India-Pakistan stand-off: Spark or flame?

Tensions are running high between India and Pakistan over a deadly attack terrorist attack in Kashmir, with artillery and mortars fired from both sides and an Indian jet downed in a dogfight. Is this a random uptick of violence or a war in the making? On this edition of the show, we’ve heard both sides out.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: We’ll start with the Indian perspective - Ambassador Ashok K. Kantha, a former Indian envoy to China and ex-Secretary for the East at the Ministry of External Affairs, he joins us to help shed some light on the conflict. Ambassador, welcome to the show! Mr. Kantha, the most recent escalation between India and Pakistan seems to have been contained now with Pakistan releasing the captured Indian pilot and returning its commissioner to New Delhi. Well the situation is still tense in Kashmir. Is there a risk of violence breaking out again? 

AK: Yes, situation has been contained as you mentioned. Meanwhile, what has happened, the tension winding down. They're happy to see that under international pressure Pakistan has taken some steps against terrorist groups operating from its soil, but we would like to be convinced that what Pakistan is doing is not merely cosmetic in nature, that they are willing to break the long habit of sponsoring terrorist activities against India. Unless that problem is resolved, I'm afraid that this vicious cycle of terrorist actions on Indian soil leading to escalation and tensions will continue.

SS: The steps to de-escalate came quick and worked - a goodwill gesture from Pakistan saw the release of a captive Indian pilot. Can that momentum of making sense carry on forward and bring about new opportunities to improve the climate between India and Pakistan? 

AK: Yes, it is possible. There are some positive steps which are being taken. But as I mentioned much more needs to be done. There is a structural problem when it comes to India-Pakistan relations which is linked to Pakistan's sponsorship of terrorism. Pakistan has presumed that because of its nuclear weapons capability India will continue to exercise what is sometimes described as strategic restraint and not respond to terrorist activities on its soil. This time India decided otherwise. So a clear message has been sent to Pakistan. International Committee has also conveyed a very clear message to Pakistan that it’s not in its interest, it's not in the interest of regional and global peace and security that Pakistan should sponsor terrorist activities, allow them to operate with impunity from its soil. So let's see that there will be some change and some fundamental change in months and years to come. 

SS: India has claimed it inflicted major damage on the terrorist camp inside the Pakistani territory; however, Pakistani authorities deny this. Independent researchers have also cast doubt on Indian version of events, and journalists inside India who doubt the official story are feeling the pressure from the government. But at rallies, politicians are talking about hundreds of killed terrorists -  are Indian authorities exaggerating the scale of their retaliation? 

AK: No. Indian authorities have not given any official number for casualties inflicted as a result of the counter-terrorism action taken by Indian Air Force. Indian Air Force has confirmed that it hit against the targets that were given to it and it was done successfully. I think, the basic objective has been conveyed that Pakistan cannot operate with impunity, as I mentioned earlier, and that India will retaliate if such terrorist actions continue to be mounted by Pakistan on Indian soil. 

SS: It was hard to believe that the sides will actually go to all-out war over this incident, even though it was scary for a moment - what is the point of these short escalations, if the situation always stays the same after the dust has settled? 

AK: First, we need to clarify that at this stage during the recent crisis, if I may describe it as such, there was any real risk of outbreak of war between India and Pakistan. I believe that all neither side was interested in escalating the situation beyond the point. There is a strong desire on India's part at least to see that, you know, peace and stability is maintained and that we move towards more amicable relations with Pakistan. But this will require, as I mentioned earlier, some more fundamental shift in Pakistan's attitude on issues relating to terrorism. 

SS: So will this kind of thing just keep on happening between India and Pakistan forever? 

AK: No hopefully not. In fact as you can see India is a country which is doing reasonably well when it comes to its pursuit of its development agenda. India's economy is the fastest growing major economy in the world today. And we would like to concentrate on that. We do not want to be distracted by Pakistan. But incidents like Uri or Pulwama happened, so I think for India especially in a democratic set-up there’s a need to take some action. And in this case counter-terrorism steps were taken by Indian Air Force. But, as I mentioned earlier, India is not interested in escalating tensions with Pakistan. We'd like to have more amicable relations Pakistan. And if Pakistan really observes the use of terrorism as an instrument of state policy we can move down a more positive path in relations between India and Pakistan.

