Full Text: ‘We’ve to Be on Guard So That Spillover From Pakistan’s Developments Don’t Impact India'

'We've to be constantly on our guard, but the fact that there is so much civil strife and civil-military dissonance [in Pakistan], it is an additional factor for us to take into account as we evaluate our own internal and external security threats,' says former diplomat T.C.A. Raghavan in an interview with Karan Thapar.

As Pakistan undergoes a crisis, with the military going full throttle against former prime minister Imran Khan, what should India watch out for in such a scenario?  On May 22, Karan Thapar spoke to former High Commissioner to Islamabad T.C.A. Raghavan to discuss how concerned India should be when our neighbour, a nuclear power, is going through constitutional, political and economic crises.

The following is a transcript of the interview, edited lightly for style, clarity and syntax.


With Pakistan locked in an ever-increasing, widening and deepening web of crises – constitutional, political and economic – we ask how concerned should we in India be.

To answer that key question, we have one of our foremost experts in Pakistan – former High Commissioner to Islamabad and former Director General of the Indian Council of World Affairs, T.C.A. Raghavan.

Let me repeat that essential question.

With Pakistan caught in a deepening and worsening web of crisis – constitutional, political, and economic – and additionally, with terrorism becoming an increasing problem, how concerned should we be in India?

Thank you for inviting me to your show. Evidently, because of the long adversarial nature of our relationship with Pakistan, we have to be very concerned about whatever is happening over there, and certainly, it goes without saying we have to be on our guard so that spillover developments from that internal churn do not impact us adversely.  So yes, I would say we need to be certainly on top of all the developments in Afghanistan and very very watchful about the possible impact on us.

Let me quote to you what Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Center in Washington D.C. has told the BBC just a couple of days ago. He says and I’m quoting him, “When your rightful neighbour, a nation that volatile even at the best of times, is experiencing severe political stress, bouts of large-scale unrest, and especially concerns about the cohesiveness of the army leadership, then you should be worried.” Would you go as strong as that we need to be worried in India, and not just concerned?

I would agree. I think that given the state, or the intensity, of the situation in Pakistan, there is every reason for us to be worried and that worry can have different dimensions because contrary to the view of some who think that chronic instability in Pakistan is something which serves our interest, I am in agreement with those [who believe] that such chronic instability is not good in terms of our national interests.

So certainly, given the fact that we know more this time, or we have heard more this time about the possible rifts in the army, about the extent of political polarisation, about the severe civil-military differences which have cropped up, there is every cause for us to not just be concerned but also worry.

Let’s discuss a couple of scenarios that could develop [in such a scenario]. Firstly, with the Pakistan Army distracted by its enormous troubles at home, is it likely that it could take its eyes off terrorist groups like the LeT [Lashkar-e-Taiba] and the Jaish [Jaish-e-Mohammed], who in turn, sensing the opportunity, could step up the anti-Indian activity. Is that a credible fear at the moment?

To be realistic that fear has always existed with Pakistan because whatever might be one’s opinion of the Pakistan military, the fact is they are not effective in controlling the structures which they create, and that applies both to the politicians who grow rogue and also to terrorist outfits. So that threat of terrorist attack either with or without the complicity of the Pakistan military has always been there, and will certainly continue to be there. Given the chaos in Pakistan, does that [the threat] go up by a few notches? Possibly, it does.

When you say ‘go up by a few notches’ and ‘possibly’, does that mean it’s gone up fairly considerably or just marginally?

It’s very difficult to make that evaluation. I don’t think we can be in a position where we can relax a bit because Pakistan is fully stable, or there is a harmonious situation prevailing within it. We need to be more concerned because of [Pakistan’s] internal turmoil.

We have to be constantly on our guard, but the fact that there is so much civil strife and civil-military dissonance [in Pakistan], it is an additional factor for us to take into account as we evaluate our own internal and external security threats.

