treaty or held out for complete freedom to use these waters as India wished, is a separate issue.

  2. FuriousBuddha says:

    Few questions:
    1)What casus belli, sir? This move is not in violation of Indus water treaty. We would merely be utilising the water that belongs to us according to this over generous treaty, which interestingly Nehru decided as a good will measure hoping for an amicable Pak position on Kashmir, we all know how well that idea played out.

    2)When has China waited for India to do something as an instigation or anybody for that matter. What was the provocation from our end for it to nuclear arm Pakistan as you have repeatedly mentioned in your writings? What was the provocation for it’s new found belligerent position on South China Sea? China decides to act, as and when something is in it’s interest and it has the wherewithal to pull it off.

    3)You writing appears to be more empathetic towards Pakistan and its people than India and Indians. Have we not suffered enough. Was it not you who said in your previous article, the folks at Rawalpindi would be laughing at our inability to do anything meaningful post Pulwama? Pakistan’s economy might be 1/4th of BSE, but it’s not a trivial enemy.They have always punched far above their weight and we have always punched below ours. You treat it as if all Pakistan ever does are a few tactical moves every now and then and has no longterm strategic anti India designs.

    4)The Indus move is not a nuclear button. I’m pleased that you think it’s “Brahmastra”. We can always revisit our policy should the Pakistanis mend their ways.

    5)You say “What case will Delhi make to mobilize international opinion..” I was under the impression you believed in a foreign policy based on realpolitik which sits on a strong foundation of hardpower. Since when have you began to believe more in diplomacy and imploring other powers to back our interests?

    PS:Is your book “Why India is not a great power yet” available in kindle format?

    • Realpolitik, as foreign policy principle, would require the Indian government to not only practice it against weaker states but gain credibility by also wielding it when a larger, more powerful, adversary, such as China, hoves into view. Such is not the case. Delhi’s instincts when confronting China is to have its tails between its legs. Empathy for Pakistan is not the issue here; differentiating a relatively minor provocation from a major one mandating river diversion, is.
      Alas, Oxford University Press had promised the kindling of ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’ but hasn’t delivered. Sorry about that. Buy a hard copy instead!

  3. Rupam Das says:

    May be they are using this as a way to get the Pakistan Army to relax. Announcing project and actually translating it into initiation of the project is different. What do you think Bharat Karnad ji?

    • Actually, river diversion would exacerbate the Pakistan army’s anxiety because then it will have to think of actually initiating a conventional war.

      • Rupam Das says:

        Bharat Karnad ji going by the news it seems the govt. is only playing with words and will not use more than the 20% as designated by the treaty. Till now it was using 93 % of the 20%, Gadkari may only be using the remaining 7% and not more than that.

      • San Mann says:

        Mian Karnad, if India has the right to exercise its full quota under Indus treaty, then why would there be negative repercussions for exercising its treaty rights?

  4. Raakbas says:

    But the water we are planning to divert is our share as per the Indus Treaty and so legal under international law, isn’t it? So how can it affect our position with respect to China in the future? Can you please elaborate on that?

  5. ankithood says:

    For brahmaputra too, there is lower riparian state to india, that is bangladesh. Would chinese not harm its relations with bangladesh by doing so. Besides we don’t have any treaty with china, nor china has treaties with other south east asian nations. And they are building reservoirs more aggressively than india and as a lower riparian state, india can’t do anything about it. We are going to be water scarce country with in a decade anyhow. We should look for opportunity to renegotiate treaty, which is very generous to Pakistanis.

    • A skewed, China-benefiting, water sharing agreement has been imposed by Beijing on the states on the lower Mekong River. Going by Pakistan government statements and a sounding of Pakistan expert views, renegotiating the Indus Waters Treaty will not be acceptable to Islamabad unless we sweeten the deal by various means — like, offer to link the river waters to obtain a vast river water switching system to benefit the two countries, and to afford that country’s agriculture produce and light manufactures open access to the Indian market. Realpolitik, in this instance, would dictate taking such a course to free India to deal more forcefully with China.

      • Vishnugupt says:

        @Prof Karnad

        ” renegotiating the Indus Waters Treaty will not be acceptable to Islamabad unless we sweeten the deal by various means — like, offer to link the river waters to obtain a vast river water switching system to benefit the two countries, and to afford that country’s agriculture produce and light manufactures open access to the Indian market. Realpolitik, in this instance, would dictate taking such a course to free India to deal more forcefully with China.”

        Realpolitik!!! Really Prof?

        The last time i checked, it was Pakistan which stands to gain more if they abandon their covert war against India and yet, we are the one who need to make more concessions. WOW. As if Nehru’s big hearted 1960 IWT did us any good, or his daughter’s 1972 Shimla agreement.

        Your faith in goodness in the hearts of sweet mouthed Cozening Punjabis, bilking rude Sindhis and the dumb yet beguile Pathans in Islamabad and GHQ Rawalpindi is beyond me.

        I reiterate my point, Co-opting Pakistan would be like, a grown man gifting a 8 year old boy a gun who wants to kill him for some insane reason.

        GHQ Rawalpindi needs to be de-fanged.PERIOD.

