Pakistani Rangers (REAR) and Indian Border Security Force (BSF) personnel fold their respective national flags as they perform during the daily beating of the retreat ceremony on the India-Pakistan Border at Wagah on February 20, 2017. / AFP / NARINDER NANU (Photo credit should read NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images)
© AFP

The International Court of Justice will on Monday hear an extremely rare case involving India and Pakistan, as tensions between the two neighbours rise over Islamabad’s conviction of an Indian citizen for espionage and renewed violence in the mountainous, Muslim-majority Kashmir region.

After initial overtures by Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, to his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, relations have deteriorated sharply in the past year. Mutual suspicions have also risen, especially after 18 Indian soldiers were killed in an attack in Kashmir in September.

The recent beheading of two Indian soldiers— patrolling along the line of control that divides Kashmir between Indian and Pakistan — augurs poorly for the relationship in coming months, as do fresh clashes between Kashmir protesters and Indian security forces.

“We are in for a nasty period,” says Dhruva Jaishankar, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, India. “We are in a period of medium to long-term chill in relations and I don’t see how it can reverse itself.” 

On Monday, the ICJ will hear the complaint from New Delhi accusing Pakistan of “ egregious violations” of the Vienna Convention for its treatment of Kulbhushan Jadhav, a 47-year-old retired Indian military officer who has been in Pakistani custody since March 2016. 

Last month, Mr Jadhav was convicted of espionage and sabotage, and sentenced to death, in a secret military tribunal, which New Delhi called “farcical”.

India complained to the ICJ that its 16 formal requests to Pakistan for consular access to Mr Jadhav have been repeatedly rebuffed — in “contravention” of international law — and has asked for a stay on his execution. 

Mr Jadhav’s capture remains mysterious. India claims he was “kidnapped from Iran,” where he owned a business, while Islamabad insists he was arrested in its troubled Baluchistan province, where insurgents have staged terror attacks.

The appeal to the ICJ is an unusual departure for India, which typically insists its differences with Pakistan must be resolved bilaterally, without international mediation.

Yet Gopal Baglay, an Indian foreign ministry spokesman, said New Delhi was determined to save an Indian citizen being “illegally held” and denied a fair trial. “This is a course of action we have chosen after careful deliberation and consideration in the interest of saving a life and ensuring justice for a son of India,” he told reporters. 

Mr Jadhav’s controversial trial came shortly after the disappearance of a retired Pakistani army officer, who believed he had been shortlisted for a lucrative job and travelled to Nepal, on a ticket provided to him, for an interview. 

Pakistani authorities believe he was abducted by India to exchange for Mr Jadhav — a possibility that analysts say cannot be ruled out. 

“I don’t think it would be beyond the Indian intelligence services to capture Pakistani personnel in retaliation for what they consider grave provocation,” says Shashank Joshi, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. “There’s evidence that they’ve thought long and hard about covert means of retaliation.” 

Relations have also been strained by rising militant violence and civilian unrest in Kashmir, where Indian security forces maintain an overwhelming presence, after decades of fighting a separatist insurgency that New Delhi accuses Pakistan of fomenting and financing. 

Anger was stoked last week by the abduction and murder of an off-duty unarmed Indian army soldier, who had returned to his native village in the Kashmir Valley for his cousin’s wedding. In a recent interview with the FT, Shehbaz Sharif, chief minister of Pakistan’s Punjab province — and the prime minister’s brother, rejected allegations that Islamabad has stoked violence in Kashmir. 

 “What’s happening in the valley is a very genuine internal . . . war for liberty and freedom,” Mr Sharif said. “Pakistan has nothing to do with this, at all.” 

But he also warned the continuing unrest could lead to a confrontation. “This can create a situation any time . . . which can go out of control of all stakeholders.”

Indian actions also suggest it is gearing up for potential escalation, with recent tests of its BrahMos cruise missile, and hurried efforts to replenish its depleted ammunition stockpile. “The Indians are trying to signal to the Pakistanis that they take the military option extremely seriously — it’s not just a show,” says Mr Joshi. “What Modi is trying to deter is an attack in which more than a couple of dozen Indian troops get killed, which would be a national outrage and force his hand.”

Additional reporting by Kiran Stacey and Henny Sender in Lahore and Farhan Bokhari in Islamabad

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