At this point, let me ask you a specific question in connection with the issue that we are discussing. Are you worried about the G20 meeting in Srinagar, which begins today (May 22) and will continue till May 24. Could that G20 meeting in Srinagar provide a tempting target for terrorists, who, as you know, have already stepped up their activity, fairly worryingly in the recent weeks, in the Poonch-Rajouri area. I know Srinagar is not quite there, but it [the G20 meeting] is a tempting target. Should it be concerned?

Certainly, high-profile events in Jammu and Kashmir, or for that matter elsewhere in India, do create a window of opportunity for terrorists, who want publicity, in terms of attacks, [who] time those certain times for maximum impact. So yes, I would say the G20 meeting adds to the overall security threats that we confront.

Was it wise to hold the meeting or was this something that we have to do and bite the bullet and get on with it?

I would say that it is a call which the government has to take. Certainly, we cannot be deterred by the possible threats of terrorist attacks from embarking on something which we want to do. I think to do so would be a cop-out and would not be in the traditions of Indian governance.

This question, for instance, came up in the past, once, at the inauguration of the Srinagar–Muzaffarabad Bus, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had gone there to inaugurate the bus. And [back then, too] there were major terrorist attacks. And, there was the view that this was in a way providing a target. But the fact is, you wanted to do it because you felt that was the direction to take. So you cannot let terrorist attacks or the fear of terrorist attacks deter you from embarking on a course of action you have decided.

Let me put a second scenario that could develop as a result of the critical confusion in Pakistan. As Pakistan Army’s image and standing within the country gets steadily weaker, do you think there’s a possibility it might seek to assert control by signalling strengths on the Kashmir front, leading to either an increase in cross-border activity, or even a breakdown of the ceasefire on the LoC [Line of Control], which has held fairly remarkably well over the last two years?

But that factor is always there at a time of civil-military strife. Or when the image of the Pakistan Army is dented, that is a general consideration. It is always there. But that’s not to say that the general consideration is always valid. We don’t have to embark on the root of the self-fulfilling prophecy that this is something inevitably which is going to happen because logically it appears so. I do think that while there may be greater dissonance in the Pakistan military today than there has been in the past, but there will also be a larger awareness in the higher command of the military as to is it in their overall interest to create a situation with India by stepping away from the ceasefire or by any other steps. I think, possibly, there will be enough people within the Pakistan military who feel that would not be in their overall interests.

So, you are not as concerned about the second scenario as you were [concerned] about the first. Have I understood that correctly?

I’m generally concerned. Because you cannot rule out any particular scenario. I’m just cautious about going down, as I said, the root of a self-fulfilling prophecy, and imagining or thinking that the worst is about to happen, or has happened. It’s good to be prepared for different situations but not necessarily act as if the worst case scenarios are upon you.

Let me at this stage slightly widen our discussion. We are talking about an increasing, widening, and a deepening web of crises in Pakistan, but I define them, initially, as constitutional, political, and economic. I want to now raise a possibility of a developing crisis, but I am not sure if it’s a full-fledged crisis, within the Pakistan army. Doubts are emerging that General Munir, the Army Chief, may not be fully in control. Why people have these doubts is because after Lieutenant General [Salman Fayyaz] Ghani was sacked as Corps Commander on May 9 and 10, websites in Pakistan, not foreign websites, showed two different generals as his successor.

Lieutenant General Fayyaz Hussian Shah was being shown as the first successor, but over the last three to four days, Lieutenant General Syed Aamer Raza was being shown as the successor. This means that in course of 13 to 14 days, the Lahore Corps Commander has changed three times.

Does this indicate that there is tension within the higher ranks of the army and that General Munir, the army chief, has no control over it? [Does this mean] he perhaps doesn’t have the full loyalty of his generals. Secondly, if those doubts are credible, how worrying are they, how much more do they add to this mix of crises in the country?

