Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: An errant Indian missile enters Pakistani airspace, India’s Karnataka state upholds a ban on hijabs in classrooms, and Sri Lanka’s economic crisis takes a political toll.
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India and Pakistan Avert Security Crisis
Last week, while the world focused its attention on the war in Ukraine, an Indian supersonic missile flew into Pakistani territory and nearly provoked a major security crisis. Disaster was averted, thanks to good luck and measured reactions by both parties. But the incident underscored how an isolated event could risk serious escalation between two nuclear rivals.
On March 10, Pakistani military spokesperson Gen. Babar Iftikhar announced that the previous evening the Pakistan Air Force tracked an unarmed high-speed object that traveled from India far into Pakistani territory before falling near Mian Channu, about 80 miles over the Indian border. An Air Force official said the object was in Pakistani airspace for just under four minutes. “Whatever caused this incident to happen, it is for the Indians to explain,” Iftikhar said.
The next day, the Indian defense ministry released a brief statement saying that a malfunction during routine maintenance “led to the accidental firing of a missile” and promising an investigation. Pakistan’s foreign ministry issued its own statement with a series of questions, including what safety measures India has in place to prevent accidental missile launches and why India hadn’t notified Pakistan about the incident. (Indian media outlets cited unnamed sources saying Pakistan was informed “long before” Iftikhar’s press conference).
Pakistan then summoned India’s chargé d’affaires in Islamabad for an explanation and urged the world to look into the incident. The absence of further escalation can be attributed to good fortune: The missile didn’t cause any casualties, although according to the Pakistan Air Force, several commercial airliners were “in the area” of the missile’s path. The only damage was a collapsed wall near the crash site, which was in a residential area. Had there been loss of life or had the missile landed on a Pakistani military target, things would have likely escalated.
Pakistan’s overall response was measured, with no threats of retaliation—although Bloomberg reports, citing unnamed Pakistani sources, that Islamabad briefly considered firing its own missile. India’s reaction, while terse, was not defensive or confrontational, which follows an easing of tensions since the two countries signed a border cease-fire last year. Had the Indian missile flown into Pakistan at a more fraught moment, the reaction from both capitals would not have been nearly as restrained.
However, the accidental launch raises troubling questions. Islamabad likely lacks the capacity to shoot down such a fast-moving projectile, which Pakistani officials believe was a cruise missile. If something similar happens again, the same risks of escalation will come into play, given the possibility of casualties on the ground or in the air. Pakistan would not respond well to such a provocative act happening again.
Then there’s the issue of the “technical malfunction” itself. India’s missile fleet has had a strong safety record in record years, which makes an egregious error surprising. This fact, coupled with India’s lack of communication with Pakistan immediately after the launch, has prompted some Pakistani defense experts to raise the possibility that the launch was intentional—an operation to test Islamabad’s response, including its ability to bring down such a missile.
Indian officials, including Defense Minister Rajnath Singh, insist the launch was a mistake. Given the high escalatory risks of such an operation, India would have little incentive to carry out such a reckless experiment. Additionally, experts point to some opacity when it comes to the safety record of New Delhi’s missile program. There may be some vulnerabilities that haven’t made it to the public domain—meaning the chances of a serious accident may be greater than previously thought.
Since becoming nuclear weapons states in 1998, India and Pakistan have used various forms of conventional military force against each other, including a brief conflict in 1999. But any use of force between the two countries poses a risk of potentially catastrophic escalation. Pakistan has never adopted a no-first use policy, meaning that it reserves the right to be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict. This incident was particularly dangerous because Pakistan had no warning about the threat and likely no capacity to eliminate it.
The ideal coda to this crisis that could have been is for New Delhi to complete its promised investigation and ensure a scare like this doesn’t happen again.
Friday-Saturday, March 19-20: Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida visits New Delhi.
Monday, March 21: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison hold a virtual summit.
Tuesday-Wednesday, March 22-23: Pakistan hosts a meeting of the foreign ministers from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
Indian court upholds hijab ban in classrooms. Educational institutions in India’s Karnataka state can ban the hijab after a high court ruling on Tuesday following a ban by a college in the state. Several Muslim students had filed petitions asserting that India’s constitution gives them the right to wear headscarves, but the court found that the hijab is not “essential” to Islam and that wearing the hijab in classrooms undermines the constitutional principle of secularism.
