Indian American author Braham Singh takes an irreverent look at India-Pakistan geopolitics.
By Braham Singh
On February 24, 2019, one tired and ageing, superannuated Indian MIG 21 Bison fell out of the cobalt blue Kashmir skies. Indians claim a Pakistani F16 brought it down, although someone could’ve thrown a stone at it.
While stakeholders remain committed to their respective set of facts around what happened, none of it matters to anyone else, unless they enjoy Indians and Pakistanis make fools of themselves.
They’re busy doing that, those two, though how it began this time around wasn’t funny at all. A few days prior to that dogfight over Kashmiri skies, forty-seven Indian paramilitary soldiers were killed by a suicide bomber in Pulwama, southwest of Srinagar. Almost immediately, the Jaish-i-Mohammed, an internationally declared terrorist organization, claimed credit for the murderous folly. That’s when things start to snowball, and thirteen days later the Indians launched a surgical strike (they love that term) at what was supposedly a Jaish-i-Mohammed stronghold in Balakot. Put a pin on that place because the plot’s about to thicken.
Following the Indian claim, the Pakistanis went: terrorist camp? Right. All you did, they say, was bomb a forested area, uprooting some trees. Demonstrating a sense of humor, Pakistan then lodged an official complaint at the UN against India for the ecological damage wreaked. The Pakistanis are clearly having fun with this. The Indians, not so much.
The area around Balakot in Pakistan’s Mansera District is mentioned in Professor Happymon Jacob’s book, The Line Of Control – Travelling With The Indian And Pakistani Armies (Penguin Books). In one of the more surreal chapter I’ve ever read, the professor talks about how the Pakistani army took him to what could be around the same heavily forested area where the Indian air force would strike a few years later. The Indian professor was on the Pakistani side, with Indian guns aimed at him. His trip occurred several years ago, but the chapter was all about how the Indians enjoyed a huge geographic advantage in this area because they looked directly down on Pakistani villages. In a deep dive at the tit-for-tat that goes on along the Line of Control, we learn that the Pakistanis will harass India only where they have a territorial advantage and never in this particular area where Indian soldiers perched on the Pir Panjal range, can shoot down at Pakistani villages with impunity.
Then came the 2019 Indian attack on a supposed Jaish-i-Mohammed camp in the same Mansehra district, where Balakot sits on the right side of the Kunhai river. One is left wondering why terrorists would camp in an area over which the Indian army holds sway.
If the Indians ended up looking foolish, the unkind say they asked for it.
The CIA and State know after all, as does India’s R&AW, the Jaish-i-Mohammed’s founder Masood Azhar, aka Fat Boy, works out of his fortified compound near Bahawalpur Railway Station in Pakistan. Someone from DC’s McClatchy publications even visited that place and described it as surrounded by fortified walls and having a swimming pool, horses, fountains, you name it. Wedded to his dialysis equipment, Fat Boy doesn’t budge — just fifty seven kilometers south west from where the Indians went uprooted some trees in his name. If they wanted, they could’ve put an end to him and his Jaish-i-Mohammed once and for all.
But then, the Indians also have the exact Karachi address of Dawood Ibrahim, the mastermind behind the 1992 Mumbai bomb explosions. He’s the other one they absolutely don’t want to capture. The one difference between these two criminals Pakistan hides in plain sight is their IQ. While Dawood Ibrahim could waltz into MENSA, Azhar isn’t the sharpest knife in terror’s kitchen. Even so, India’s allowed him to do incalculable damage. In their prison for several years, it was as if the Indians couldn’t wait to be rid of him after a bunch of his men half-heartedly hijacked Indian Airlines flight IC-814 in 1993 and demanded his release.
Why won’t India go after these men, both within arm’s reach? The Americans can’t be bothered to mull that anymore, having provided the duo’s coordinates and more to Indian intelligence. Disgust aside, they know, as do most Indians, that reeling the two in opens too many cans of worms. Just another dirty family secret Indians are apparently willing to live with, giving a pass to successive governments, each one more riddled with riddles than the last.
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Dr. Happymon Jacob is an Associate Professor at JNU in New Delhi, at their Center for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament. I mentioned earlier he went and did the impossible — touring the Line of Control, incredibly, on the Pakistan side under the auspices of the Pakistani army. Then, a repeat performance on the Indian side. His subsequent book is a jaw-dropper, and disturbing. What he writes will tear at heartstrings on either side of the silly border.
Amongst other things, Professor Jacob’s book talks about the desultory trade at the various official trading posts, where trucks come from both side to barter under strict supervision. He doesn’t mention the full-throated, trans-border black market functioning under the auspices of the armed forces on both sides, cooperating across barbed wire when not taking pot shots at each other. Borders are where fortunes are had, and the ostensibly severe Indo-Pak demark is no exception. In any case, the more dangerous and difficult the logistics, the bigger the fortune for those in charge.
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My own less than intrepid tour down the Indian side commenced from Bhatinda Cantonment, going south, southwest towards Sri Ganganagar and beyond. The border here is nothing like along the Line of Control up north in Kashmir, where passions run high. What I found behind the bristling armament, after a bit of clandestine digging, was both sides taking great pain to maintain a peaceful status quo and allow some seriously healthy commerce. It is ironical that, while endemic corruption is what eats away at the two countries, the cross-border kind helps maintain peace and foster understanding.