These rumours about the Lahore Corps Commander have been there for the past week or so. I don’t think anyone really knows what is happening. As you pointed out that most of this information is coming from Pakistani journalists themselves, to some extent events playing out in Pakistan have greater transparency today than they have ever had before, but we still certainly don’t know what is the situation regarding the Lahore Corps Commander.

It’s also a fact that the current chief, who has been in this position only since November-end, has not had the time to stamp his authority on the higher command. Usually, that happens in Pakistan when he has been able to reshuffle the senior generals and get a team of his choice in place. That has not happened so far and it was expected that would happen by September-October, but the crisis developed and matured before that.

So yes, there is this question, whether the Pakistan Army Chief is fully in control. What does that mean? Are there serious rifts in the higher command? At the same time, my own feeling is that the Pakistan army remains a disciplined formation.

The army chief is certainly conscious of the fact that he has to put the full weight of his authority behind what he is doing, which is why he has been touring, quiet feverishly, different core headquarters over the past three or four days. So far, apart from the sacking of the Lahore Core Commander, there is uncertainty about who has been appointed in his place.

There is no other significant sign which suggests deep rifts or further rifts. My sense is that the higher command will rally around him, and certainly, the torching of the Core Commander’s house in Lahore has acted to consolidate the opinion within the military behind the chief to some extent at least. I think that the kind of noises that were emerging from ex-servicemen and former retired officers, those have gone down by quite a few steps. So overall, I think we see a situation where the command is going to hold together, but these are uncertain times for Pakistan and nobody is entirely sure.

Two quick questions, am I right in saying that this is the first time after literally decades that the authority of the Army Chief of the Pakistan army seems to be in question? And that hasn’t happened for a very long time. Secondly, do you believe that there are fissures between jawans and lower rank officers and the top generals over the issue of Imran [Khan] and is that is another weakening element for the army?

You are right. These kinds of fissures have erupted after some time, primarily, because the transition from one chief to another was in itself quite a messy affair, but it’s not as if these fissures are totally unknown, or we have to go deep into Pakistan’s history to look up for them. They have happened before, especially, during the times of civil-military imbalance or civil-military dissonance.

Musharraf, for instance, was sacked when he was returning to Pakistan, and someone else was appointed as Army Chief. Then there was a coup. There have been cases like this. General Munir was removed as DG ISI after only a few months in the post.

The present situation is unsual, but it’s not unprecedented.

On the question of fissures going down to the jawan level and to the junior officer level, to my knowledge, we have heard less about that. The real signs of dissonance have come from retired officers, colonels, brigadiers, a few general officers, and particularly, the signs of dissonance have come from the families of serving senior officers. Imran Khan has a wide appeal; he has almost a cult-like status. But it’s also an appeal which is spearheaded by the middle class which is dissatisfied with the old style of politics and they want change quickly and they think that Imran Khan can deliver that change.

We hear less about peasants’ commitment to his movement. That is the constituency from which the rank and file are recruited.

So we hear less about that. I don’t see that as a major factor. Certainly, there is some dissonance from retired officers, serving officers, families – the upper crust of Pakistan’s society.

Do we ought to be concerned about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons? Could they fall into the wrong hands because of the turmoil in the country, and perhaps the tensions within the top brass of the army? Or is that an exaggerated fear?

At this stage, it is an exaggerated fear, because those fears have always been there. We’ve had views in the past about Zia’s generals, who are deeply committed Islamic extremists, taking control of nuclear weapons, or terrorist outfits seeking control of nuclear weapons.

I think that the key question is, is the higher command in the Pakistani army intact? If it is not intact, [then] we go into a totally uncharted domain. Right now there are signs which we should be monitoring. But I don’t think there is a serious possibility of the military command structure breaking into a number of factions.

Also read: With the Pakistan State in Paralysis, Millions of Pakistanis Struggle to Put Food on Table

Let me widen the ambit of our discussion. There is another aspect of the crisis in Pakistan: social unrest caused by both the treatment of Imran Khan, but perhaps, more importantly, social unrest caused by the economic crisis with inflation soaring above 36%, and a shortage of essential food items. How concerning is this social unrest for India?

