The enemy within
PAKISTAN and India – the two protagonists of South Asia – have also had the distinction to keep South Asia one of the most disintegrated regions in the world. They have fought three and many skirmishes since independence and came close to a nuclear war in 2019, when India launched strikes on its land, following a militant attack on Indian troops in Kashmir claims Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State in his recent memoir. A border truce was concluded in 2021, and it has kept things under control. Pakistan has also exercised strategic restraint on more than one occasion, and if the relations haven’t gotten better, tension has not escalated to dangerous levels either. However, the relationship at best is in a state of freeze. “But this isn’t to say a relationship is in a safe place. It’s always on tenterhooks, even at the best of times,” says Mr. Michael Kugelman. “Today, it would only take one trigger, one provocation, to take the two sides back up the escalatory ladder.”
This was not a pretty backdrop to Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s visit to Goa. Even before he had landed in Goa, the hawks on Pakistan’s side had their swords out. He was heavily criticized for the decision. Interestingly, his party, a member of a fourteen coalition group in power right now, had to come out in his defence. Subsequently, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif also tweeted in favour of the visit, categorically stating that it was to attend the multilateral forum Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and not to improve ties with India.
SCO, founded in 2001 to deliberate upon security and economic matters in Central Asia, is led by China, a key Pakistan ally, and Russia, an emerging new friend of Pakistan. Skipping the conference despite the negative propaganda in the country, would have been not in Pakistan’s best interest. Pakistan cannot afford to be isolated from an organization that is closely aligned with its interests. In the bilateral context this visit will leave no impact, it will be pretty much inconsequential. However, it is a small step in the right direction. Both sides benefit from lowered tension. Pakistan needs to focus on the western border and the paradigm of corridor politics and connectivity.
With the political toxicity and polarization prevalent in Pakistan right now and India into its election year, neither government is willing to take the first step toward reconciliation, for fear of backlash from their respective domestic audience. Ahead of the election, anti-Pakistan narratives are commonly sold in India in order to appease the voters. Hassan Abbas of National Defence University in Washington D.C. says that “political polarization, both in India and Pakistan, makes an already precarious situation even more vulnerable”.
The use of veiled swipes at each other during the SCO Summit did not help the relationship or the optics at all. In his speech at the forum, the Indian Foreign Minister, S Jaishankar, said there was no justification for terrorism and that it must be stopped in all its forms and manifestations, including cross border terrorism, obviously hinting at Pakistan. His statement calling out Pakistan and its Foreign Minister at a multilateral forum, especially in the capacity of a host was not just in bad taste but was a diplomatic low. He was the host of a multilateral moot taking a swipe at a guest, a smaller neighbour was indicative of Indian insecurities despite its giant-ness. The side door diplomacy or noiseless bridge building could not happen, largely because it’s not Pakistan but India that continues to be the fake giant nation within whom hides an insecure pigmy.
Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto had to respond and he responded aptly by saying that fighting the menace of terrorism was a joint responsibility and cautioned to “not get caught up in weaponizing terrorism for diplomatic point scoring.” He further asked the forum to “condemn all forms of terrorism” including state-sponsored terrorism. In addition to this, in an open and direct reference, to India’s 2019 decision to take away the special autonomous status of India-occupied Kashmir under New Delhi’s direct control, Bilawal said “unilateral and illegal measures by states in violation of international law and [United Nations] Security Council resolutions are counter to the SCO objectives.”
Bilawal Bhutto’s speech at the SCO and his interviews with the Indian media had left many in India squirming in their seats. The positives included a collective approach on issues of environment, connectivity and Afghanistan. Pakistan-India relations are in a state of peaceful limbo, prime condition for resumption of dialogue remains unfulfilled, mutually hurting stalemate does not exist. For now, the limbo will continue, hopefully it will remain peaceful.
However, sadly the existing situation in Pakistan which has once again brought attention to the country for all the wrong reasons defeats all image building exercises and foreign policy initiatives. We once again come across as a rogue nation that cannot resolve its political conflicts through democratic means and where rule of law is compromised. We have the world seeing pictorials of unrest, riots and out of control mob violence.
In this age of information and technology, Pakistan is going through an internet shutdown which is unheard of in present day and time. It has disrupted both life and businesses. The internet disruption has also adversely impacted Pakistani startups which attracted more than seven hundred million dollars in investment between 2022-2023 and played a critical role in promoting entrepreneurship, job creation and digitization across the country in such difficult times. Even this much needed activity stands disrupted and nobody seems to care. From freelancers and digital creators to the Bykeas, In-drives, and Careems are taking the brunt. Stakeholders rightly point out that network outage creates more problems than it solves. But then who cares!? Exams have been postponed and schools have been shut down across the country. This is allowed to happen in a country that is on the verge of default and is going through a serious economic meltdown. Many more days of productivity stand to be lost. Can we really blame others for our woes? We are our own enemies. Pakistan bleeds.
—The writer is Rector, Millennium Institute of Technology & Entrepreneurship.
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