These justifications are ironic, given that recent government actions have stoked concerns about threats to secularism and anti-Muslim discrimination. These include the repeal of the autonomy of Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir, a law that grants religious minorities a fast track to Indian citizenship but excludes Muslims, and anti-Muslim hate speech from senior ruling party leaders. Critics will argue the Karnataka court ruling follows this trend.
Pakistani political tensions. The political temperature is rising in Islamabad amid high inflation and debt that is likely to worsen due to rising global oil prices. In recent days, a beleaguered Prime Minister Imran Khan has delivered a series of speeches condemning the opposition, which plans to bring forward a no-confidence vote against him in Pakistan’s parliament. Khan has accused opposition leaders of conspiring with the West to try to oust him, often in colorful language. On Tuesday, he said that “if they are the ones to save Pakistan, it is better to drown with Imran Khan.”
No Pakistani prime minister has been removed from power by a no-confidence vote. However, opposition leaders say they have the votes for a simple majority (172 of 342 seats in the lower house), including support from other legislators outside the ruling coalition. In an ominous sign for Khan, several members of the ruling party suggested on Thursday that they will vote in favor of the no-confidence motion. Khan’s survival will hinge on both denying the opposition those votes and maintaining the support of Pakistan’s powerful military.
During Khan’s four years in power, civil-military relations have been relatively smooth. But he did spar with Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa in November 2021 about the succession process for the country’s new spy chief. Khan’s relentless anti-West messaging in recent days may worry the military, given Pakistan’s important trade relationships with the European Union and the United States, and the army’s support for continued security cooperation with the West.
Senior U.S. official meets Taliban foreign minister. Thomas West, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, met with Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi on Friday in Antalya, Turkey. The timing reflects Washington’s continued commitment to focusing on Afghanistan even as much of its foreign-policy bandwidth has been redirected to the war in Ukraine. The meeting came on the heels of new U.S. government licenses that allow the private sector to conduct limited financial transactions in Afghanistan without violating sanctions.
A readout from a Taliban spokesperson said the two sides reached an agreement that $3.5 billion in Afghan central bank assets held in the U.S. Federal Reserve—recently unfrozen by the Biden administration—will not be used for humanitarian assistance, suggesting the funds would eventually end up back in the possession of the Afghan central bank. Although West had previously indicated his receptivity to such an idea, the U.S. readout of the meeting did not mention an agreement.
“Let’s not mince words here. With all that’s happening, it’s terrifying to be a Muslim in India today.”
—Indian journalist Zeba Warsi reacts to the Indian court ruling in Karnataka that upholds a hijab ban in classrooms
Under the Radar
Sri Lanka is suffering South Asia’s worst economic crisis, with inflation hitting 15 percent last month, which is starting to take its toll on one of the region’s newest governments. Thousands of members of the political opposition took to the streets in Colombo on Tuesday in a rare protest against the administration of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who took office in 2020. Sri Lanka has experienced economic stress for months, driven in great part by the COVID-19 pandemic’s devastating toll on the country’s tourism industry.
In recent days, Sri Lankan political commentators have speculated about the possibility of Rajapaksa forming a new national unity government to allow him to better tackle the crisis. However, one key political figure who is not a member of the current government, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, rejected such rumors and said the country needs a new national consensus, not a new government. He also admitted the opposition is “fragmented.”
For now, Colombo is banking on a mix of relief measures and shock treatment. On Tuesday, Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa traveled to India to finalize an agreement for a $1 billion line of credit negotiated earlier this year. The arrangement will be used to import food and medicine. Colombo has also initiated negotiations with the International Monetary Fund about a possible deal to boost its foreign reserves, which fell by 70 percent in the last two years.
A deal with the IMF would require austerity measures. Gotabaya Rajapaksa also plans to bring more expertise in to the government. In an address to the nation on Wednesday, he announced the formation of a National Economic Council to help tackle the crisis.
A Daily Mirror editorial argues that Sri Lanka’s current economic problems mirror a severe crisis in the 1970s, and that Colombo can learn from the corrective measures implemented back then, which greatly improved food security. “It is time to eat humble pie and if necessary, seek advice from persons who were involved in past programs,” it says.
Economist Tshering Lhamo argues in Kuensel that the growth of digital technology in Bhutan has resulted in new security threats, from cyberattacks to misinformation. She argues that addressing these threats requires domestic responses as well as “international collaboration and cooperation at the technical, policy, and law enforcement levels.”
Academic Jiba Raj Pokharel writes in the Himalayan Times about forest fires raging through Nepal. He calls for the construction of more ponds, which can stop the spread of fires by reducing temperatures and increasing humidity.