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A false dichotomy? Civil-military relations and foreign policy preferences in Pakistan vis-à-vis India


Anil Trigunayat & Paras Ratna

Indo-Pak relations despite the last February ceasefire have been at their lowest. Deepening Mistrust between the two nuclear neighbours has become accentuated with the onset of Taliban in Afghanistan where Pakistani deep state continues to indulge in zero sum game while keeping the cross border terrorist activities into India alive. Fears of extremist groups and fighters fresh out of Afghanistan via Pakistan ingressing into J&K cannot be wished away. India’s recent efforts to host a regional meet of NSA’s in Delhi later in the week on dire situation and much needed assistance to embattled and deprived Afghan people has been shunned by the Pakistani NSA calling it as being done by a ‘Spoiler turning into Peacemaker’.

In fact, Rawalpindi has made every effort to keep New Delhi out of any peace talks or regional stabilization efforts for quite some time now considering it as its strategic advantage ‘Protectorate’ with the current Haqqani led Kabul establishment . Deep mistrust has kept the adversaries disengaged making bilateral and regional situations more volatile with China factor adding to the complication.

In India, generally, the impasse in the Indo-Pakistan relations despite the overtures by the successive governments is commonly attributed to the ‘strained’ civil-military relations in Pakistan. It is generally argued that the Pakistan military plays the spoilsport whenever civilian authority attempts to mend fences with India. Alternatively, an extensive corpus of literature emphasizes pre-partition intimacy, shared culture, and cuisine as a basis for advocating cordial ties between the ‘people’ of India and Pakistan. Here, politics is viewed as a corrupting influence, in the absence of which there will be an enduring warmth and bonhomie between the common masses in these two countries. However, the legitimacy of politics/political decision is contingent upon validation from the dominant actors/ institutions as well as masses, a point that is often relegated to footnotes in these analyses. India’s response at the recently held United Nations General Assembly targeting Pakistan for state-sponsored terrorism, garnered much traction in domestic media.

But a civil-military ‘consensus exists in Pakistan on issues of foreign policy and national security underscoring its legitimacy from the dominant factions of society. Hence, any civil military ‘divide’ in Pakistan on issues of national security and foreign policy is in degree and not in kind.

The enduring consensus

According to Milan & Nelson (2013), public sentiment is the key driver of decisions taken in the foreign policy/ national security sphere in Pakistan. In the context of the US-Pakistan ties, they argue that post 9/11, many Pakistanis started viewing Pakistan’s partnering with the US ‘war on terror in Afghanistan as the primary reason for an increased terrorist attack in Pakistan. This culminated in the consolidation of anti-American sentiment in the common Pakistanis. As a result, the Pakistan army refused to comply with the US pressure to act on the Haqqani network, LeT, and Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, and maintained that unilateral pressure compromised sovereignty. This resistance by the Pak army against the US pressure to act on terror sanctuaries resonated well with the prevailing mood of the masses. Washington Post in its report on Pakistan’s refusal to extend military operations from South Waziristan to Haqqanis in North Waziristan too noted that lack of public support is the key reason for ignoring US pleas. Therefore, the military decision is contingent upon legitimacy from the masses. This is further evident in the case of India, where ordinary Pakistanis view India as a single largest threat and have a comparatively less unfavourable attitude towards anti-India terror groups. Military rulers in Pakistan, such as Yahaya Khan, had to relinquish office in the event of negative public sentiment.

The same scrutiny applies to civilian governments in Pakistan. For example, the omission of the ‘K’ word, i.e. Kashmir, in the Ufa joint statement between India and Pakistan in 2016, led to intense domestic criticism of the Nawaz Sharif government, especially in the vernacular press. As a result, the then National Security Advisor Sartaj Aziz issued a statement emphasizing the centrality of Kashmir in the Indo-Pak ties. Similarly, Pakistan’s Economic Coordination Committee’s decision to import sugar and cotton from India was turned down by the Imran Khan-led cabinet in the wake of public outcry regarding resumption of trade without India reinstating the erstwhile special status of Kashmir. Therefore, a decision aimed at benefiting the masses was turned down because of public pressure of not engaging with India in the wake of constitutional changes in Kashmir. Thus, public/civil legitimacy holds the key for any decision on national security/ foreign policy issues.

