India’s narrative control

UN’s role as the referee in Indo-Pak affairs was diluted in different ways after the Shimla Agreement

India abides by the Shimla Agreement 1972 and thus strongly believes and projects the principle of bilateralism in the pursuit of resolution of differences with Pakistan and the general conduct of Indo-Pak relations. What sensitised the Indian leadership towards this concept was the bitter experience of dealing with blatant US support for Pakistan, including the gunboat diplomacy attempted against us through the deployment of USS Enterprise and elements of the US Seventh Fleet in the Bay of Bengal in Dec 1971. India then believed in complete non-alliance and was a credible leader of the Non-Aligned Movement while Pakistan was a part of US-led strategic alliances and a member of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC). It was imperative for India to isolate the India Pakistan relationship from the vagaries of international Cold War politics and keep the OIC reasonably cultivated to retain any strategic advantage gained after the victory of 1971. That is how bilateralism became an essential part of the narrative. Pakistan in its desperation to have the 93,000 prisoners released signed on the dotted line after a virtual walkout threatened by the maverick Zulfiqar Bhutto. It never had the intention of following anything which it had agreed upon, least of all bilateralism. Thus today we have a piquant situation whereby we quote  Shimla Agreement as the authority for our dealings and Pakistan, although a signatory to it, flouts even its basics. The United Nations (UN) whose role as the referee dominated the India Pakistan narrative till 1971 lost its primacy, at least for some time until Pakistan revived it.

The role of the UN was diluted in different ways after the Shimla Agreement. India knew the interests of various countries in support of Pakistan. The doctrine of bilateralism came handier after 1989 when India lost the balancing support of the Soviet Union. However, this was the stage when diplomatic intervention entered the scene. Pakistan conducted its army level exercise Zarb-e-Momin very close to the borders, in early 1990, immediately around the time Kashmir was erupting in the streets and the Kashmiri Pandits were being hounded out of their native land by Pakistan-sponsored criminal separatists. The American statesman Robert Gates (later Secretary of Defence) stepped into the task of preventing an India Pakistan armed showdown through his famous ‘shuttle diplomacy’. It was not an attempt at mediation for any conflict resolution, but a firefighting effort to douse flames even before they arose. Three years prior to that in a similar emerging crisis both Ziaul Haq and Rajiv Gandhi chose to engage directly in the wake of exercise Brasstacks conducted by India under its highly competent Army Chief, General K Sundarji.

Indian control of the narrative on the J&K issue after the Shimla Agreement was well embedded by acts such as not giving any official status to the United Nations Military Observer Group (UNMOGIP). Diplomatically India did well not to draw any controversy. It just ignored the past UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions with a simple rationale; that they had been overtaken by history and Pakistan’s attempts at using force to alter the status quo had rendered these null and void. India’s perception was clear that any efforts towards rescinding UN resolutions would only contribute to more internationalisation which would work to Pakistan’s advantage.

The unstated but clearly adopted doctrine of ‘war by a thousand cuts’ launched by Pakistan against India in 1989, has an important aspect built into it. That was the necessity of keeping levels of sub-conventional violence high which would force India to open other fronts which could quickly transcend to levels of a nuclear exchange. Pakistan uses this narrative to caution the international community in the UN and elsewhere clearly in violation of the Shimla Agreement. The other ploy is to keep alive the importance of UNMOGIP which functions under an awkwardness of performing its tasks with the assistance of only one of the parties to the conflict, Pakistan. The latter perceives that through UNMOGIP it can build empathy for its cause. In unofficial exchanges Pakistan harps on the availability of UNMOGIP as the unbiased element which can help reduce LoC ceasefire violations. India has not fallen for any of these ploys but clearly when many aspects of diplomatic and internal security strategy become dependent upon a single day at the UN General Assembly the narrative control could become questionable. For the last one month, the focus of the strategic community in India has been on September 27, 2019, when the Indian and Pakistani PMs will address the UNGA. The stark difference in content is known well before the addresses; PM Modi’s focus will be on development, climate change and economics with passing references to transnational terror. Imran Khan’s emphasis will be on India, Kashmir and India again. Like in other forums little traction is likely to be gained by Pakistan but J&K as an issue would have been placed upon record. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has recently made some observations on J&K but generally alluded to bilateral resolution between India and Pakistan, just as the European Parliament.

So what should be India’s future tack? Should India ask UNMOGIP to leave and then work towards the eventual withdrawal of the resolutions dating back to 1949 so that J&K does not remain an international issue of concern.

The latter is not going to be easy despite a flurry of support for India. The former will only help focus international attention and perhaps show India in poor light. The best option appears to lie within, as most solutions do. That is, to launch a major national campaign to fully and finally integrate J&K with India. It needs a social, political, economic, governance and development campaign with all structures for ensuring peace and stability free from interference. Let transparency eventually return as it invariably has at all previous times. So even while the international community supports India’s stance on J&K let it not be a passing phase. It needs to be cemented success, in fact, concrete success. That can happen best with a return to full energy engagement, development, transparency and early return of democracy, perhaps even at a slight risk. It will set the best narrative for the UN and any other international engagement.

The writer is a former GOC of India’s Srinagar based 15 Corps, now associated with Vivekanand International Foundation and the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.

This article was originally posted by DNA India. It was posted here with the author's permission.