SS: The underlying issue behind the terror attacks is the status of Jammu and Kashmir - an issue that seems to be frozen in time, with neither side willing to start doing anything about it. How much longer will New Delhi and Islamabad tolerate a powder keg like that which can bring them to an all-out war that nobody wants? Why is the issue of Kashmir not moving along for decades now? Even Palestinians and Israelis have managed to make some progress since 1947, surely it’s easier to do that for Pakistanis and Indians... 

AK: You know, as far as Jammu and Kashmir is concerned from India's perspective the only issue that remains unresolved is Pakistan’s illegal occupation of parts of Jammu and Kashmir. That's our position. But when it comes to tensions between India and Pakistan there are more fundamental issues which are closely linked to nature of politics in Pakistan, the way the military establishment dominates politics in Pakistan. And they have a certain vested interest in promoting hostility and animosity directed against India. So this is one issue where Pakistan needs to do some introspection and see how its own economy has been affected because of the pursuit of certain policies, how the radicalisation of the society which is not at all good for Pakistan apart from all problems Pakistan creates for its neighbors - whether it’s India, whether it’s Iran, whether it's China. I think that problem needs to be addressed by Pakistan quite strongly and sincerely.   

SS: Pakistan has repeatedly denied supporting terrorists such as Jaish-e-Mohammed, and Islamabad said it’s ready to cooperate with India on combating extremists. Is it fair to hold Pakistan responsible for actions of non-state actors? I mean, for example, the Bataclan attacks in Paris were carried out by Belgians - but we don’t expect France to bomb Belgium in return, do we? 

AK: I think there is a very clear pattern, a long-established pattern of terrorist activities directed against India - it was recently in Pulwama, before that we had Uri, we had 26/11 in 2008, when there were attacks in Mumbai. There was attack on Indian Parliament in 2001 and in all these incidents there's absolutely no doubt that there's involvement of terrorist groups which are operating with impunity from Pakistani soil or from territory controlled by Pakistan. I think this situation needs to be changed and India's patience in this regard is frankly not limitless. There is a lot of anger in India that Pakistan is unwilling to change its habit in this regard. We will continue to develop. Despite all these problems the Indian economy and society will continue to progress. But this is a situation which is not acceptable to us. India has been a very responsible power, responsible society and politics and country, but our responsibility should not be taken as a sign or manifestation of helplessness as Pakistan was inclined to do. That's why in this case Indian Air Force had to take certain action directed against Jaish-e-Mohammed facilities which are located in Pakistan.   

SS: Just last question to wrap it all up. The terror attack in Kashmir was preceded by a terror attack in Iran carried out by the groups that is also allegedly aided or at least tolerated by Pakistan. I have heard Indian and Afghan politicians accused Pakistan of directly aiding terror groups many times and Islamabad always denies it. Why doesn't the Indian government publicly show irrefutable proof of Pakistan's support of terrorism to put an end to this debate once and for all? 

AK: It's not a question of India taking a certain position. In fact the international community is fully convinced. You just ask people in Afghanistan, you ask people in Iran, you ask people in USA, in various countries. I think there's absolutely no doubt that Pakistan has a certain true proven track record of sponsoring terrorism. It tends to believe that terrorism can be used as what is euphemistically described as some subconventional means for pressurising India and other neighboring countries. There is no absence of proof. In fact if you look at the action taken by 1267 Committee of the UN Security Council. They have listed many terrorist groups and terrorists operating out of Pakistan. That's not action taken by India. That's action taken by UN Security Council 1267 al-Qaida Committee. So it's not a question of India taking a position and others not accepting. I think that's something which is being internationally acknowledged that Pakistan is a problem when it comes to its sponsorship of terrorism.   

SS: Alright, Ambassador, thank you very much for this interview. Best of luck with everything!

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SS: In the first part of the show, we heard the Indian point of view on the escalation of tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad over the deadly terrorist attack in Kashmir. Now, Fawad Ahmed Chaudhry, Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting, is here to present the Pakistani perspective. Mr. Chaudhry, welcome to the show!