The social unrest will have less of a direct impact on us. There are exaggerated fears about the economy totally imploding, and refugees coming into India. Those fears are exaggerated.

The chronology of the current crisis began with Imran Khan’s removal in a vote of confidence, followed by a major climatic crisis, in the form of floods, and some of the flooded areas were quite close to the Indian borders, especially from the Sindh, Rajasthan, sector.

Then there’s deep economic crisis. Pakistan’s currency has depreciated by 50% in about 11 months, but there are no signs that this has propelled the people to think of abandoning their homes and moving towards India.

There are some exaggerated noises to that effect in some circles in India. But certainly, social unrest in Pakistan is increasing. It’s possibly going to continue to increase. But the social unrest in Pakistan is not directly impacting us. So far, there is no sign that the state structures in Pakistan are imploding. I don’t see that happening.

There are some people in India who talk about Pakistan imploding, not just [in terms of] the economy but the politics of the country, and its integrity, its social cohesion. Is that a possibility? Or can it be better explained by saying this is an exaggerated schadenfreude on the part of the people in India, who don’t like Pakistan?

It’s an exaggerated fear, an exaggerated schadenfreude. If one looks at the past quarter century, Pakistan has had recurrent crises. This time, Pakistan was hit by three or four times with different kinds of crises. So therefore, the dramatic intensity has increased, and the magnitude has increased, but it’s not a new situation for Pakistan to be battling crises.

The schadenfreude is inevitable in India given the serial nature of our relationship, and the fact that so many terrorist attacks have been carried out against civilians. So it is inevitable, but I would say we will have to abandon schadenfreude, if there is a realistic threat of Pakistan cracking up, or extremists gaining the upper hand in the running of the country. Because this is a country with nuclear weapons. [This is a country] with whom you have a deeply adversarial history. So, the stability of that country is also a part of your national interest.

Let me ask you two more questions. Given everything we have discussed, as someone who understands Pakistan’s past better than most people, and I shall point out to the audience that you have had several tenures there. In addition to being the High Commissioner, you were also deputy High Commissioner, a few years before that, and you were also in charge of Pakistan in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for a very long time.

Altogether, your knowledge of that country is probably unsurpassed. This leads to two questions. What should be the Indian government’s response to the problems across the border, given the possibility that they could deteriorate? So far, we have waited and watched. Is that the wisest course of action?

I would think so. Whenever Pakistan has gone through a domestic churn, our traditional postures have been to try to insulate ourselves from what is happening there. Don’t become a factor in that mess. By and large that appears to be the position now. I think it’s a wise position. It’s an entirely domestic situation.

There is very little way that any external power can do to control it. So even apart from India, none of Pakistan’s other external powers are in a position to control the current situation. It is something which Pakistan has to resolve for itself. So we should stay out of that domestic churn, insulate ourselves from it. And, wait and watch to see what happens.

My last question is, is there a case for offering economic assistance? For instance, [India offering] wheat or vegetables. Would that not enhance our standing in the South Asia region where we are very keen to be recognised as the leaders? And, secondly, our problem, surely, is with the government of Pakistan, and not with the people suffering there. Offering them economic assistance could build some body of support in that country that is more willing to be realistic towards India.

So is there a case for offering economic assistance to a neighbour whose countrymen were our countrymen 75 years ago?

Any such offers from India will not be seen as benign. Most Pakistanis would see it as Indians relishing the difficulties which Pakistanis are facing. So we should resist any such temptation. Whatever we could do is in any case going to be limited. And, given the intensity of events in Pakistan, we should refrain from any optical gestures, as I said, our policy in the past always was to try to insulate yourself from a domestic churn, don’t become a factor in it and its a wise policy and we should stick with it.