From a press leak and a tweet to beheadings and ICJ: The story behind the Indo-Pak standoff

As Indo-Pak relations hit rock bottom, the civil-military standoff in Pakistan has flared into the open. Could there be a link between the two?

As India-Pakistan relations took a turn for the worse at the beginning of May with the killing and mutilation of two Indian soldiers in the Krishna Ghati sector, followed by India’s decision to take the Kulbhushan Jadhav case to the Internal Court of Justice, internal differences between the Pakistani civilian and military leadership flared into the open. Could there be a link between the two developments?

For the past fortnight, speculation was rife about differences between Rawalpindi (Pakistan Army headquarters) and Islamabad (Pakistan capital) till a face to face meeting between Chief of Army Staff Gen Bajwa and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif cleared the air and back to back press conferences were held by Director General (Inter Services Public Relations) Major General Asif Ghafoor and Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali on May 10 and 11, indicating that the matter was settled.

Cyril Almeida. Image courtesy: Facebook/ The International Centre Goa
Cyril Almeida. Image courtesy: Facebook/ The International Centre Goa

The Dawnleaks

On October 6 last year Pakistani daily Dawn carried a story “Act against militants or face international isolation, civilians tell military” (dubbed Dawnleaks), reporting on a meeting held on October 3 between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, other cabinet ministers including Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali and Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif with Director General Inter-Services Intelligence Lt Gen Rizwan Akhtar and other military officers. At the meeting, Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry provided a briefing about Pakistan’s diplomatic isolation and the need to show forward movement on Indian demands relating to the Pathankot investigation and the Mumbai 2008 attack as well as action against Jaish-e-Mohammed leader Masood Azhar. He added that these suggestions were coming from the United States which wanted action against Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Haqqani group and even China privately. Shahbaz Sharif complained that the civilian government’s actions against the militants were consistently undermined by the military who managed to get them released, leading to a heated exchange between the civilians and military brass present.

Initially, the Dawn story was rejected as “baseless” but the army was convinced that the story had been deliberately leaked by the Prime Minister’s Office to discredit the army and the outgoing Chief of Army Staff Gen Raheel Sharif. Subsequently, Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali and Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif called on Gen Sharif to clarify matters. The first casualty was Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s trusted Information Minister Pervaiz Rashid who resigned, taking the rap for not having been able to prevent the story from being published. Under pressure from the army, a seven-member Inquiry Committee headed by a retired Judge Aamer Raza Khan with representatives from the ISI, Intelligence Bureau and Military Intelligence, Home and Information ministries was set up to investigate the leak. By now, the authenticity of the story was no longer being questioned. The author, Cyril Almeida was put on the Exit Control List which barred him from leaving the country though after a public hue and cry, this order was withdrawn.

The report of the Inquiry Committee was presented by the Interior Minister to Nawaz Sharif on April 26. Based on the Committee’s recommendations, Prime Minister’s Principal Secretary Fawad Hassan Fawad issued a notification on April 29 withdrawing the portfolio of Foreign Affairs from Prime Minsiter’s Special Assistant Syed Tareq Fatemi, departmental proceedings against Principal Information Officer Rao Tehsin Ali and asked the All Pakistan Newspapers Society to examine the role of Dawn, its editor and the reporter, for appropriate action.

An Incendiary Tweet

Hours later, Director General (Inter Services Public Relations) tweeted:

The tweet led to a veritable firestorm. The rejection of an establishment order from the PMO was a clear sign that the army was unhappy. Civilian leaders called it a zeher-e-quatil for Pakistani democracy. There were rumours that Principal Secretary Fawad had proceeded on leave, but these were later denied.

Meanwhile, it was reported that Indian businessman Sajjan Jindal had met Nawaz Sharif in Murree on April 27.

Dissatisfied by Nawaz Sharif’s daughter Maryam Sharif’s tweet that Jindal was an “old friend”, questions were asked by the opposition regarding the meeting.

Jindal had played a role in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprise visit to Lahore on December 25 in 2015 and there was speculation that perhaps Jindal had carried a message from Modi this time too.

This could be related to Kulbhushan Jadhav’s fate or the possibility of a bilateral meeting between the two leaders in Astana where both would be present for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting.

As the firestorm continued, the first fallout was Fatemi’s resignation. A 1967 batch foreign service officer, Fatemi had served as Additional Secretary in the PMO during 1998-99 and after retiring from service had joined Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz). He had been appointed Special Assistant with the rank of Minister of State. Then came the incident on the Line of Control clearly orchestrated by the Pakistani military. The Indian army has already announced that there shall be retaliatory action, at a time and place of its choosing. Repeated rejection of Indian requests for consular access to Kulbhushan Jadhav who had been sentenced to death by a field general court martial prompted India to approach the International Court of Justice on May 10.

Nawaz Sharif Image Courtesy: Daily Motion/ Video grab
Nawaz Sharif Image Courtesy: Daily Motion/ Video grab

Resetting the Limits

Meanwhile Chief of Army Staff Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa met Nawaz Sharif for a frank and private chat on May 4, followed up by efforts by Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali to work out a retreat on both sides. On May 10, the army issued a statement indicating that “the military spokesman tweet stands withdrawn”. It added that tweet had not been aimed at any person and the army supports the democratic process and the constitution. The following day, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali held a press conference where he announced that the matter had been settled.

Reading between the lines, the army seems to have made it clear that it will remain in the driver’s seat as far as Pakistan’s India policy is concerned. Freewheeling initiatives are not to be encouraged. With the stand-off, Bajwa has reassured his colleagues that he will not be a pliable chief of army staff, but will look after the army’s interests.

Nawaz Sharif knows that a military takeover in 2017 is much more difficult than in 1999 when he was deposed in a coup by Gen Pervez Musharraf. In the post-Zia period of 1988-99, the army had successfully manipulated the political parties. Witness the numerous changes in the prime ministership – Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif twice each, in addition to interim occupants like Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi, Balakhsher Mazari, Moeen Qureshi and Malik Meraj Mohammed.

After 2008, there is a greater assertion of civilian authority. The 18th constitutional amendment in 2010 removed the president’s unilateral powers (first introduced by Gen Zia) to dismiss a prime minister. This is why Nawaz Sharif is not averse to testing the waters on how to wrest control of policy in areas which the army has traditionally guarded as its exclusive preserve. The army has made the red lines clear to him. But it is an uneasy truce. It remains to be seen whether Nawaz Sharif will continue to question the limits or adopt a more cautious posture till the elections next year.

Former diplomat Rakesh Sood was the Prime Minister’s special envoy for disarmament and non-proliferation till May 2014. He is currently Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.

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