Pakistani rangers and Indian Border Security Force officers lower their national flags during a daily parade at the Pakistan-India joint check-post at Wagah
Pakistani rangers (wearing black uniforms) and Indian Border Security Force (BSF) officers lower their national flags during a daily parade at the Pakistan-India joint check-post at Wagah border, near Lahore November 3, 2014. REUTERS/Mohsin Raza/Files

In an interview to a prominent English-language newspaper in the United Arab Emirates published last Sunday, the director general of the Pakistan Army’s Inter Services Public Relations Directorate (ISPR), Major-General Asif Ghafoor, remarked that the “threat from India is perpetual.” This is not the first time that the Pakistan Army has so defined its perception of the threat that India supposedly poses to Pakistan.

Last November, the country’s army chief, General Qamar Bajwa, visited the Rawalpindi Corps Headquarters. Reporting on the visit, the ISPR noted that “Bajwa said there cannot be any let-up for our preparedness against the perpetual threat on our eastern borders, including LOC/LAC,” or Line of Control/Line of Actual Contact.

While Ghafoor may have only reiterated what his chief had said earlier, the notion that the Indian threat is “never ending or changing,” as the word “perpetual” means, is deeply held in the Pakistani establishment as a whole. It is also not only publicly articulated but is present in classified internal documents, as the Abbottabad Commission Report submitted to the Pakistani government in January 2013 reveals. The report was leaked and is now available, with only page 197 missing.

The Abbottabad Commission, Pakistan’s official inquiry into the events of May 1, 2011, when US Navy SEALs attacked and killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, was chaired by a sitting Supreme Court judge. A former diplomat and two retired officers, one from the army and the other from the police, were its other members. Its report thus reflected not only the army view but that of Pakistan’s permanent establishment. The commission’s observation on the nature of the Indian threat is therefore of enduring value.

While examining the circumstances and facts regarding the US Operation Neptune Spear to neutralize al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the commission repeatedly asked Pakistani defense and civilian officials why the threat that might have come from across Pakistan’s western border was ignored, even if India “may be the primary and permanent threat.” And its finding on this point noted, “The eastern front deserved the necessary security attention in view of the history of Indo-Pak relations [but] it should never have been at the expense of the more immediate, if lesser, threat that emerged from the west.”

It is noteworthy that the Pakistani establishment does not condition the Indian threat to the existence of bilateral differences and issues, including that of Jammu and Kashmir. Hence it obviously assesses the threat as “perpetual” and “permanent” on account of what it believes to be the nature of the Indian state.

Long-standing view on ‘hegemonic’ India

Two decades ago and within months of taking over as army chief, General Pervez Musharraf called the Indian state “hegemonic.” In an article in 2001, former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan Gopalaswami Parthasarthy recalled Musharraf’s April 1998 speech to the Karachi English Speaking Union where he “proclaimed India is a ‘hegemonic’ power, [and that] low-intensity conflict will continue even if the Kashmir issue [is] resolved.” Clearly, Musharraf had given voice to a fundamental Pakistani position regarding India that has not changed, as Ghafoor’s comment shows.

Pakistan’s response to the Indian threat has been confrontationist. It has relied on aggressively pursuing terrorism through non-state actors under its control to keep India on the defensive. Turning the traditional approach of nuclear states on its head, it has constantly launched actions on Indian territory. To keep India from responding effectively to its actions, it has propagated the dangers of escalation of conflict in a “nuclear overhang” environment.

Significantly, Pakistan has always shunned the path of cooperative ties to blunt the threat from India. Most countries attempt to meet threats from other states by not relying only on building effective defenses. They also seek to entangle a more powerful adversary in a web of economic and commercial ties that would make conflict very costly and so drastically reduce its prospect.

India has not only taken defensive measures to face the Chinese threat but has also given it an economic stake in India. That is the rational approach, but Pakistan has avoided it partly because of the two-nation theory, the foundational principle of its statehood.

In essence, all Indian governments have premised their Pakistan policy on the hope that it will realize the futility of hostility and turn toward the path of peace and cooperation. That is one reason no Indian government has chosen to respond in kind to Pakistan’s decades-long low-intensity conflict with India.

That is also why Pakistan’s characterization of the Indian threat has been overlooked. Ghafoor’s comment once again raises troubling questions about the wisdom of India continuing to overlook the full implications of Pakistan’s essential approach to India.

Indian policymakers cannot shirk now from asking themselves two basic questions.

First, is it possible that a saner view of India or how to deal with India will ever prevail in Pakistan? Some Indians feel that Pakistani civil society will grow and contest the establishment on India-Pakistan ties. That seems only a fond hope, for there is no evidence that Pakistan is willing to make sacrifices in taking on the army, which has always arrogated to itself the role of the guardian of country’s ideology.

Second, is there any utility for addressing outstanding issues if Pakistan’s hostility is not diluted and its confrontation continues, no doubt on new grievances? Pakistan argues that the J&K issue is the real reason for negative India-Pakistan relations. Clearly that does not square with the concept of “perpetual threat.” Thus Jammu and Kashmir is only a symptom of Pakistani approaches, not their cause.

Finally, the idea that dialogue is the panacea for India-Pakistan ties is laughable if India is viewed as a permanent threat.

Vivek Katju

The author is a former diplomat with the Indian Foreign Service and retired as a secretary to the government of India. He has extensive experience dealing with Pakistan and Southeast Asia.

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