Written by Zainab Akhter.

Relations between India and Pakistan, especially since the Pulwama attack, are going through a very tumultuous period, with mixed signals being sent on both sides of the border. On the one hand, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan is employing the carrot approach, with talk of peace and dialogue, while on the other, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is choosing the policy of the stick, dealing with Pakistan with an iron fist. Pakistan wishes to prioritise the Kartarpur Corridor as one of the confidence-building measures (CBMs) between the two nations, but India first wants to talk about terrorism sponsored by Pakistan.

Has Pulwama sent India-Pakistan relations into an uncertain quagmire? Will the mixed signals push the relationship further towards uncertainty and chaos?

One wrong signal and everything goes back to square one. It is high time that India and Pakistan started to send the right signals.

When Modi became prime minister in India, there were soft whispers in the corridors of power and among the general public that he would use his hard power policy to deal with Pakistan and the issue of terrorism. Next cut to Modi’s swearing-in ceremony, where he surprised everyone by inviting Nawaz Sharif (then prime minister of Pakistan) to the event. A second surprise was Modi’s brief stopover in Lahore to visit Sharif on his birthday, sending positive signals of ‘co-existence as peaceful neighbours’.

Soon enough, though, due to internal political pressures – especially within his right-wing BJP party – Modi switched to the policy of the stick, with which he will most probably continue until the end of the general elections. Imran Khan’s government, meanwhile, which is now almost a year old, has plenty of time to experiment with its policy towards India. It desperately wishes to send the right signals, mainly due to international pressure to cut its financing of terror.

It is an open secret that Pakistan shelters terrorist groups on its soil, especially those waging a jihadi war in Kashmir. The link between the suicide bomber of the 14 February Pulwama attack and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), based in Pakistan’s Punjab, has once again brought Pakistan into the crosshairs of international anti-terror organisations such as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). It should be noted that Pakistan is already on FATF’s greylist for sponsoring terror, and FATF warned at a recent meeting that if Pakistan does not take measures to clamp down on terrorist groups, it might graduate onto the blacklist, which would be suicidal for Pakistan.

Therefore, at a time when Imran Khan wants the world to see his positive traits as a policy-maker by releasing the Indian pilot Abhinandan (captured as a prisoner of war) and stressing the importance of the Kartarpur Corridor, the confusing statements about the health of Masood Azhar (founder of JeM) and China’s veto against the UN designating Azhar as a global terrorist are sending all the wrong signals about Pakistan.

Post-Pulwama, the Indian government was under immense pressure to retaliate for the killing of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) officers.  Two weeks later it did so with an air strike on an alleged terrorist base at Balakot in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. Labelling the Balakot air strike as a ‘non-military intervention’, the Indian government once again sent confusing signals about the motive for the attack. The downing of an Indian Air Force plane involved in the Balakot strike by the Pakistani Air Force and the capture and subsequent release of its pilot Abhinandan raised further questions about the capability, motivation and aim of India’s supposedly non-military intervention in Balakot.

South Asia expert Michael Kugelman depicts this confused state of India in his recent article ‘Pulwama and after’, in which he opines that while India may have ‘lost the battle of perceptions’, it has still ‘won the war of interests’. Referring to India’s Balakot strike, he writes: ‘Consider New Delhi’s performance in the recent crisis, its rhetoric was bombastic and at times sarcastic. It struggled to bring clarity to the conflicting details surrounding its retaliatory strike on Pakistan. And Prime Minister Narendra Modi never addressed the nation during India’s worst security crisis in years.’

Kugelman is right that India has won the battle of interests, and this on two fronts: first, post-Pulwama, the Modi government has been able to draw the attention of the international community back to the terror sanctuaries in Pakistan; and second, on the home front, Modi and the BJP will undoubtedly gain from this action in the upcoming elections.

For the first time in its history, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) invited India to be a special guest of honour at its meeting on 1 March 2019, where External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj on her maiden visit reiterated that terror and talks could not go hand in hand, directing her thinly-veiled comments at Pakistan’s terror financing. It should be noted that for a long time India has wanted to use the OIC to influence Pakistan regarding the issue of terror and Kashmir.

Pakistan, on the other hand, declined to attend the conference because of India’s involvement. By not attending the OIC meeting, Pakistan has clearly displayed its discomfort at discussing terrorism and the issue of Kashmir within the OIC platform. The OIC is one of several platforms where Pakistan has openly accused India of human rights violations in Kashmir. However, the entry of India, even as a special guest, has jeopardised any future attempts by Pakistan to produce a consensus among Islamic countries over the issue of Kashmir. Once again, Pakistan has sent the wrong signal to the world by being unwilling to discuss terror financing at the OIC. This might well have served India’s purpose in attending the event.

Even though the danger of a full-scale war is over for now, violations of the ceasefire continue at the border. At the national level too, India is sending all the wrong signals in the way it is handling the issue of Kashmir post-Pulwama. The crackdown on separatist and religious leaders, which is creating an anti-Kashmir sentiment in the rest of the country, will further alienate the Modi government from the people of Kashmir  and this void will again be filled by Pakistan-backed militants.

It will not be possible to avoid another incident like Pulwama in the future unless India and Pakistan begin to understand the root cause of the problem. Whether it is a battle of perceptions or interests, the cause is the people of India and Pakistan. One wrong signal and everything goes back to square one. It is high time that India and Pakistan started to send the right signals.

Dr Zainab Akhter is a Research Analyst at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis, India. She regularly writes on the issues of soft power, cultural diplomacy, India-Pakistan relations, confidence-building measures, people-to-people diplomacy and Jammu and Kashmir (with a special focus on Ladakh).

The author bears full responsibility for the facts cited and opinions expressed in this article.

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