On September 29, 2016, the Indian Director General of Military Operations (DGMO), Lieutenant General Ranbir Singh, announced that India had carried out “surgical strikes” across the Line of Control (LOC) and destroyed so-called “terror launch pads” where terrorists had allegedly assembled to infiltrate Indian-administered Kashmir. General Singh neither revealed any operational details of these “surgical strikes” nor presented evidence, and he concluded his press conference without taking questions.
Befuddled by the abovementioned claims, Pakistan responded by rejecting them as an over-exaggeration and fabrication of the truth. Pakistan acknowledged Indian cross-border firing, which left two if its soldiers dead, but dismissed the assertions that Indian soldiers had crossed the LOC and conducted pre-emptive strikes. The Pakistan Army’s Inter Services Public Relations department arranged a visit of the national and international media to the LOC region to verify Pakistan’s position vis-a-vis Indian claims.
Subsequently, both sides have engaged in a furious but never-ending debate on social media over the veracity of their respective claims and counter-claims. Both have been passing the buck and putting the onus of proof of their position on the other. In India, gigantic posters and billboards of Prime Minister Narendra Modi have sprung up, eulogizing him as a hero for avenging dead Indian soldiers and restoring Indian honor by giving a befitting reply to Pakistan. On its part, Pakistani social media spaces are replete with parodic videos ridiculing the Indian surgical strikes as a farce.
Generally speaking, international media outlets, world capitals, and the United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan have not yet confirmed Indian claims. That said, these entities have also taken neutral positions on Pakistan’s stance. However, in the midst of these developments, Pakistan haphazardly claimed that it had arrested an Indian soldier near the LOC and killed fourteen others, and hinted that some efforts, whether successful or not, had been made from the Indian side to cross the LOC.
At this stage, it is safe to assume that short of surgical strikes, some sort of activity took place on the LOC between 28 and 29 September, of which India is over-exaggerating and Pakistan is downplaying. The ambiguous and unverifiable Indian claims have provided enough political and diplomatic space to both adversaries to cater to their local constituencies without being trapped in an escalatory spiral. Hence, what are “surgical strikes” for India is “cross-border firing” for Pakistan. The truth — the first casualty of war and political jingoism — lies somewhere between these two extreme positions.
Additionally, the above assertion can be solidified based on the meaningful silence and strategic-messaging between the two militaries. Most importantly, the military-to-military confidence-building measures between India and Pakistan have been working despite the recent tensions and border escalations. Contact between the DGMOs and National Security Advisors and their ensuing statements were measured and intended to de-escalate the conflict. In contrast, there was much noise in the political space and mainstream media bordering on mass hysteria and warmongering. The khakis on both sides retreated from this uproar, leaving the ball in the court of the politicos to kick around and play one-upmanship.
Notwithstanding the India-Pakistan claims and counter-claims, what is certain is the negative fallout of these developments on the future of the Indo-Pak relationship. The question which should be asked is that, when all said and done, what has changed and what has remained the same in the recent round of India-Pakistan tensions.
India’s current position is that the rules of engagement have been redefined and it is no longer business as usual; Pakistan remains adamant that the deterrence equilibrium has not been disturbed and the status quo is prevailing as it has in the past.
The first immediate casualty has been the shrinking space for peace lobbies and the strengthening of hyper-nationalism and right-wing narratives.
Barring a few exceptions, these recent tensions have impacted the entire spectrum of relations between the two states militarily, politically, diplomatically, and also in terms of trade, entertainment, sports, and the social and mainstream media.
What has remained unchanged thus far is Washington DC’s continued influence on New Delhi and Islamabad as the decisive arbiter in political tensions and border escalations. The political and military leaderships of both India and Pakistan took practical steps to dial down the tensions after US diplomatic intervention. And much to Pakistan’s frustration, the American position on Kashmir has not altered: India and Pakistan’s bilateral dispute is to be resolved politically by these two states themselves at the bilateral level.
At the same time, the strategic stability in South Asia remains intact with a few tactical and operational changes in the conventional military sphere. There has been a visible realization on both sides that a conventional build up leading to military skirmishes could precipitate into a full-scale war making nuclear exchange inevitable. Therefore, the border flare-ups have remained strictly confined to the LOC without opening up another front.
On the other extreme, the first immediate casualty of this conflict has been the shrinking space for peace lobbies and the strengthening of hyper-nationalism and right-wing narratives. The way artists and sports personalities were dragged into this conflict and made to choose sides has politicized the entertainment industry and sports. These fields were the two avenues that connected the citizens of both countries regardless of the conflicts and tensions between their countries. They contributed in removing stereotypes and created a space for peace initiatives.
India’s decision to ban Pakistan’s kabbadi team from participating in the Kabaddi World Championship in India and the Board of Control for Cricket in India’s decision not to play in the bilateral cricket series with Pakistan are regrettable. Moreover, threats hurled at Pakistani actors working in Bollywood, forcing them to leave India, have soured things further. Simultaneously, Pakistan’s decision to ban Indian movies from its cinemas and notifying Pakistani channels not to air Indian dramas and content is unfortunate.
The other negative fallout in this round of hostilities has been the return of the Kashmir dispute as a factor in both countries’ domestic politics. Almost all Pakistani political parties have exploited the India-Pakistan rivalry in the recently concluded elections in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
Similarly, intense politicking is taking place in India over the credibility of surgical strikes between the Modi Sarkar and its political rivals ahead of elections in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The BJP government is criticizing the opposition parties’ demands for proof of the surgical strikes as a move to strengthen Pakistani propaganda. While the BJP has availed the services of three former army generals to deal with such criticism, the opposition parties are lambasting the Indian government for allegedly lying to its public.
The future of South Asia and its impoverished population of 1.7 billion people has been held hostage by these hostilities. The episodic eruptions of border tensions and political disputes have been the major stumbling block in the way of unlocking the full economic potential of the region. India’s dream of joining the big-league club at the global level, and Pakistan’s aspirations of becoming a transit hub of regional trade — through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor — between South and Central Asia will not materialize without addressing bilateral issues through political dialogue and negotiations.