After India chose to retaliate in kind, the Pakistanis have recalled their high commissioner for consultations.
Using diplomats as whipping-boys in India-Pakistan relations is neither new nor is it likely to end anytime soon. Basically, while India wants the status quo to be maintained, Pakistan is a revisionist power that repeatedly since 1947 has sought to alter the lines dividing the two nations in the west, particularly the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir. Thus, during phases of the resumed bilateral dialogue, called “composite dialogue” since 1997 till the Narendra Modi government renamed it the “comprehensive dialogue”, the diplomats are largely left alone except for residual surveillance or close monitoring of suspected spies masquerading as diplomats.
But once the political channel weakens, the security apparatus in Pakistan, led by the military’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), ups the harassment of Indian diplomats, staff and their families. This can take extreme forms like picking up non-diplomatic officials for interrogation on the pretext of espionage or the declaring of diplomatic officials, allegedly for such activity, as persona non grata, effectively forcing their immediate recall. Normally a tit-for-tat response follows, with similar expulsions by the other country. The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations 1963 provides for such action.
But the convention does not provide for harassment of another nation’s diplomats. In fact, under Article 44, even during armed hostilities, it mandates that diplomatic officials and staff must be allowed to leave at the earliest and without trouble. Under Article 30, even the “private residence” of a protected person is inviolable. Thus, some of the behaviour reported by the Indian high commissioner in Islamabad about intrusions into homes, shutting off of water or emptying of surplus tanks, etc, is a clear breach of the convention.
In the past, the surveillance has always been an irritant, though sometimes with humorous outcomes. An Indian envoy having lost his way en route to an appointment stopped, walked back to the tailing car and, tongue in cheek, requested them to lead as they surely knew the way and were anyway heading for the same destination. But such humour has been missing of late as the surveillance has got aggressive and even abusive or obstructive.
After India chose to retaliate in kind, the Pakistanis have recalled their high commissioner for consultations. Reports indicate that he is unlikely to return anytime soon. Meanwhile, Pakistan has decided to skip the WTO ministerial that India had convened, as a mark of protest over the ill-treatment of their diplomats and their families.
Generally, in the past, retaliatory treatment has had a salutary effect as the Pakistan foreign office gets a handle on their security agencies and reels them back. This time that seems unlikely in the short run as Pakistan has already entered an election cycle and the government is weak after repeated attacks by the military-judiciary combine on the PML(N) leadership and the Nawaz Sharif family. The Pakistani military is also keeping the Line of Control in Kashmir in a free-fire condition, hoping to sustain militancy in the Kashmir Valley, by maintaining the supply of new mujahideen and boosting the morale of depleted but residual cadres.
But is this peculiar to South Asia? In August 2017, the United States withdrew some diplomats from Cuba as they complained of nausea, hearing loss, headaches, etc. The US determined that they had been subjected to a “secret Cuban sonic weapon”, probably employed for snooping but which had unexpected health effects. This started after President Donald Trump was elected. The US embassy, opened by his predecessor Barack Obama in July-August 2015, had experienced no such difficulties earlier. Before that period, visiting US diplomats were given the Pakistan-type treatment.
Surely the Pakistani agencies realise that such ham-handed behaviour with diplomats will degrade the very instrument needed to maintain proper communication between the two estranged nations. One immediate consequence has been India advising its personnel to restrict movement to the high commission compound in Islamabad, and to ensure that non-diplomatic staff use cars with diplomatic plates for forays into Islamabad. The next step could be declaring Islamabad a non-family station, as many Western nations already have due to the terrorism theat. India may, unlike them, on a reciprocal basis also restrict Pakistani numbers in their New Delhi mission.
Pakistan is signalling that the so-called “zero tolerance” policy of the Narendra Modi government, premised on no talks till terrorism is eliminated, India-specific militant groups curbed and the conspirators of 26/11 brought to justice, has failed. Undeniably, boycotting Pakistan bilaterally cannot result in mere stasis or animated suspension. Pakistan will provoke matters by heating up the border, attempting another “Jadhav” episode, misbehaving with Indian diplomats or boycotting Indian meetings, etc. The aim is to provoke, invite international attention to the standoff and project defiance. Pakistan would also align more forcefully with other neighbours resentful of Indian dominance in South Asia.
Iran inviting the Pakistanis and the Chinese to Chabahar to consider cooperation indicates that all countries are hedging their bets. The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia proclaims that if Iran gets nuclear weapons they shall likewise do so swiftly. The only quick method decipherable is for Pakistan to transfer some to them, in delayed payment for past financing of their programme and continuing financial support. Then there is the perennial Chinese hand propping up Pakistan, even economically now through the $60-billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. US President Donald Trump waving a periodic fist at Pakistan should not be the sole determinant of its isolation.
Thus, restoring normality to the functioning of diplomatic missions should be a priority, provided that the Pakistan foreign office has some control left on that country’s security agencies. The Indian government will also soon be in its final year, and multiple election cycles may not leave it with the will to tweak its Pakistan policy. Thus, Indian and Pakistani diplomats may have a harrowing year ahead: of being strong-armed by the security agencies.