Former Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan’s arrest by paramilitary forces on Tuesday triggered widespread violence against Pakistan’s army by his supporters, deepening the instability in the country already stricken by economic crisis.
Some experts suggest that this instability is a matter of concern for India. They contend that the Pakistani Army, in an attempt to ease the pressure it faces domestically may employ diversionary tactics against India. However, other experts argue that the power gap between the two countries is too great for India to be worried.
Imran Khan vs Pakistan Army
Khan arrest in a corruption case on Tuesday prompted supporters of his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, to take to the streets against the Pakistani military, who they allege is behind Khan’s arrest. The former prime minister faces at least 121 legal cases, the Press Trust of India reported. These include cases related to treason, blasphemy, terrorism and inciting violence.
Videos shared on social media showed Khan’s supporters burning the Corps Commander’s house in Lahore and even entering the Army’s national headquarters in Rawalpindi.
The Pakistani military, which has long history of wielding political power, has faced an unprecedented attack from Khan since his government was ousted in a parliamentary vote in April 2022.
On Wednesday, Khan’s party called for a nationwide strike to protest his arrest, leading to the possibility of even more conflict.
The unprecedented situation has led some analysts to speculate that a state of emergency may be imposed, or the army may carry out another coup. There has also been speculation of a possible mutiny within the army ranks that could lead to Army Chief General Asim Munir being replaced.
Through its seven-decade long history, Pakistan has faced several military coups and spells of army rule.
Pakistan’s crisis a concern for India?
Pakistan is India’s second-largest neighbour and a nuclear-armed state. Since their twin birth in 1947, the two countries have fought several wars. Pakistan has also supported militants who have frequently attacked India.
Given this history, experts such as Avinash Paliwal, associate professor in international relations at SOAS, University of London, suggest that the instability in Pakistan is a matter of concern for India. “Breakdown of consensus on the ceasefire [along the Line of Control] is a clear near-term concern for India,” Paliwal told Scroll. “[Pakistani Army chief] Munir has guaranteed continuing the ceasefire. But, if his position is dislocated, we don’t know if the ceasefire will hold.”
For two years, India and Pakistan have observed a ceasefire along the Line of Control – the military control line separating the two countries in Jammu and Kashmir. The demarcation does not amount to an international border.
Paliwal also maintains that it is possible that the Pakistani Army may carry out diversionary attacks against India to ease the pressure it faces at home. In this case, Pakistan’s lower military capability compared to India will not be a consideration for Islamabad, Paliwal suggests.“Rationality may go down the drain if there is an escalation,” he argued. “There’s political logic at play. The Pakistani Army would prefer getting embarrassed by India instead of someone within Pakistan like Imran Khan.”
Yashovardhan Jha Azad, former security secretary to the Indian government and chairman of Delhi-based think tank DeepStrat, concurred. “The hardliners want to take over the [Pakistani Army] establishment,” Azad told Scroll. “This can create vulnerability on our border as the ceasefire may break. The Pakistani Army may also try to activate the India border, citing an ‘external threat’, by using terrorists against India.”
‘More pressure on Pak, less problems for India’
However, not all experts share these concerns. “The pressure [on the Pakistani Army] from the local population has never been this bad,” Lt General DS Hooda (Retd) of the Indian Army told Scroll. “So, they may try to divert the attention of the people by doing something in Jammu and Kashmir. However, because [Pakistan is] facing economic and political crisis, and challenges on its western border with Afghanistan, the Pakistan Army may not want to provoke India this time.”
He added, “It’s possible, but the likelihood is low.”
A former senior Union government official with expertise in handling security and intelligence-related to Pakistan, who did not want to be identified, agreed. “This is Pakistan’s internal problem, so India should not be too concerned as long as there are no repercussions across the border,” the expert told Scroll.
He too said that while India must remain alert to avoid possible diversionary attacks by the Pakistani Army, such incidents are unlikely. “They are not equipped to handle a retaliation from India, if they do something,” he argued.
Ajai Sahni, author and executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management, made a similar argument. “For Pakistan to do that, it needs to be in a position to absorb the backlash,” Sahni told Scroll.
Ajay Behera, professor of international studies at Jamia Millia Islamia university, also argued that the Pakistani Army will not resort to diversionary attacks. “Some past examples show that these diversionary tactics make Pakistan suffer more,” Behera said. “The Pakistani Army can’t afford adventurism because dealing with the fallout instead of handling the internal political situation might become a diversionary issue for themselves.”
Sahni also argued that there are no significant concerns for India vis-à-vis the crisis in Pakistan at the moment. “In my assessment, more pressure on Pakistan means less problems for India,” he said.
Be prepared for the worst
Atul Mishra, associate professor for international relations at Shiv Nadar University, said that India has no significant concerns over the crisis in Pakistan because it has firewalled itself. “There are virtually no relations left with Pakistan,” Mishra said. “India’s material stakes in Pakistan are next to nil.”
Mishra also argued that Pakistan will not stage diversionary attacks on India because deterrence is in place. “India’s threshold to tolerate attacks by Pakistan has gone down significantly,” Mishra said. “India’s volume of force used in retaliation has also gone up.”
Further, Harsh V Pant, Vice President of Studies and Foreign Policy at the Observer Research Foundation, said that India does not face any particular risk even if the Pakistani Army takes over. “A lot of these concerns about nuclear weapons or the [Line of Control] becoming more volatile are perhaps overblown at this stage,” Pant told Scroll.
Pant added, “I don’t think that element of external troublemaking is there [in the Pakistani Army]. But, India will have to be aware and prepared for the worst.”