Fawad Ahmed Chaudhry: Thank you for having me. 

SS: So, Mr. Chaudhry, India says its planes struck a terror camp inside Pakistan, but Islamabad denies this and says India hit nothing. How is anyone to believe anything about these conflicting account of events? 

FC: Well, yes, you are absolutely right. Everyone will have their own perspective. We will have our own perspective, India will have its own perspective. And then, what one should do, one should look at the neutral accounts. So you can go and see the Reuters story on that, you can see the international media reports, you can always see what the independent news agencies have reported. And the fact is that the kind of, the failure of the Indian Air Force has actually, you know, I think, has damaged Prime Minister Modi's narrative also, the kind of narrative he was trying to build about Indian Army and the defence forces, that has shattered, and actually, it has shattered the myth of invincibility of Prime Minister Modi himself. So I think it has hurt a lot the Indian claims that they have done so much, that they are almost close to be a superpower. So this whole story and myth has actually been shattered by this very immature actions by India. 

SS: So the terror attack that started the conflict was carried out from Pakistani-controlled territory. At about the same time, another group of terrorists attacked Iran, also from Pakistani-controlled territory. Why is Pakistan putting itself at risk of retaliations from its neighbors by tolerating terrorist organizations within its borders? Or are the extremist groups too powerful for the Pakistani authorities to control? 

FC: Well, frankly, there is no evidence to that. So we have historical issues with India, so they try to blame everything on Pakistan. The fact of the matter is, even if you see today’s United Nations Human Rights Report, you will see the atrocities of Indian army in Kashmir have actually created so much hatred for India in Kashmir, that even now the very own Indian writers, the independent, you know, the media people, they are also reporting that such incidents are actually indigenous. And in the first speech, when the Prime Minister of Pakistan asked India that if you're alleging something, so let’s share evidence of that. We have not received any evidence. Then we offered joint, then we asked for investigation of any kind, we have not heard anything about that. Then we asked, let's talk on that, we have not heard anything of that. And actually, the Prime Minister Modi has used this incident more for his personal political gains, and that is actually problematic when a politician that refuses to care about the lives of hundreds and millions of people, and just, you know, focus on his own politics. That's actually unfortunate. 

SS: So you're saying there is no proof or evidence. Does this mean that... Are you saying Indian Air Force just struck Pakistan without any cause? 

FC: Of course, of course. And this is what Pakistan has demanded from India. And on the very first day, when they alleged that some organization based in Pakistan has claimed responsibility, and there is evidence of that, Prime Minister Imran Khan went on air, he asked India, let’s share that evidence, we are looking forward to that. And if you prove, provide us evidence, we are ready for action. And later on, he also offered India investigation into this incident. He asked for the talks also. But our offers have never met with any, you know, substantive counter-offer. Rather, India has just tried to create a war frenzy in their part. And now it's a consensus even in India that Prime Minister Modi is actually trying to use this incident for his own political gains.   

SS: So Pakistan says it is ready to cooperate with India on the anti-terror front after this latest flare-up. How serious can this cooperation get? I mean, can we really see two countries that were just on the brink of war becoming anti-terror allies all of a sudden?

FC: Look, this is the only option available. How can... I mean, we have three options. We are neighbors, for 70 years we have fought three wars, we can fight another war. The second option is we keep weakening each other. India actually sponsors terrorism in Pakistan, and from Kulbhushan Jadhav to the arrest of Latif Mehsud, we have enough evidence to prove that India sponsors terrorism in Pakistan, they sponsor terrorism in Balochistan, and they continuously try to weaken us, and, of course, we can always try to weaken them. And the third option is that let's become, you know, let's talk to each other and let's become a partner in fighting terrorism. Now, we are offering this third option to India, what else we can do? This is what we are trying to pursue to Indian leadership, that the only way forward is that if we talk to each other, if we talk on the issues, and Kashmir is obviously one real issue that Pakistan and India need to talk about. How can you have, you know, they have... The Kashmir has become the most militarized territory in the world, with every ten Kashmiris have one Indian soldier on them. So this is the kind of environment they have created in Kashmir. So we would like India to cooperate with us, and we can actually resolve many of our issues. 