        Keeping the enemy on a long leash is realpolitik, not setting him free.

        China knows this best thats why don’t have a water treaty with that country. Because it knows that it is foolish to let go of the enemies jugular vein.

        This has always been beyond the wit of the “Blind men of Hindoostan” and their counsel. Sadly nothings has changed.

        And China won’t touch Brahmaputra like it is being argued, because of Bangladesh.If India equips it navy well with more SSNs & SSBN we can simultaneously choke Gwadar and Malacca at the same time.

        China knows this way too well.

  6. Kumar A says:

    The waters of three rivers designated for Indian use has been flowing into Pakistan due to our narrow vision and non-utilisation. We do not require the sanctity of the treaty to use this water. Hence, your contention that China will do the same is flawed. Also, China has already made a dam in TAR which will impact the flow to Indus but Pakistan is quiet on that. Afghanistan is building dams on river kabul and its tributaries (shahtoot dam) which will also adversely affect water flow to Indus. We must fund the dams in Afghanistan as it will squeeze Pakistan being a agrarian economy. utilising water as per IWT by not allowing to flow it unchecked into Pakistan will be the biggest achievement to decimate Pakistan through economic means in the long term and ensure that Pakistan gets embroiled in its water scarcity issues which will calibrate its internal security problems.

  7. Mr Karnad,

    I think you have not understood the treaty correctly. The eastern rivers are India’s to start with as per the treaty. These three Rivers form only 20 per of the water in indus river basin. So all the water can be diverted from this river, as per the treaty. But the issue is that this treaty is one of a kind in the world, no where else does the upper riparian country give up rights on 80 per of the water. Pakistan every time raises objections on the run of the river dam projects on the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab. With China India has no treaty.

    Pakistan has shown no goodwill for India in the 70 years of its existence. GOI agreed to a lopsided treaty, which no longer makes sense to honour, especially when we have to deal with a habitual offender, which has continued its policy of war by other means.

    You yourself have advocated that great powers are not constrained by international norms and treaties but are driven by national interest, so I am surprised you are so alarmed by the talk of walking away from the treaty. Although GOI had said no such thing yet.

    Even if we were to walk away, it will just be a way to correct the unjust and inequitable treaty which denies the state of J&K, any right, to use it’s own water and leads to expensive power projects, that have a shorter lifetime because, Pakistan objects to any modern innovation in the dams, which it deems as against the treaty.

    Going by your own standards of real politic, don’t you see IWT as a bargaining chip, that India ought to use to make Pakistan behave. Infact, not having any water sharing treaty with Pakistan, just makes the situation more equitable viz. China and if China is so concerned of Pakistan, then may be all three countries can then negotiate a water sharing agreement, that takes care of rights of all three. That would be only win win for India, which is currently in a lose-lose situation with both her neighbours.

  8. My point about would-be great powers ignoring inconvenient treaties, etc. holds if India were to apply it across the board. Why just the Indus Waters Treaty, why not the NPT, MSTR, et al

  9. andy says:

    Think the IWT mention is a lot of saber rattling to keep the Pakistanis honest.Seems to be working,since there are reports of some kind of takeover of the jaish headquarters by the govt there.The jamat ud dawa has been banned.All this might just be cosmetic, but the messaging is in the right direction.

    Also shows how scared they are of a riled India. Not much talk of the nuclear bogey this time around,they seem to realise it won’t deter action now. Seems like India has taken a page from the Chinese playbook of playing mind games and winning the battle without going to war.

  10. Mongrel says:

    Did the IC814 passengers and their relatives or Rubaiya Sayers stop the Indian intel from killing Masood Azhar and others of his jihadi brothers?

    If shasthry, Indira and Rajeev got their fate then why was it impossible for Indian Intel to retaliate.

    Rahul Gandhi should be sued for gross negligence bordering on delinquency when he says ‘chowkidar hi Chor hai’

    He should have the courage to say ‘deshbhakt hi gaddaar hai’ if is the real progeny of two dead PMs.

  11. devraj says:

    Indian decision to free masood azhar to save lives of pessangers was right.why should indian citizen life be sacrificed for indian leaders cowardness.but after saving pessengers India should have killed masood azahar by covert operations with in 6 month of hijack.that was right answer.but our leaders fault lived him

  12. devraj says:

    Congrates to indian airforce.such airstrikes killed 300 terrorist but again it shows selfish mentality of indian leaders.as for killing 300 terrorist india sacrifices 100 soldiers every year and billions of dollors.meaningfull attempt to end terrorism is that such air strikes be done every 3 to 4 months without publicizing it for political gains.it will save precious life of indian soldiers and kill 200 to 300 terrorists at each strike and finish terrorism

  13. Apna says:

    Cricket is a 3rd rate game and its world up h as no significance except for idiot Indians.
    Certainly not worth at a cost of national pride.

  14. devraj says:

    Our beloved piloet abhinandan comes safely.but if modi stops here.it will be clear whatever modi did is to save his image and to gain in elections.i know only modi can teach pak.so please act modi ji and finish it otherwise each death of indian soilder will be your responsibilty.history will say.the most courageous leader of india failed

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