Over-reaction to fishing boat reflects paranoia that has gripped India-Pakistan ties

Neither side seems fully cognisant of the high possibility of conflict eruption and its cost.

India’s security establishment could keep having sleepless nights at least until US President Barak Obama’s visit at the end of the month, as it frets about the possibility of a terror attack from Pakistan. Since the Mumbai strikes of 2008, the fear of a similar incident recurring has obviously been one of New Delhi’s greatest worries. But this haunts the intelligence and security community so intensely that at times it tends to over-react, as in the case of the small fishing boat intercepted off the coast of Gujarat on New Year’s Eve. Although it turned out to be a hoax, the incident was indicative of the Indian perception of Pakistan and the paranoia that has set into the bilateral relationship.

Since militaries tend to plan in terms of capabilities rather than intent, the possibility of another terrorist attack in India is a real threat for the security establishment. The constant image of the Lashkar-e-Taiba leader roaming around freely in Pakistan or the actual planner of the Mumbai attacks getting a bail in a court case superimposes such fears. New Delhi isn’t given much confidence from the fact that while Islamabad cracks down in Waziristan claiming to eliminate all good and bad Taliban, Islamabad continues to be lenient towards groups that focus on India. Some even believe that all communication with Pakistan should be stopped until there is credible evidence that Pakistan has punished those involved in Mumbai. This will be considered as a benchmark to assess Islamabad’s sincerity.

Unlike the previous Congress government, the Modi administration intends to react harshly to any possible misadventure from other side of the border. Since coming to power, the new government seems to have redrawn the red lines. Any excitement on the Kashmir border will get a severe reaction. This also means that in case of a terrorist attack linked with Pakistan, New Delhi would not sit back but take an aggressive stance. In Pakistan, expression of such intent is interpreted as India’s decision to strategise to bleed its neighbor. Not surprisingly, the attack in Peshawar claimed by the leader of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan Maulana Fazlullah is considered as a tragedy prompted and even designed by India.

Heightened paranoia 

Even if there is no truth to it, the heightened paranoia on both sides of the border increases the risk of an accidental eruption of conflict that would then prove extremely costly for the two countries. Both sides think in terms of having a greater capability to avert the threat of conflict escalation due to the nuclear umbrella. But the game is too risky to play. However, threat escalation seems to occur in an environment where systems are not fully cognisant of the high possibility of conflict eruption and its cost.

For instance, it isn’t a simple error that the various agencies in India did not talk to each other or the Indian Navy did not consider report of a smuggling boat coming from Karachi important enough to warn the coast guard and other agencies. In the absence of maritime boundary, fishing boats could cross over both advertently or inadvertently. One way of minimising threat is to establish additional lines of communication between coast guards and navies of the two countries. Increasing communication should not necessarily be seen from the prism of giving concessions to Islamabad but securing India’s own interests. After all, using extreme force in case of any act of violence on Indian soil that can be traced to Pakistan is an option, but it could set off a cycle of events which may become uncontrollable and prove costly for peace and stability in the region.

Shared responsibility

The responsibility of risk aversion falls on both parties – on Pakistan for ensuring that it dismantles all jihadi groups, and on India for making sure that it does not fall into the trap of miscalculating an incident. Unlike Manmohan Singh, Modi is expected to use maximum force in case India’s security is threatened. Any miscalculation could set off a chain of events that may be difficult to stop.

Unfortunately, conflict seems to be the only way that India and Pakistan could become relevant to each other again because at present the constituency for bilateral peace, especially in India, is at its lowest. The political instability in Pakistan, the inability of political leadership to deliver, and a military that continues to be suspicious of India are some of the factors that have made a lot of Indians indifferent to the idea of peace.

On Pakistan’s end, the suspicion of a right-wing leader seems to be a serious concern. The possibility of a dialogue is very poor which basically means that peace and friendly access to each other’s people will be a dish served only to the elite on both sides of the border. The rest will suffer due to an unending fear of war.

Note: This article originally published here.