Byline by M J Akbar: Smoke and Smokescreens
One of the more curious episodes in recent weeks is the indignation with which Indian Army chief General Deepak Kapoor’s statement that India’s forces were ready to face war on two fronts simultaneously, against China and Pakistan, was received. The Islamabad establishment has treated this as a virtual declaration of war. It is possible that the politicians of Pakistan have begun to confuse Islamabad with Delhi.
Generals in Delhi do not declare war. The Prime Minister and his Cabinet do that. Generals have only one duty. They have to reassure the government and the nation that they will be able to protect the country even in the worst possible circumstances, and deliver on the assurance. The nightmare scenario for India is a concerted, coordinated offensive by China across the main Himalayas, and by Pakistan on its Kashmir wedge. This is, conversely, the dream scenario of General Headquarters in Pakistan. General Kapoor was doing his job when he made that statement.
There was a time when, to put it in the language of the Fifties, war-war was the business of generals and jaw-jaw was the responsibility of politicians. The taciturn warrior began to disappear with the British Empire and Soviet Union; and as American military power began to fill the strategic vacuum the greater individual freedoms of America began to permeate the Pentagon and its equivalents. American officers took their final orders from the White House, but they had plenty to say in-between. The most recent case was last year’s debate on a troop surge in Afghanistan. The Pentagon not only told the White House, which was dithering, what it wanted, but made sure the American voter and the citizens of Pakistan and Afghanistan got the message as well. The infection has reached the stiff upper lips of Britain: generals there make demands for equipment through the media. Discipline cannot completely sanitize the military brass from the influences of the democratic spirit, and its institutions.
China did not react sharply to General Kapoor’s comment, although it can hold its own in any sparring match. It may be argued that it did not need to do anything but laugh. A little after General Kapoor’s claim, the Government of India admitted, formally, that China had eaten away vast amounts of [presumably unpatrolled, or sparsely visited] border territory. Even more interesting than the government’s admission was the fact that Indians seemed beyond caring. The Opposition parties shrugged and concentrated on screaming at one another; television, which gets hysterical when a leaf flutters, had other things to do. Clearly, media reserves its visceral reactions only for its western rather than its northern border. This is maybe because the occupation of distant, barren land cannot compare, in televisual terms, with the throbbing drama of the heights and valleys of Kashmir.
Islamabad’s reaction has nothing to do with any threat from India, because there is no threat from India. India does not desire an inch of land beyond the Ceasefire Line or the international border. Equally, it will not surrender an inch of what is under its control. Pakistan, however, has built a layered case before America which boils down to this: it cannot fight all of America’s enemies on the Frontier, or those who treat the Frontier as sanctuary for the conflict in Afghanistan, as long as Indian guns are pointed at its back. It needs relief in the east to fight in the west. Washington has bought this argument, and Delhi has obliged as unobtrusively as possible. Our two-front General Kapoor has quietly presided over the withdrawal of over 40,000 troops from the Kashmir valley, and their transfer to the eastern Himalayas under the cover of rising worry about China. It’s very neat actually: we use China, possibly with Beijing’s knowledge, to help out America in its Pakistan war.
As long as there is no change in ground realities, this game can be played to triangular, or even quadrangular, satisfaction. Alas, everyone is not playing the same game. The spurt in terrorist violence in Srinagar during the last fortnight could be aimed at disturbing this dainty strategic daisy chain. Specialists are warning of an impending attack on the Indian mainland.
The delicate diplomatic balance could crumble if Pakistan and America push too hard, and believe that they can manoeuvre Delhi into a final settlement on Kashmir. There is very little space for negotiations on Kashmir itself, given that Pakistan is searching a major dilution of the status quo and India, at least at the moment, will agree on only the Ceasefire Line as the solution. Is the sudden talk of National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan being shifted to a powerless Governor’s bungalow indicative of a major change in Delhi’s Kashmir policy? He was a status quoist. Dr Manmohan Singh thinks, perhaps, that he can remobilize the constituency that cheered the nuclear deal with the United States. That may be easier in theory than practice. Pakistan, after all, is far more explosive than any number of nuclear plants.
Was General Deepak Kapoor’s two-front statement part of the smoke or the smokescreen?