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India’s dangerous politics of water

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IT has been discussed in fringe and jingoistic circles for years, but since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi threatened to use water as a weapon against Pakistan, India’s rights under the Indus Waters Treaty has become a mainstream topic in India — a disturbing and unwelcome development that needs to be handled with utmost seriousness and care.
The IWT is the most durable and effective of dispute-resolution mechanisms that India and Pakistan have; the treaty has survived wars, conflicts and long periods of diplomatic and military tensions between the two countries.
That is all the more remarkable given that the two countries have been for most of their history agrarian societies and the Indus is Pakistan’s primary riverine irrigation system. But two factors appear to be changing a right-wing Indian government’s approach to water politics.
First, the state of Punjab in India is set to hold elections early next year and water politics is playing a crucial role.
Not only are farmers agitating in the state, but a water dispute with neighbouring Haryana has accentuated the problems. Seemingly hoping to take advantage of the possible electoral turmoil, Prime Minister Modi has waded into the water disputes in a politically advantageous manner.
The suggestion that somehow India’s rightful share of water is being lost to Pakistan and that the BJP government can use diplomatic and legal muscle to give the Indian farmers an advantage may appeal to a domestic audience.
Second, water appears to be a tool that India may want to implicitly threaten Pakistan with in the debate on counter terrorism. In fact, the first ominous mention of water and Pakistan’s reliance on the Indus water system by Prime Minister Modi came after the Uri attack in September.
The connection was dangerous and immediately clear: if Pakistan did not address the concerns India had about terrorism, the latter country would turn to tough means to try and exert pressure on Pakistan.
Never mind that the IWT is a time-tested framework, India has tried to send a signal that it may not stop at anything to get its way.
In the face of fresh Indian provocation, Pakistan has responded in a sensible manner. The adviser to the prime minister on foreign affairs Sartaj Aziz’s calm and measured response may not suit bellicose hawks, but diplomacy must go beyond the emotional and look to the overall situation a country faces, both internal and external.
Rejecting tit-for-tat responses is a sensible approach that will help keep attention where it is needed, ie on the continuing repression in India-held Kashmir.
Indeed, it is entirely plausible that a great deal of India’s actions and threat towards Pakistan are designed to elicit a response that pushes the repression in IHK further down the international agenda. Furthermore, while the so-called surgical strikes were a clear attempt to deflect domestic pressure in India, Pakistan should be mindful to not let India’s diversionary tactics become something more.
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