SS: Prime Minister Imran Khan has shown calm and restraint by freeing the Indian captive pilot, and he is the man that wanted mending of the Indo-Pakistani ties. Can this become the foundation for an all-round thaw in the relationship between the two countries? 

FC: Well, we are looking forward to that. We want this to become... We want to move forward, and Prime Minister Imran Khan, actually, even before taking oath, offered India that if you take one step, we will take two steps. But after even coming to, after taking oath and after taking power, Imran Khan has not changed his policy. We opened the Kartarpur border for India, we started peace incentives in this region, but actually, we have not been responded with that, with the same same courtesies. Actually, Prime Minister Modi, now the wide perception is that Prime Minister Modi is actually trying to create this war frenzy environment for his own elections. And unless we have these elections over in India, the chances of moving forward towards peace are really difficult. But actually, we are waiting for those elections to happen, and certainly, we can start again. 

SS: India claims Pakistan used its American-bought F-16s to engage Indian warplanes, which goes against the contract Pakistan signed with the US when it was obtaining the F-16s. The rule was that the planes shouldn't be used against another country. What kind of an American reaction to this can be expected? Will Pakistan be further sanctioned for this? What are you thinking? 

FC: Well, not at all. Actually, we paid full amount for those F-16s. And as far as, I think, we have not violated any contract in in this incident, no F-16s had been used in this incident, as Pakistan has already made it clear. But, you know, these... We actually don't want to get into war. We don't want these incidents to happen. We are standing for peace, we want things to be resolved without resorting to F-16s, and F-17s, and, you know, the bombs, we want things to be resolved peacefully. But if a war is imposed on us, obviously then, we we know how to fight wars. 

SS: So the United States has long been an ally of Pakistan, but recent American Presidents are growing cold towards Islamabad over the alleged support of terrorism, and Washington's reaction to this most recent crisis was more supportive and sympathetic of India, actually. So should Pakistan not count on American help anymore, is that door closing for Islamabad? 

FC: Well, frankly, we want good relations with the USA. We also want good relations with the USSR. There's a historic, you know, you can say, a dilemma of Pakistan's relationship with the USA, and it keeps changing. You know, when USA... The perception is that when the USA needs Pakistan, it becomes friendly, and when they don't need Pakistan, they become enemies, if not enemies, they become stranger. So... But this is the kind of relationship that we always have with the USA, but now we want a strong relationship based on economy. And that is the same kind of relationship we want to have with Russia also. And, as you know, in the recent past, Pakistan and Russia have come close to each other. So maybe, there are some, I would say, some issues vis-a-vis the USA. But we are ready to resolve, I mean, we are a sovereign country, we want our relationship, independent relationship with all the countries. But certainly, the relationships are based on mutual interest, and those interests will take the lead. 

SS: So, China is becoming closer with Pakistan. It is helping Pakistan in the UN and investing in the country as part of the Silk Road project. Does Islamabad expect Chinese help in case of a real conflict with India as well? 

FC: Frankly, we are not thinking in terms of conflict. We are thinking more in terms of peaceful resolution of things. But as far as this conflict is concerned, I think Pakistan has received huge word support after this incident. We have received, as you know, Russia has offered mediation, President Trump has asked for restraint, the European Union has actually said that India must not escalate things. So I think we are not thinking in terms of conflict, and for this defense cooperation, or, you know, in this conflict... But with China, obviously, Pakistan has a very long-standing historic relationships, and these relationships are based on economy. The CPEC project that China is investing in Pakistan is obviously such a huge economic project, that we would like, even we have offered other countries to come and invest in Pakistan. So we would like a relationship with China and with other countries based on our economic, you know, benefits, and we want to achieve peace for that. And normalization with India and stability in Afghanistan are two most important, I would say, two most important goals of our government. 

SS: Alright, Mr. Chaudhry, thank you for this interview. We were talking to Fawad Ahmed Chaudhry, Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting, discussing the recent escalation between Islamabad and New Delhi. Earlier in the programme we've heard the Indian vision of these events from Ambassador Ashok Kantha, a former Indian envoy to China and ex-Secretary for the East at the Ministry of External Affairs. That's it for this edition of SophieCo. I'll see you next time.