India has feasted diplomatically on Pakistan’s complicity in terrorist acts over the past two decades. There was a credible enough case made for the UN Financial Assistance Task Force (FATF) to put Pakistan on its sanctions’ ‘grey list’ owing to Islamabad’s well-known role in mobilising Islamist militants from West Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa to replicate the Taliban success in Afghanistan in Jammu and Kashmir.
The troubles began for Pakistan with the 9/11 strike in 2001, propelling to the forefront terrorism and Islamic extremists as existential threats to international order. Islamabad’s use of jihadis began to draw censure and, in the wake of the 26/11 seaborne attack on Mumbai by Pakistan-based terrorists in 2008, sealed that country’s standing as a sponsor of terrorism, legitimating India’s retaliatory actions. For Pakistan, the political and economic costs began to outweigh the politico-military gains from using terrorism to wage asymmetric warfare. Once the pariah status took hold, foreign countries became wary of dealing with Pakistan, a Pakistani passport became a liability, foreign direct investment dried up, its economy plummeted, exacerbating, in the process, societal faultlines. Even the Gulf countries, hitherto staunch supporters, began to distance themselves.
This allowed Prime Minister Narendra Modi to pitch India as a partner of choice for these states, consolidate its position as supplier of cheap labour and safe destination for Arab petro-dollar investment. The warming of ties also permitted these Arab states to leaven their autocratic reputation by associating with a democratic India. The muted response of the United Arab Emirates to the abrogation of Article 370 and Saudi Arabia’s agreeing with Delhi that it was an “internal matter” crowned India’s West Asia policy, handing PM Modi his only real foreign policy success.
And then the corona pandemic struck. For the first time, Islamabad saw a clear way to not only blunt India’s charge of fostering terrorism but to push Delhi on the back foot. This they did by conflating the actions of local authorities to corral attendees of the Tablighi Jamaat meet in Delhi as potential COVID-19 spreaders with three unconnected issues—alleged human rights abuses in J&K, ill treatment of Muslims under the BJP dispensations in Uttar Pradesh and other states, and the Citizenship Amendment Act, which triggered nationwide protests and was described by Islamabad as a “pogrom” against Muslims.
It was this storm of supposedly anti-Muslim measures that burst on the Indian government, something Islamabad gleefully capitalised on and Islamic countries could not ignore. Pakistan, in any case, was working since August last year to erode the support for India in the Islamic bloc. In February-end this year, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) urged India to end violence against Muslims, and Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan asked Delhi “to stop the massacre” of Muslims, a phrase repeated by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamanei, on March 5. Following the April 28 release of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) report recommending that the state department designate India as a country of ‘particular concern’, Kuwait condemned the “violence” against Indian Muslims, an emboldened Gulf Cooperation Council may follow suit, and Arab activists are using social media to excoriate the Indian government for fuelling “Islamophobia”.
India is in a pickle, its policy of equipoise between Sunni Gulf states as source of energy and remittances (worth $80 billion annually) and Shia Iran as pivot, and its plan for a south-north road and rail grid out of Chabahar port affording access to Afghanistan and Central Asia while helping the Indian Navy outflank its Chinese counterpart in Gwadar collapsing under the weight of the growing disillusionment of Islamic countries with India. This may also hurt Indian strategic interests in Southeast Asia, especially in Muslim-majority Malaysia and Indonesia. With Al Qaeda and the Islamic State weakening and terrorism off centre-stage, international relations are returning to their old moorings where human rights matter. Which is why Pakistan now has “organised cruelties against Indian Muslims” to bludgeon India with every time Delhi cries “terrorism”.
This piece published as ‘Up Front’ column in India Today, issue dated May 18, 2020, at https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/up-front/story/20200518-pakistan-s-diplomatic-counter-offensive-1676132-2020-05-09