The attack at the Pathankot Air Force station has come close on the heels of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s high profile visit to Pakistan – just as the Kargil invasion followed prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s path-breaking visit to Lahore in 1999. Like that invasion, this attack was clearly meant to derail the peace process now underway. It must not be allowed to succeed.
Many observers have poked fun at the two prime ministers for walking hand-in-hand a few days ago. In fact, that may also be seen as symbolising how much of a risk both were willing to take with their image. Each invested huge political capital in that evening’s bonhomie, which took place just eight days before the Pathankot attack.
According to those in the loop, the Lahore stopover was Modi’s idea. The two national security advisors and other high-ranking officials gave it shape over the previous few weeks. In this light, the induction of recently retired Lt Gen Nasser Khan Janjua as Pakistan’s national security advisor could be seen as Nawaz Sharif’s effort to bring his army on board a process which was strongly backed by the West – and by Russia too when Modi was there just before his trip to Afghanistan, and then Pakistan.
Nevertheless, an attack such as the one at Pathankot was almost predictable. A section, if not the whole of, the Pakistan Army has always been determined to keep open the option of violence against India. The Kargil invasion was not the first time it happened. Preparations for the 1965 war began within days of the bold peace proposal, which Sheikh Abdullah took to Pakistan in May 1964. There was almost constant shelling at the border and the Line of Control from about June 1964.
Indeed, to blame a war-mongering section of the Pakistan Army for such attacks may be too mild an analysis. The US has discovered to its deep chagrin over the past 15 years — if not long before 9/11 — that the ruling establishment in Pakistan is adept at playing both sides simultaneously.
It has always denied links with some of the various warrior forces it manages – from Dawood Ibrahim to Hafiz Sayeed, from the Taliban to Osama Bin Laden, and the range of Kashmiri armed groups from the JKLF to Hizb-ul Mujahideen. Pakistan continues to deny being behind the Mumbai attack, and the various bold moves up to the attack on the Gurdaspur police station last summer, and beyond that.
It is currently going out of its way to portray itself as having nothing to do with the present militancy in Kashmir. Nothing has been heard in public of the charismatic young Hizb militant commander, Burhanuddin of Tral, since his high-profile summer of motivational videos and visits to various parts of south Kashmir. In fact, many in Kashmir believe he has gone silent because he has crossed over to Pakistan. Perhaps he has been summoned, to keep militancy down.
Those involved in rapprochement with Pakistan over the past three months emphasise that militant activity stopped during the last trimester of 2015. Clearly, the Pakistani establishment went out of its way to stop violence at least until the process had come to a climactic point with the prime minister’s visit to Pakistan.
That visit took place on 25 December, ostensibly after a telephone call by Modi from Kabul that morning to wish Sharif on his birthday. Modi stopped over in Lahore and went thence to the Sharif family’s Raiwind palace that evening to attend Sharif’s granddaughter’s wedding.
Now, the attack at Pathankot will give a new edge to the meeting of foreign secretaries, which is slated for mid-January. It would not be the first time that talks were being held with Pakistan under the shadow of a major show of belligerence – albeit a deniable one.
Pakistan’s provocations tend to be deniable, while China’s are generally more open. The latter conducted its most powerful nuclear test during a visit by president R Venkataraman in 1992. It had invaded Vietnam while Vajpayee was there as foreign minister in 1979.
Essentially, such attacks are part of a strategy by both countries to show India that they do not engage in talks from a position of weakness. It’s something like a schoolyard bully giving one a bit of a jab before holding out a hand of friendship — to show that he’s still the man. For Pakistan, such moves have another important function — to send a message to the home constituency that the Pakistan Army knows how to deal with the big bad guy next-door.
Ever since Governor-general Mohammad Ali Jinnah invited India’s leaders for a trilateral meeting with Jammu and Kashmir’s leaders on 2 November 1947, almost any planned engagement with Pakistan has been fraught. The most successful initiatives have been informal ones – Nehru’s meeting with Prime Minister Bogra on the sidelines of the coronation in London in 1953, Vajpayee’s Lahore visit (which ostensibly came about through an invitation given in an interview), Vajpayee’s reaching out to Pakistan during a speech in Srinagar (about which he did not consult even his closest associates), and now Modi’s Raiwind visit. Let us hope the Pathankot attack will not succeed in putting the brakes on this new peace process.