The Chinese understand this intuitively and have successfully co-opted Taiwan, first through clandestine and now open cross border commerce running into hundreds of billions of dollars. Taiwan may shout itself hoarse about being independent, but these days it’s an (alright, Independent) economic subdivision of China.
Amateurs in comparison, the Indian and Pakistani are stuck in the clandestine phase. The inciting incident in my forthcoming novel, Her Browser History, is around what happens when this sort of cross-border understanding breaks down.
Our motley crew, the ones with a commercial bent, charged with minding the border, needs a steady state for commerce to occur. Their business is best served by a de facto peace under an essential cloak of hostility. Left to themselves, the two armies know what to do: keep up appearances, put on a show every now and then — a war every decade or so — and a steady state rest of the time. The subcontinent isn’t China, so this is probably as good as it gets.
The reason Indians produce great code, a Chinese gentleman once told me, is because they are sophisticated thinkers. I took that to be a compliment. Clearly, we are too sophisticated to emulate China and Taiwan, as if simple, direct trade is insulting to both sides. Turns out, the subcontinent is also too sophisticated to allow the status quo both armies prefer.
The Indian and Pakistani armies facing each other off after Independence were nothing if not cast in a British mould — religion on both sides a means to an end, used freely to establish an esprit de corps; a moral ascendency. When Field Marshal Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s dashing, scotch-drinking, first-ever military ruler and all-time ladies man, said that one Muslim soldier is equal to ten Hindus, that’s what he was doing; when not swimming laps with Christine Keeler of The Profumo Affair fame.
Someone once said that those days you could swap an Indian general for a Pakistani one and not know the difference. Then came General Zia-ul-Haq and introduced us to his New Pakistani Soldier, who has a full beard, does namaaz five times a day, eschews alcohol, and for whom religion is an end unto itself. Embedded inside what otherwise is about as British an army an Islamic nation can have, the New Pakistani Soldier is the wildcard of wildcards, here to upend that status quo the Line of Control represents, and so many on both sides work so hard to maintain. There are other wildcard to be sure — The Jihadis, crazy religious parties on both sides, and let’s not forget the ISI and R&AW playing their Spy V/S Spy games and not a care in the world.
While I got to speak with Indian soldiers and retired brass at length, the Pakistanis I got close to were retirees in and around Washington, DC. Both want nothing to do with the wild cards. As Jacob says in his book, why would Pakistani soldiers fire across the border to warn their Indian counterparts when Jihadis are crossing over? That Jaish i Mohammed suicide attack at Pulwama killing around forty Indian paramilitary men? Safe bet it took the Pakistani army by surprise. The retired Pakistani officers I know in the USA have more affection for their uniformed counterparts in India than towards any Jihadi thug. To a man, while blaming India for Kashmir, the ex-Army men I met from the Pakistani armed forces blame the jihadis for Pakistan’s current state of affairs. They have nothing charitable to say about Zia’s New Pakistani Soldier either.
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What do soldiers do to kill time when they aren’t killing each other? They chat across the barbed wire. Trade gifts and insults. What about the border villagers? On the Pakistan side the villages come right up past the chuk milestone, beyond which the border lies. People work their fields over harvest time, exchanging beedies with the other side while bored Pakistani Rangers let it go. This is their normal.
A border is at best an artificial demark on a map. At worse, a fissure sundering a land, disrupting its chi by stemming free flow and seasonal migrations. So naturally, an alternative eco system develops. Not always as spectacular as the wildlife in the Korean DMZ, but usually interesting enough to grab someone like me to hold in its thrall. It isn’t just exchanging beedies. Communication lines develop between officials and counterparts, village families and soldiers, and inevitably at some point, between their respective local commands.
In the Seventies and Eighties, Israeli jets would skirt the Golan Heights and flap their wings sending some coded message loud and clear to the Syrians receiving it. I am told these days Indians and Pakistani commanding officers do it over burn phones. Unorthodox? Yes. In violation of policy? Totally. Treasonous? To the contrary. These communications are more effecting at keeping the peace than any number of Track 2 circuses diplomats and spooks from both countries hold in Bangkok.
A Pakistani once joked that India is a secular nation with a religious founding father while Pakistan is a religious nation with a secular founding father. He of course refers to the devoutly Hindu Mahatma Gandhi, and Pakistan’s plumy, pork-eating Jinnah, who couldn’t be bothered with the Koran or to learn Urdu. Keeping it equally surreal, Her Browser History has a New Pakistani Soldier perform his namaaz over loudspeakers blasting across the Line of Control, while his commanding officer sips scotch in his quarters. A daily affair, quotidian, until the Indians decide to blast back with Axel Rose. Talk about a wild card.
(Tired of being a suit, Braham Singh wrote Bombay Swastika, a raunchy, irreverent look at Indian religions and politics, through the eyes of a refugee from Nazi Germany. The book went on to become an Amazon Best Read, to the acute embarrassment of his friends and family. Braham spreads his time between Virginia and Hong Kong. When not writing, he builds data centers.)