Harassment of Indian diplomats reflects ascendance of Pakistan Army, pettiness of intelligence agencies

Tara Kartha

The tale is sordid in the extreme. Diplomats followed around, their residences broken into, electricity and water cut off, and successive acts of hooliganism all designed to apply severe mental stress on professionals doing their job. Unfortunately, Pakistan's aggressive tactics against Indian diplomats can't be said to have yet reached a new low: That ebb was reached years ago, when in 1992, Rajesh Mittal was beaten and tortured for days in an incident that shocked the international community. Mittal had to be repatriated back to India in a wheelchair, a mental and physical wreck. But that low could come, and worse may follow.

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

Incidents of diplomats being physically assaulted have surfaced regularly, whenever bilateral relations hit a road block. In January 2000 for instance, another Indian official from the High Commission was beaten up on his way to attend church. Yet another was abducted later, with Pakistani authorities refusing to heed frantic calls from the embassy. India has also retaliated to such brutality, but in New Delhi, the level of violence has been extremely restricted, though forms of 'aggressive surveillance' have been practiced in the past, and possibly continues.

Yet, notwithstanding these incidents, there have been times when each behaved with circumspection, and even dignity. When Pakistan declared at least 8 Indian diplomats and staff members as persona non grata in late 2016 in a tit-for-tat incident, all were permitted to leave unharmed with a minimum of exposure in the press.

Notably, this occurred just a month after surgical strikes by India, which should have led to an outbreak of violence against high commission staffers and officials. That it did not, was probably due to the fact that there was a civilian government still at the helm that was in reasonable control of the situation. For all his alleged pecuniary problems, then prime minister Nawaz Sharif was more interested in stabilising his country than in exacting petty revenge.

It is undeniably true that diplomats in hostile countries often face some harassment. For example, US diplomats have complained of Soviet-era type harassment in Moscow, particularly following Russian action in Crimea. It is also tacitly accepted that all embassies have an intelligence element, often at fairly high levels. Since this is a mutual arrangement, each country pretends not to know the identity of the station chief, as the intelligence head in the embassy is known. Identifying him publicly is considered the height of impropriety in intelligence circles which have their own somewhat dark code of conduct.

Pakistan, however, regularly flouts this fundamental norm. In May 2011, it publicly named the CIA station chief, thus causing potential harm to not only the officer personally, but also the activities of the agency. In another case, Pakistan also 'named and shamed' an Indian official in Islamabad, who had allegedly been caught in a honey trap incident. India has, however, never indulged in such tactics, respecting the Delhi Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) station chief's identity, even as it gives him little room for his activities.

The present outbreak of violence can therefore be laid at the door of two factors. First, the fact that under the virtual rule of the Pakistan Army, intelligence agencies are being allowed full freedom to act according to their own departmental interests. This is apparent in the pettiness involved €" which includes denying the ambassador membership of the Islamabad Club €" which smacks of decision making at very junior levels. Second, the incidents also highlight the slow but sure fall of the country's governance structures into a state where they find anarchical behaviour not in the least unusual or worthy of comment.

An article by Stephen M Walt in Foreign Policy outlining Ten Signs of Creeping Authoritarianism assessed President Donald Trump's performance at the White House with some alarm. When tallied against the Pakistan Army chief's performance so far, the warning signs are likely to go off the meter. That said, a comparison is unfair, given that Pakistan has hardly ever been a democratic nation and therefore has few of the characteristics that are used routinely to assess other democracies.

However, there are two points that needs to be noted. First, the problem is not just that there are warning signs of an authoritarian regime emerging. After all, Pakistan has had dictators before. The issue is that the character of the dictator and his coterie €" the Pakistan Army €" is changing to one that is accustomed and comfortable with violence. That is a problem for Pakistanis themselves and it is also a problem for its neighbours.

The possibility of a rise in violence against our diplomats, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan is therefore likely to be high. Look out for more trouble in the months ahead. Second, take care not to fall into the slippery slope of 'tit-for-tat' diplomacy. This country is just too big for that. Besides, that way lies anarchy.

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