Hijacking raises S. Asia tensions

With tongue-lashing and shadow boxing, India and Pakistan try to

Arrests, diplomatic gymnastics, threats and counterthreats, maneuvering and posturing, the occasional land-mine blast - and an eye to President Clinton's upcoming trip to South Asia: In other words, the daily stuff of India-Pakistan relations.

Yet in the wake of an eight-day hijacking of an Indian Airlines aircraft by militants that immobilized New Delhi, tensions between India and Pakistan - already bad - have risen another notch. How much tension between these nuclear powers is fire, however, and how much is the usual smoke - remains unclear.

Partly the new bad vibes come from the Delhi government trying to shore up its image at home and abroad, after trading arrested militant leaders for the 155 hostages - an approach the party in power had long eschewed. India also is pushing the international community to declare Pakistan a rogue, terrorist-exporting state, a bold effort that dramatizes how distant the two nations are from the brief glow of the Lahore "bus diplomacy" of less than a year ago.

Tensions also are due in part to uncertainty and continued strife over old wounds. The Kashmir dispute, the cause of last spring's small war between the two countries, is an issue that continues to anger Islamic militants that operate freely in Kashmir, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

Cross-border rhetoric in recent days has been predictably loud, at times approaching a schoolyard-style exchange of threats. In response to a question by a CNN reporter, Pakistan's chief executive Gen. Pervez Musharraf stated he would not hesitate to use nuclear weapons if his country was attacked. Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes responded immediately, challenging Pakistan to fight a war, "anytime, anywhere."

Since the release of the hostages on New Year's Eve, maneuvers on both sides of the India-Pakistan border have sought to exploit the hijacking drama. Last week, Maulana Masood Azhar, the militant leader demanded as ransom by the hijackers and released by India, showed up in Karachi, Pakistan. He vowed at a rally in an Islamic seminary to continue the fight to liberate the Indian-controlled and Muslim-majority Kashmir valley, shouting "Death to India, Death to the United States."

The next day, India arrested four Muslims in Bombay who allegedly aided the five hijackers who took over the Indian Airlines flight from Kathmandu, Nepal, to New Delhi on Christmas Eve. The fresh arrests were seen as a move by Delhi to compensate for the militants it earlier released.

For much of the 1990s, India has attempted to sunder the US doctrine of "symmetry" in South Asia - the equal diplomatic treatment of long-time ally Pakistan, and the larger and more powerful, former Soviet-leaning India.

Last week, partly in pursuit of that goal, experts say, and in an attempt to bond more closely to the US, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee stated that "India strongly urges major nations of the world to declare Pakistan a terrorist state."

Mr. Vajpayee last February co-sponsored the first peace agreement between India and Pakistan in many years - a process that ended during the "Kargil war" last May, when Islamic militants occupied positions on the Indian side of the line of control in Kashmir.

General Musharraf responded by saying the Indian prime minister's diplomatic initiative was part of a conspiracy to malign Pakistan abroad.

Washington has not obliged India's request. James Rubin, US State Department spokesman, states that India has not provided enough of the evidence it claims to have for such a threshold decision to be made.

(In light of Mr. Masood's threats to Americans, Mr. Rubin held Pakistan responsible for Masood's activities, and said, "Pakistan must assure the safety of Americans, Indians, and all foreigners in Pakistan." Masood's group, the Harkat ul Mujahideen, kidnapped five Western hikers in Kashmir in the mid-1990s; one was beheaded, and the others are still missing.)

For the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Hindu nationalists in power in Delhi, handling the hijacking has been characterized as a series of blunders and missteps. Negotiations conducted in Kandahar, Afghanistan, by Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh were the one bright spot. The government delayed responding to the crisis for 12 hours. At one point, as the plane was refused a landing in Lahore, Pakistan, it landed in Amritsar on Indian soil - but the government could not decide how to respond. Nor has Delhi accounted for many seeming misstatements during and since. While Indian officials stated for a week that the hijackers came on a Pakistani plane from Karachi to Nepal, Indian Airlines officials say no Pakistani planes were scheduled in the manner described. While the four Bombay Muslims arrested last week are charged with involvement in the hijacking, the Bombay police chief told reporters that the men were wanted for questioning in a bank robbery, and he knew nothing about other activities. And so on.

As for tensions, most experts feel that Pakistan and India have such a close understanding of each other's psychology, that it is doubtful either side would escalate to an all-out war. However, Stephen Cohen of the Brookings Institution argues that rhetorical posturing and shadow boxing by two nations can lead to "unintended consequences."

"The hijacking is like acts that happen every day in Kashmir," states K. Subramanyam, a leading Indian defense analyst in New Delhi. "For 53 years India and Pakistan relations have remained like this, and as long as Pakistan adheres to a two-state theory of India, it will remain so."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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