Should India abrogate Indus Water Treaty as a response to cross-border terrorism?

In this article…

In 2020, the Indus Water Treaty has completed 60 years. The Indus Water Treaty is the water-sharing agreement between India and Pakistan, mediated by the World Bank. It was signed in Karachi in 1960 by Pundit Nehru and Ayub Khan. This treaty gives control of three “eastern flowing rivers” – Satluj, Beas, and Ravi to India and “western flowing rivers – Chenab, Jhelum, and Indus to Pakistan. India was allocated about 18% of the total water carried by the Indus system and the rest of the water is allocated to Pakistan.

After 60 years, it is being demanded not only by some citizens but by political scientists like Brahma Chellaney to use Hydro-diplomacy to discipline Pakistan. This article will discuss the unstoppable attempt by Pakistan to use non-state actors in foreign policy and its context. It will discuss the arguments that support abrogation. Followed by which it will provide concrete arguments why India should refrain from such steps.

Should we relook at the IWT agreement?

After India’s defeat in 1962 in the hand of China, Pakistan got motivated to repeat the same. Motivation from China and Political instability in India after the death of pundit Nehru have given the opportunity to Pakistan to attack India. However, India successfully defeated Pakistan in the 1965 war. Followed by this, ‘forced migration’ to India from the then “East Pakistan” forced India to intervene and liberate Bangladesh from the clutches of Pakistan in the 1971 wars.

Since then Pakistan realized India’s capability to peruse hard power and the successful operations of R&AW since 1968 under the leadership of Ramnath Kao. Pakistan shifted its policy from direct confrontation to the use of non-state actors in foreign affairs. Pakistan formulated a military doctrine “Bleed India with a thousand cuts” against India. It traces its origin in a speech to the UNSC in 1965, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, former PM and former President of Pakistan declared a thousand-year war against India. Later it was shaped by the military dictator of Pakistan, Zia Ul Haq.

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This military doctrine consists of waging a covert war against India using insurgents at multiple locations. This doctrine was first attempted during the Punjab insurgency and then in the Kashmir insurgency using India’s western border with Pakistan. Pakistan misused the Porus border shared between India and Nepal, shared water, and loose boundaries to insert trained militants into India. According to Husain Haqqani, former Pakistan’s ambassador to the USA, ‘Pakistan sees jihad as a low-cost option to bleed India.’ The Mumbai attack (2008), Pathankot attack (2016), Uri attack (2016), and Pulwama attack (2019) are merely manifestations

Assertions for the abrogation

With the surge of social media, in India people have been sharing thoughts to counter Pakistan. It has been common among some citizens who believe in “teaching” lessons to Pakistan by abrogating the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) of 1960. In the media panel, it is discussed as an alternative option to respond to Pakistan under the nuclear overhang between India and Pakistan. There have been comparative analyses too where it is argued that other upper riparian doesn’t compromise as India does. An example of China’s bullying with respect to the Brahmaputra river is often quoted in this context.

Realist scholars like Bramha Chellaney argue that this treaty has been in favor of Pakistan where India gets only 18% of the water and the rest is allocated to Pakistan. According to him, since isolating Pakistan is not working, India may consider the step that will compel Pakistan to mend its ways. He claims that India has not been using ‘Hydro-diplomacy’ significantly at par with China. It would not be unique for the world because countries come out of treaties when it doesn’t suit. For example, the US is also coming out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty.

Reasons for not abrogating Indus Water Treaty

The ILO Declaration of Philadelphia, 1944 states “Poverty anywhere is a threat to prosperity everywhere.” In the context of the Indus Water Treaty, it indicates that poverty in Pakistan has the potential to influence the prosperity of India adversely. First, If India abrogates this treaty, poverty in Pakistan would probably increase because 65% of agricultural land in Pakistan is irrigated by water from the Indus, which accounts for approximately 90% of the country’s food and fiber production. It would make people more vulnerable in the hand of anti-India terrorists to use terror activities. The role of Ajmal Kasab in the Mumbai attack is one of the experiences.

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Second, For India, it is not economically viable to abrogate Indus Water Treaty 1960. It would lead to excessive divergence of economic resources in acting against nature. It would have spillover impacts like a local flood, and displacement of local people. Third, It is also ecologically not feasible. Rivers, Mountains, and other geographical features are naturally created as per the demand of nature. Any significant disturbance in nature will disturb ecological balance as well. It may harm flora and fauna existing in Indus Water System.

Fourth, Article XII of the IWT 1960 says that it “may from time to time be modified” but by a duly ratified treaty concluded for that purpose between the two governments. Thus, it will go against the spirit of this treaty if we make any unilateral changes and also reduce India’s credibility in the eyes of the world as a rule breaker. Fifth, consequently, it may impact relations with other countries with which India has treaties such as Bangladesh and Nepal. At the same time, China can threaten part of the water supply in retaliation.

Sixth, strategically it is not advisable because it will allow anti-India elements to accuse India of water terrorism. Thus, it could increase more infiltration and more attacks and defeat the very purpose of abrogating the Indus Water Treaty. Seventh, It is also diplomatically not advisable when India projects itself as a responsible state to gain membership in NSG and UNSC. Such kind of negative decisions is the characteristics of failed and irresponsible states and not the emerging powers like India.

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Eighth, such kinds of actions are also against the problem-solving attitude. According to the World Bank report, it has been one of the most successful treaties in the world. It would not be a wise idea to disturb the settled dust. It would lead to the proliferation of problems instead of reduction. Ninth, an English political theorist, GDH Cole in his concept of functional sovereignty suggests that the sovereignty need not be concentrated only in the hand of the state. It should also be shifted into the specialist bodies. Thus, there should also have the role of environmentalists, and social scientists to decide.

Way ahead

Since it has been one of the most successful treaties in the world, India should not disturb this peace. Instead, the government of India should try to increase engagement with not only the government but also with the people of Pakistan by following the footprints of the social constructivists. Unilateral withdrawal will only establish India as an irresponsible player. We should not ignore, the advice of Gramsci that ‘whatever action one takes, it should be able to garner the consent in its favor.’

India should revive the ‘composite dialogue’ started back in 1998. It was based on the functionalist approach which speaks for ‘peace by pieces’. It means to improve relations with any other country and start talks with less conflictual issues by keeping more conflictual issues aside for a moment. Once the dust of less conflictual issues is settled, it would give them the confidence to start, discuss, and settle the more conflictual issues prevailing between the two nations.

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