India, Pakistan attend SCO military exercises: New Delhi must continue to separate politics from multilateral interests

Something quite fascinating has just happened at Chebarkul, a Russian town located 1,800 kilometres east of Moscow. A not-too-reported event has generated different types of emotions among people in India who are aware of the happenings there. It was a joint training event of the armed forces of the eight full members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), organised for the first time after the induction of both India and Pakistan into the grouping's membership.

It was in Qingdao, China that the Chinese- and Russian-sponsored regional cooperation body, which now includes member countries from both Central and South Asia, saw the political and diplomatic optics being fully played out with the new expanded membership. The SCO was founded at a summit in Shanghai in 2001 by the Presidents of Russia, China, Kyrgyz Republic, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. India and Pakistan were earlier associate members but became full members last year after which the expanded summit took place at Qingdao in June this year, which was attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The Chebarkul event saw the Indian and Pakistan armies coming together to train along with other member armies, for international security related contingencies, to include counter-terrorism, peacekeeping and disaster management. Before describing what international military cooperation training exercises are all about it may be appropriate to consider why the Chebarkul event was considered awkward by many in India, including a couple of television channels.

After Modi's serious effort to break the ice with Pakistan through his surprise and unscheduled visit to Lahore on 25 December, 2015, the years 2016 and 2017 saw just the opposite of what India had intended. The Pathankot terror attack was followed by the Uri attack in Sep 2016 and the Nagrota attack in November of the same year. India put on hold an attempted process to find an elusive peace with Pakistan, immediately after Pathankot and subsequent events cemented its resolve that peace talks and sponsored terror could not go on hand-in-hand — an opinion, supported by a very large segment, developed in India as the response to Pakistan's continued sponsorship of terror on Indian soil, particularly in Jammu and Kashmir.

Rationally, this opinion frowns on attempts by private bodies, peace groups (often called peaceniks), media houses and other advocates of unconditional talks with Pakistan; the argument of the latter elements is that without engagement and talks none of the differences between India and Pakistan can be ever resolved. The first opinion remains fixed on the resolve that no talks are possible unless there is demonstrated intent by Pakistan on a series of demands including the prosecution of those involved with the Mumbai terror attacks of November 2008. This point-of-view also promotes the belief that any private initiatives involving people-to-people contact or other means of engagement only demonstrate Indian weakness to pressurise Pakistan since the latter continuously attempts to legitimise the proxy war it has chosen to wage against India since 1989.

Now this is where the perceptional paradox arises with context to the event at Chebarkul.

On one hand, cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Sidhu's visit to Pakistan and the spontaneous hug with the Pakistan army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, during the inauguration of Prime Minister Imran Khan, has been hugely criticised by some who advocate a no-engagement policy. A significant section of the media took Sidhu to the cleaners. Just when the idea was getting well embedded that India would not compromise on the strong messaging it intended to continue sending to Pakistan and the international community about no possibility of talks or engagement of any kind, there are suddenly many images of the Indian and Pakistan armies coming together at Chebarkul.

A recording of a friendly volleyball game between the two contingents has been made available for viewing on social media.

While the Indian Army unit won all three games in that match, the atmosphere shows friendly cheering and most interestingly many Pakistan Army officers coming over to the Indian team and warmly complimenting its members. There has been feeble protest against the Indian Army's involvement in joint training with the Pakistan Army and the government has expressed nothing to say that such events won't take place again.

At this juncture it's good to revert to the Chebarkul event and guess what else would have happened there. Among many other activities, a simple tactical setting would have been projected and battle procedures and drills would have been discussed in order to work out how to respond to these situations while identifying what aspects of interoperability were necessary to refine them. The Indian and Pakistani contingents would be much at home with each other with commonality of language, terminologies and even formats for orders and briefings. Visits to each other's camps and social events involving international cooking would surely have been scheduled.

It may be worthwhile to recall that Indian and Pakistani peacekeeping contingents have often served together on a single UN mission: Somalia, Congo and Sudan were three of these where officers from the two armies have exercised operational command or some control over each other's contingents. All this without a blemish. In fact, the relief of the Pakistani armour squadron from airport security duties by a half squadron of just-arrived Indian tanks in Somalia in October 1993, saved the day for the US Embassy in Mogadishu. Pakistani tanks could then immediately move to secure the embassy that was under serious threat.

There are professional international responsibilities of the Indian Army that call for social inter-mixing, joint training and operations with the Pakistan Army. It is not known to many that Indian officers attend training courses abroad alongside Pakistani officers and have the best of relationships extending to their families. They work together as part of UN Military Observer teams, on staffs of missions and at the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) in the UN headquarters New York. India's officers and soldiers know exactly how to conduct themselves with military efficiency and correctness; the dignity of the Indian Army being the issue highest in their priority.

The SCO event at Chebarkul is nothing unusual. In a resetting world there will be many such events and India will appear churlish if it is to refuse attendance by its army representatives in order to score political brownie points that may not translate to the diplomatic sphere.

It's best for the nation to continue abiding by the policy the government is following: To separate the political aspects of the relationship with Pakistan from other multilateral interests and commitments. Even the media would be well-advised to look beyond the horizon and see the larger gains from international military engagements that could only incidentally involve the Pakistan Army too. Perhaps the much in-demand strategy within India, of engaging with the actual rulers of Pakistan's destiny (its army), could well have had its beginning there, at Chebarkul in the bleak Russian landscape. The town is known more for one of the largest meteorite strikes in recent history. One just wonders whether that was a good omen.