India’s prime minister made a surprise stop Friday in Pakistan to meet his counterpart in a richly symbolic gesture likely to add momentum to a tentative reconciliation process between the nuclear-armed neighbors.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif embraced India’s Narendra Modi at the airport in the eastern city of Lahore. They walked from the plane holding hands and smiling broadly. The visit, the first by an Indian prime minister in more than a decade, coincided with Mr. Sharif’s birthday.
“This was a goodwill visit, in which it was decided that both countries will have to examine each other’s concerns, to understand each other’s issues, and open up ways to peace,” said Aizaz Chaudhry, Pakistan’s foreign secretary.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said on Wednesday that the terms set by India for the Indo-Pak dialogue were “unacceptable” to Pakistan and warned the international community that the world would ignore the dangers of rising tensions in South Asia at its own peril.
Speaking to the annual United Nations General Assembly, Mr Sharif said Pakistan could not ignore India’s “unprecedented” arms build-up and would “take whatever measures are necessary to maintain credible deterrence.”
On rare days does a speech that is not made by the Prime Minister makes headlines. Today is one such day. This morning, newspapers across the country carried the speech of Eenam Gambhir, the First Secretary in the Permanent Mission of India to the UN, on their front pages.
In sharp remarks, Gambhir exercised India’s Right of Reply during the General Debate of the 71st session UN General Assembly on Wednesday.
Describing the Pakistan PM’s speech as “a long tirade”, Gambhir attacked Pakistan on the topic of sponsorship of terrorism. The words used were less diplomatic, but definitely no less impactful.
“The land of Taxila, one of the greatest learning centres of ancient times, is now host to the Ivy League of terrorism. It attracts aspirants and apprentices from all over the world. The effects of its toxic curriculum are felt across the globe,” she said during her speech.
Needless to say, when you’re talking about two countries that share a long border, lots of historical bad blood, and a commitment to increasing their nuclear stockpiles, you’d prefer to see stories like the one from December over the ones that have been coming out of the UNGA this week. Let’s just say it’s unlikely that Modi will be helping Sharif celebrate his birthday this year. The cause of the bad blood goes all the way back to, well, Sunday, when four militants stormed the Indian army base at Uri, in Kashmir, and killed 17 Indian soldiers before they themselves were killed. This is the largest militant attack in Kashmir in some time, and the deadliest attack on Indian forces in almost two decades.
Tensions in Kashmir have been running high since July 8, when Indian security forces tracked down and killed Burhan Wani, one of the commanders of the Kashmiri separatist group Hizbul Mujahideen. Though Hizbul Mujahideen is considered a terrorist group by India, the EU, and the US, that sentiment isn’t shared by many Kashmiris, who took to the streets as word of Wani’s death spread. The unrest, larger than anything Kashmir has seen for several years, caused the Indian government to impose a curfew across the whole of the province, which it lifted at the end of August and then quickly began reimposing bit by bit. Last week it announced a full, state-wide reimposition of the curfew just in time for Eid, but the unrest and violence has continued anyway.
After the Uri attack, India, as it is wont to do, blamed it on Pakistan. Pakistan, as it is wont to do, denied this. And, you know, you kind of have to pick your poison–India always lays attacks like this at Pakistan’s doorstep, but it’s not like Pakistani intelligence hasn’t cultivated its share of terrorists both in Kashmir and Afghanistan. On the other hand, it’s not like India hasn’t given the people of Kashmir plenty of reason to resist Indian rule there, with violence if necessary, and if we’ve learned anything over the past 15 or so years it should be that militants don’t necessarily need state sponsors to carry out very lethal attacks. India’s insistence that the attackers’ gear had “Pakistani markings” really isn’t enough to prove Pakistan’s involvement.
Modi is under some domestic pressure to retaliate, which is probably what he wants to do anyway, given his and his party’s political leanings. And that brings us to the UNGA, where I think it’s fair to say that Sharif exercised some bad judgment in opting to push the Kashmir issue despite the fallout from Sunday’s attack still being fresh in everybody’s mind. He’d apparently been planning for a while to use his UNGA speech to talk about Kashmir and Indian intransigence–including its arms buildup, even though Pakistan’s addition of tactical nukes to its arsenal is easily the most provocative recent military build-up in South Asia–but then Uri happened and, well, this is why pencils have erasers, you know? But Sharif decided to stick to his plan, and India, already seething, clearly didn’t take it well.
We’ll have to wait, though probably not that long, to see how Pakistan responds to being put in the Ivy League (of terrorism), which except for that last bit in parentheses is actually quite flattering. The good news is that as long as these two countries are insulting each other, they’re not doing anything more serious than that. Sticks and
stones tactical nuclear weapons, and so forth. The bad news is that, among the insults, there seems to be a disturbing trend lately of relatively prominent Indian figures just sort of casually commenting on what would happen if India were to, say, nuke Pakistan. And that seems like the kind of thing that can, over time, lead to a very bad place.