By Aisha Saeed
En-route to the South of Punjab, the traffic on the narrow road stood at an unusual still. The train transporting tanks, anti-aircraft guns and other military supplies caused the halt. Under the lush green trees in a garden of a small village close to Fort Abbas, troops looked battle ready.
The 2001 India-Pakistan standoff that lasted for almost six months was the longest between the two nuclear states. Escalation defused after the American intervention on the matter, with China equally, but cautiously, calling for the neighbors to show restraint. In 2008, the two countries stood eye to eye once again but de-escalation was rather quick.
The Twin-Peak crisis drew a lesson for Pakistan but perhaps not for India as it once again ventures into the “post-election” and “post-Rafale scandal” war hysteria.
Palwama became a prelude to Indian hostility towards Pakistan. The region, in particular South Asia, is now prone to muscle flexing and a diplomatic tug of war.
With use of nuclear weapons out of the question, India’s military adventurism remains on the lower threshold of the conflict spectrum. Armed with advanced military options, India underestimates Pakistan’s capabilities to strike back.
A low intensity conflict is likely to continue and may even win Modi and BJP/ RSS some votes. India, however, will lose its international reputation of being a “tolerant state”.
A mature response by Pakistan has indicated no desire of further escalation, as the country wishes to steer clear of invoking outrage from the international community. However, Pakistan also aims to maintain its progress as a nation and protect its joint-venture of CPEC with China.
But warmongering sells, both among the public and in the media, and India, under PM Modi, understands it well. This war-mongering has remained the highlight of India’s media and narrative war. Hence, this narrative war gave India an excuse to play the military game of “cat and mouse”.
The situation on the Line of Control is still tense, with Pakistan still on a high alert. However, India has shifted from a state of “warmongering” to a state of “probable war”.
Renowned author David Patrikarakos, in his book War in 140 Characters, argues that wars are now fought on two major dimensions. The first dimension is the physical dimension: soldiers fire on soldiers, tanks fire on tanks, and planes drop bombs from the air.
The second dimension is the information or narrative dimension, which he then describes as the discursive dimension. “Put simply” he writes, “the narrative war frames the raw data (even if it’s dishonest data) out of the battlefield and into the information sphere. The watching world then processes the data to make up its mind about a conflict”.
The world, it seems, has made up its mind when it comes to friction between Pakistan and India. Major Powers, especially in the West, were not quick and open to side with Pakistan or call for de-escalation. As the saying goes “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting its shoes on”. India went global with its stance that a Pakistan-based group was behind the Palwama attack.
The narrative instantly changed from “India’s state sponsored terrorism in Kashmir as the cause of an attack on its troops” to “Pakistan still harboring groups that support Kashmir”.
This, in the context of current conflict, is the discursive dimension that India has exploited to its own benefit, aided by its traditional and social media. The Indian media was able to communicate with its international audience much better and quicker as the medium of communication was English. Pakistan does not have an upper hand on this front, with India boasting almost a dozen English news channels.
Clausewitz once wrote that war was an extension of politics. Though Modi is no Clausewitz, his government may well be. India has managed to externalize its blunders and atrocious policy in Kashmir onto Pakistan and has eventually created a war-like situation. What describes the current situation even better is what Hal Brands calls the Gray Zone conflict.
Hal Brand explains a Gray Zone conflict as an activity that is coercive and aggressive in nature, but that is deliberately designed to remain below the threshold of conventional military conflict and open interstate war.
Pakistan is caught an in a Gray Zone conflict with India. As it is designed to remain below the open interstate war, which in this case includes nuclear weapons, the Indian aggression echoes its fight to regain regional dominance.
The rebuke that India had to face in Afghanistan and rise of Imran Khan’s popularity was unacceptable to New Delhi, which ultimately became a major factor in the initiation of the Gray Zone conflict from the Indian side.
As Hal Brands states further, Gray Zone approaches are meant to achieve gains without escalating to overt warfare, without crossing the established red-lines, and thus without exposing the practitioner to the penalties and risks that such escalations might bring. India has not crossed those red-lines, such as more attacks and forward movement of its troops.
The twenty-first century conflict can be ignited by a narrative; a narrative recycled and replayed until it replaces the truth. The truth that India denies.
Kashmir may have been highlighted “internationally” due to Modi’s aggression – as Arundhati Roy has already argued – but not as a legitimate cause of concern but rather as a specimen of Indian narrative of Pakistan being a terror state. In the post-Pulwama aftermath, Pakistan has out maneuvered India diplomatically but not yet in the “narrative war”.
Kashmir has been overshadowed by India’s effective PR campaign mode in domestic and global media, however, this does not mean that Pakistan has lost its case globally.
Pakistan needs to form an effective narrative-building strategy which exposes India’s dual standards and rights violations, especially in Indian occupied Kashmir. Islamabad also needs to globally highlight the case of the Pakistani prisoner murdered in India.
In conclusion, Pakistan should maintain its position and support for the Kashmiri people, along with continuing to set its own house in order. India should also consider accepting the olive branch extended by the Pakistani PM Imran Khan. If India comes to the table, there might just be a chance towards establishing enduring peace in the region.
Aisha Saeed is an independent analyst on media and foreign policy. She tweets @MsAishaK