by Gwynne Dyer
After the terrorist attack on Indian troops in Kashmir two weeks ago that killed 40 Indian soldiers, but before Tuesday’s retaliatory air strikes across the border into Pakistan by the Indian Air Force, the Indian government did something unprecedented. It threatened to cut off Pakistan’s water. Or at least, it sounded like that.
On 21 February, Nitin Gadkari, India’s transport minister, tweeted: “Our Govt. has decided to stop our share of water which used to flow to Pakistan. We will divert water from Eastern rivers and supply it to our people in Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab.” Dangerous talk: that way lies nuclear war.
In December 2001, after a Pakistan-backed terrorist attack on the Indian parliament, there was a seminar in Karachi designed to calm everybody down. It was going quite well until somebody alleged that India had plans to use the ‘water weapon’. At that point a Pakistani participant stated flatly that any conflict over water would lead to a nuclear first strike against India by Pakistan.
So Nitin Gadkari’s threat had everybody scared – for about five minutes. Then it became clear that it was only hot air. He was just referring to an existing plan to build a dam on the Ravi River, one of six that feed the giant Indus river system.
It would stop some of that river’s water from flowing on into Pakistan, but all the water in the Ravi belongs to India according to a 1960 treaty between the two countries. India has been letting some of it flow through, but it doesn’t have to.
As soon as the grown-ups intervened, the ‘water weapon’ was off the table, which is a good thing. But there is now a ‘limited war’ underway between India and Pakistan, and it is getting less limited by the hour.
The suicide attack on Indian troops in Kashmir two weeks ago was the deadliest in three decades, and Jaish-e-Mohammad, a militant Islamist group based in Pakistan, took credit for it. The retaliatory air strikes ordered by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi were the first to cross the border into Pakistan proper since the 1971 war.
Now Pakistani planes have bombed Indian territory, and both sides have lost planes shot down over ‘enemy’ territory. There has been large-calibre shell-fire going both ways in at least a dozen places along the LoC in Kashmir.
Why does this sort of thing go on happening? The short answer, alas, is because the
Pakistani army needs it to continue.
Every time the pot goes off the boil, either the Pakistani army attacks directly in Kashmir (1999), or Islamist terrorists backed by Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence agency launch mass-casualty attacks in India (2001, 2008, 2016, 2019). It then becomes impossible for Indian politicians to make peace overtures to Pakistan, and the status quo is restored.
Other countries have armies, but Pakistan’s army has a country. The army dominates not only politics but the economy. It sells insurance, clothes, meat, and concrete. It owns huge chunks of the country’s real estate. It provides very well for its officers while they are on active service, and also in retirement.
It will continue to control the lion’s share of the economy only so long as it has the threat of the Indian ‘enemy’ as an excuse, so it works hard to keep that threat alive. The Indians are no angels in this relationship – maybe they should ask themselves why they even want Kashmir – but it is Pakistan’s army that keeps the game alive.