Pandemic deepens Indo-Pak fault lines

Sanjay Kapoor | Updated on May 09, 2020 Published on May 08, 2020

Even though the recent e-meeting of SAARC nations was on Covid, it didn’t stop Pakistan from raising the Kashmir and CAA issues

Fifteen days into lockdown, five Special Forces commandos of the Indian Army died when trying to stop infiltration from Pakistan through the Line of Control (LOC) at the Keran sector. It was a bizarre incident as countries do not like to lose their precious Special Forces commandos in such an operation. A few days later, India retaliated by blowing up Pakistan army’s ammunition depot and alleged terrorist launch pads. Despite a smothering lockdown in Kashmir valley, there may have been a spike in engagement between the army and the militants.

It was apparent that the global pandemic, which is devastating lives and battering economies, was no occasion for nation states to reflect on old fault lines and animosities that had shaped their domestic politics and foreign policies. In fact, the pandemic was not only aggravating them, but also changing the way our country is being perceived by the Muslim world.

That the past hostilities between neighbours were considered more important than the scourge of the pandemic was visible at the non-aligned meet that Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose to attend for the first time. There he criticised those countries (without naming Pakistan) who were busy spreading “fake news”, ‘ terror”. It was apparent that the gloves were off again.

For a short while, though, Modi had used the breakout of the deadly pandemic in South Asia to reach out the SAARC countries. It seemed then as if the tragedy-scarred countries of South Asia had side-stepped the dark shadows of the past violence, hatred and misgivings to revive the largely moribund regional body SAARC by responding favourably to the initiative of Prime Minister Modi to have a video conference to craft a joint strategy to fight the coronavirus.

Except Pakistan that sent its Health Advisor, the respective heads of States represented other countries of the region. Pakistan expectedly wove the plight of Kashmiris — who had been living in lockdown including internet shutdown, since August 5, 2019 — with the fight against the virus. It wanted the lockdown to be lifted in the Valley. It was apparent that Pakistan did not want to give India the freedom to use the pandemic to distract global attention from Kashmir, opposition to the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA), and the violence in Delhi against the minorities.

Modi offered $10 million as a regional fund along with creating a common platform for other SAARC countries to collaborate with other epidemiologists and public health experts. He seemed to believe that the country whose economy survived would stand tall in the devastation that the pandemic would cause.

Neighbours unhappy

Modi’s move to revive the SAARC forum to fight the pandemic came a month after bloody riots broke out in north-east Delhi against a contentious CAA. Fifty-three people, majority of them Muslims, died in that carnage. Significantly at that time, US President Donald Trump was on a state visit to Delhi. His presence put communal violence In Delhi on the front pages of the global media. The riots in the national capital followed the mass protests in different parts of the country.

Neighbouring countries expressed opposition to India’s CAA that gave citizenship on religious lines and excluded Muslims.

Bangladesh’s response was the fiercest as lakhs took to the streets demanding that their Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed withdraw an invitation scheduled for March 17 to Modi for attending the centenary celebrations of her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman. Modi used reports of spurt in coronavirus to postpone his visit to Dhaka.

Afghanistan witnessed outrage against New Delhi. This was unusual and considered as a diplomatic setback.

The anti-CAA protests and the Delhi riots caused a stir in the sharply divided Islamic world with countries like Iran and Turkey using these incidents to put Saudi Arabia — an Indian ally — on the defensive. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and Turkey’s Reccep Erdogan criticised how Muslims had been treated in India.

Expectedly, India, reiterated its secular credentials and told these countries to stay away from our internal affairs. Iran and Turkey wanted to wean away Pakistan in their fold, but Riyadh prevailed on Prime Minister Imran Khan.

It was in the backdrop of manifest regional misgivings that Modi made his opening gambit after a long hiatus. A man of impeccable timing, he did not want to waste this opportunity to rebuild ties with the neighbourhood at a time when China was on the defensive due to its inability to explain the origin of the pandemic that emanated from its soil, and the manifest belligerence of US President Donald Trump to take Beijing to task.

He was cognisant that if he could leverage the country’s reputation as the pharmacy of the world as well as the destination for medical tourism, then many diplomatic and humanitarian goals could be met. India could recover its lost influence in the region that had been nibbled away by the Chinese over the years through their Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and dragging countries like Pakistan and Sri Lanka into debt trap.

Credibility question

During wars and other calamities in the neighbourhood, Indian doctors had acquitted themselves well. Afghans swear by them, and most of the flights between Kabul and Delhi are largely full of patients seeking medical help in Delhi hospitals. A former Indian Ambassador to Kabul recounts of the touching faith the Afghans had in Indian doctors: “They will bring a nan (bread) with them and make the doctor take a bite so that the left over could be taken to their village where it could be eaten by their sick relative. So he could get cured.”

Soldiers savaged in the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and in the Yemeni civil war are also being treated in Delhi hospitals. It was this credibility that was put to use at the time when Modi spoke to the SAARC leaders.

It’s apparent that the Prime Minister dispatching medical consignments of paracetamol and hydroxylchloroquine (HCQ) to neighbours and beyond failed to yield the necessary dividends when news of how right wing religious bigots had begun to communalise the pandemic by blaming its spread on the Muslims.

The Tablighi Jamaat that has 150 offices in different countries of the world was shown as the reason for the spread of this virus.

The briefing by the Health Ministry where the spread was attributed to them communalised matters further.

Thereafter, there has been a backlash against the government in the UAE, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia with many influential twitter handles criticised India’s manifest departure from secular values.

With global oil prices nosediving and Indian migrants returning home, there will be a marked change in the way our foreign policy, built on the bedrock of secularism and inclusion, would countenance challenges of the future, both near and far, once coronavirus pandemic ends.

The writer is the Editor of Hardnews Magazine

Published on May 08, 2020

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