Understanding Pakistan’s civil-military consensus

This enduring consensus over national security/foreign policy issues and subsequently its approach/policy towards India is a consequence of what Venkat Dhulipala argues as a “nationalist ideology that ambitiously imagined Pakistan as a new Medina, and a guiding light for the Muslim world”. He goes on to argue that the creation of Pakistan was not an accident- it was, in fact, intensely debated, deliberated, and rallied for and received substantial support from the relevant section of masses. The repeated emphasis by the Muslim League leaders on Islam (religion) as a necessary and sufficient way to foment political and cultural unity among the Muslims found its way into the policy-making in independent Pakistan. An excessive emphasis on religion to gain political legitimacy led to the eruption of cultural cum linguistic fault lines, eventually paving the way for the bifurcation of East Pakistan from West Pakistan in 1971. Independent Pakistan’s obsession with Kashmir could also be traced back to Muslim Leagues’ cartographical imagination of Kashmir as a part of Pakistan due to its Muslim majority population. This then formed the primary goal of Pakistan’s foreign and national security policy. Therefore, it is not a coincidence that the first war between India and Pakistan was fought over Kashmir. Additionally, the frequent deployment of hostage population theory by Muslim League Leaders during the course of generating consensus for Pakistan meant that minorities were not viewed from the prism of ‘equal citizens’ but as a blackmailing cum bargaining chip. This is reflected in Pakistan states’ treatment of minorities, including Hindus, Christians, and Sikhs who do not enjoy equal civic rights as their Muslim counterparts.

Popular culture is another dimension that contributes to this enduring civil-military consensus in Pakistan. Vernacular media is one of the most potent tools of popular culture in any society. Research suggests that Urdu media in Pakistan generally subjects India to vilification and portrays it as a ‘Hindu ‘country determined at the disintegration of Pakistan. Often ‘Hindus’ are portrayed as sly, backstabbers, and idol worshippers. Attempts of rapprochement by Indian authorities too are generally depicted as a ploy for destabilizing Pakistan. Further, it gives space to most wanted terrorists like Hafeez Sayeed, who use it as an instrument to propagate extremism by ramping up emotive issues like Kashmir.

School textbooks in Pakistan, too, are full of instances that promote extremism by vilifying Hindus/Sikhs and projecting India as their biggest threat. It glorifies Jihad and Shahadat (martyrdom) and encourages students to follow the same footsteps in their formative years. Further, there is repeated emphasis on the fundamental inconsistency between Hindus and Muslims, which formed the basis of partition. Here, it is important to note that the ideological lineage of these could be traced back to the articulation of the idea of Pakistan (new Medina) by Muslim League Leaders. This outlook has not only shaped Pakistan’s worldview but, to a large extent, also influenced its approach to managing diversity and competing claims at the domestic front.


It is evident that there exists an enduring civil-military consensus in Pakistan as far as their foreign and national security policy is concerned esp. towards India. Although India and Pakistan share a cultural intimacy, it is important to note that the nation-building /state-building process in independent Pakistan stressed the ‘differences’ to gain legitimacy for a nation distinct from India. This idea of Pakistan premised on irreconcilable differences between Hindus and Muslims forms the core of Pakistani nationalism and shapes its foreign and national security policy. Unless there is a constructive engagement within Pakistani society with its foundational principles , structural disjunct and rethinking of its priorities, above all abdication of cross border terrorism as an instrument of its foreign policy ,the chances of lasting peace with India are non-existent.

This article A false dichotomy? Civil-military relations and foreign policy preferences in Pakistan vis-à-vis India first appeared in Financial Express

About the Author

Anil%20Trigunayat 1 0

Anil Trigunayat, served as India’s ambassador in Jordan, Libya, and Malta.

Paras Ratna

Paras Ratna, an independent scholar who specializes in international relations in South Asia. He is an incoming doctoral candidate in South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore.

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