The decades-long strained relations between India and Pakistan deteriorated to an alarming level post-Pulwama suicide bomb attack which saw about 40 Indian paramilitary troops dead. The fear of a nuclear war between the two countries overtook amid threatening messages from both sides. The aerial strikes by both sides intensified the fear of a catastrophe. Meanwhile, the dark clouds of war seem to have proven a blessing for both PM Imran Khan and Pakistan.
When the war seemed near and likely to occur, Imran Khan in a calm and composed manner sent peace messages across to ensure that the tensions are reduced. With this frame of mind, he decided to release Abhinandan Varthaman, a wing-commander in the Indian Air Force. In the recent India-Pakistan standoff, the commander was held for sixty hours under captivity in Pakistan after his aircraft was shot down in an aerial dogfight.
The pilot’s release had many advantages: one, it showed Islamabad as a faithful follower of the United Nations ‘peace-making’ norms. Two, the peace-making gesture appealed the international community better and satisfied its call for restraint. Three, the tensions de-escalated and four, it repositioned Pakistan globally, changing its image from a belligerent to a peace-loving state.
Abhinanadan’s prolonged captivity could worsen the situation as India was mounting pressure on Pakistan to free the pilot. The pilot’s delayed release could have escalated the tensions, and its repercussions would have proven serious for the two countries and the region. However, the release of the pilot cooled tempers, lessening the warmongering climate which was created to gain political mileage invoking ultra-nationalist feelings.
Appropriate peace gesture was made by PM Khan when he sacked Pakistan Punjab’s information and culture minister Fayyazul Hassan Chohan over his anti-Hindu remarks that invited intense criticism from senior party leaders and minority communities. That timely action showed Mr. Khan as the PM who takes tough decisions in tough times. If he manages to sideline the country’s deep state, Pakistan may earn international goodwill.
Khan’s attempt to show a positive image of Pakistan concerning the safety of the minorities and their religions is a step in the right direction. Over the years, Pakistan has been reported to be intolerant towards the religious minorities. Bombing of the religious places of the Shia community and assaults on Christians and Hindus have dealt huge damage to Pakistan’s image at the international level.
To turn things around, Pakistan desperately needed a man who could project its positive image. Khan has well-understood the situation and through the removal of the minister, he seems to be on the way to make Pakistan safer for minority communities. The opening of the Kartarpur corridor for the Sikh pilgrims is yet another positive step for projecting a tolerant image of Pakistan towards the religious minorities.
New Delhi too has to ensure that the religious minorities feel safer in the country. Reports and surveys show that India becomes intolerant towards the minority religions. Rape and physical attacks are reported from across the country on the minorities. Post the Pulwama attack, Kashmiri students were targeted across India. Lynching of Muslims suspected of consuming beef have become a new normal. Recently, a court annulled a marriage between a Muslim man and a 25-year-old Hindu woman in a medical school.
Coming back to Imran Khan’s peace gestures, it is not out of place to mention that he has taken actions against the militants who believed to be involved in Pulwama attack. By doing so, Khan is sending a firm message that Islamabad has different ideas under him. “We have taken 44 people in custody as part of crackdown on militant groups,” minister of state for interior Shehryar Khan Afridi said.
Ministry of the Interior, Secretary Azam Suleman Khan said Hammad Azhar and Mufti Abdur Rauf were among those arrested on Tuesday. Hammad is the son of Masood Azhar while Rauf is his brother. Azam Khan also said a dossier shared by India with Pakistan last week also contained names of Rauf and Hammad.
The positive twist in Pakistan’s foreign policy can be studied in the international context as well. Islamabad has well realized that it does not enjoy good ties with neighboring Afghanistan, Iran, and India. Pakistan has border disputes and terrorism-related issues with all of these three countries. So in this hostile neighborhood, it would have been very difficult for Pakistan to go to war against India.
Further, Pakistan is facing a financial crunch with huge loans taken from China, Saudi Arabia, and the other countries. Add to it – rising unemployment, poor health care, and rampant corruption. The situation can improve only if peace and political stability take roots in Pakistan.
In this scenario, even a limited conventional war would prove very costly worsening political, economic and social conditions. War once started has to be maintained which needs the supply of medicine, food, ammunition, etc. All these things cost a lot of money. This would have been beyond the capacity of Pakistan at present. Therefore, PM Khan was right to offer peace messages to avoid war. His plan to put Pakistan back on track would have been derailed in case of a war with India.
India too cannot afford to go for war because in doing so it must sacrifice its growing economy, men and material. In view of India’s shrinking air force, old weaponry, stagnant bureaucracy, and Pakistan’s nuclear capability – New Delhi must think twice before waging a war against Islamabad.
PM Khan’s timely decision of preferring peace over belligerence has proven a turning point for Pakistan. He has not only saved his country from the evil effects of war but also has presented Pakistan in a positive light. Pakistan’s new-found image can enhance its acceptance in the international stage as well as it can improve its relations with other countries. If Khan is able to continue the good work with all the powerful stakeholders of the country on board, Pakistan may gain politically and economically in the region and beyond in due course of time.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.
Sheikh Shabir Kulgami is a Kashmiri (Indian) political commentator, analyst and columnist. He writes extensively on South Asia.