When Pakistan closed its airspace for Indian flights after the 2019 Balakot airstrike, it was largely seen as defensive measure against any similar punitive action and also a political maneuver to placate domestic resentment. However, since Islamabad maintained that besides uprooting some trees, the Indian Air Force strike had caused no other damage whatsoever, it was widely expected that this was a temporary curb that would soon be lifted. While this may today appear to be an overoptimistic inference, but at that time there were good reasons to believe so.
Cash strapped Islamabad was making good money by allowing overflights going to and coming from India. At the same time, airlines using Pakistani airspace too were saving a lot on fuel expenditure and as such were more than happy to pay for overflights. So, it was widely expected that practical wisdom would prevail over a bruised ego that had influenced Islamabad’s ill-considered and self-debilitating decision of using its airspace as a ‘weapon’ against India, as this was nothing but a classic example of cutting the nose to spite the face!
However, Pakistan refused to open its airspace for flights coming from and going to India. Three and a half months after the Balakot airstrike, Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Aviation Ghulam Sarwar Khan admitted to the media that due to closure of the country’s airspace, Pakistan’s Civil Aviation Authority had occurred a staggering loss of Rs 8.5 billion. Even though he accepted that this was a “huge loss” for Pakistan’s aviation industry, he wasn’t at all perturbed.
Au contraire, by saying that “… this restriction hit India harder than Pakistan [as] the loss of India is almost double,” the aviation minister confirmed that Islamabad was actually taking perverse delight at India’s discomfiture. It seems that he overlooked the fact that with a GDP that’s nearly ten times that of Pakistan, New Delhi could easily assimilate the additional monetary burden on this account without any hiccups, Islamabad’s precarious financial fundamentals outrightly precluded the luxury of it deriving vicarious pleasure at the cost of losing revenue.
Islamabad keeps alleging that New Delhi is neglecting Kashmiris. So, when Islamabad allowed overflight clearance to a private Indian airline [Go First] for direct flights between Srinagar-Sharjah in 2019, it was clearly a deft diplomatic move to prop up its crumbling Kashmir strategy. Though not stated as such, but it’s obvious that Islamabad gave this overflight permission so that it could project itself as the genuine well-wishers of Kashmiris by telling the international community that it had opened its airspace exclusively for easing air travel and cargo movement from/to Srinagar and Sharjah for the sake of so called ‘oppressed’ people of Kashmir.
Unfortunately for Islamabad, its plan backfired. After getting overflight permission, Go First airlines signed a MoU with UAE based LuLu Group [which is the largest retailer in the Gulf region] to tranship cargo from Srinagar to Sharjah. After signing the MoU LuLu Group director Salim M. A spoke about “the immense opportunities that we have for the exports from here,” and confirmed that “we will be able to take a lot of fruit, vegetables and antique and craft and a lot more items. We assure you that we will do our best to export goods from Kashmir.”
Facility for showcasing various items produced and manufactured in Kashmir across the lucrative middle east markets came as a windfall for locals as it would substantially improve the financial condition of locals. While everyone was extremely happy with this deal, Islamabad was unsettled by this development, which it had not foreseen, and there were many reasons for this.
Firstly, a Kashmir making rapid strides towards prosperity would expose Pakistan’s false propaganda that New Delhi was running a covert programme to ensure that Kashmiris remain economically marginalised. Secondly, prosperity in Kashmir would further heighten existing resentment amongst the restive residents of Pakistan occupied Kashmir who were living in pathetic conditions. Thirdly, once prosperity comes to Kashmir, the youth would realise the immense dividends of peace and be unwilling to fight Pakistan’s proxy war in the garb of ‘armed struggle’, which is the main impediment to investment in the Valley. So, even though unprecedented, Islamabad’s suspension of the overflight sanction accorded to Go First airways, without assigning any reasons, was expected.
Islamabad’s aim was simple- cancellation of overflight facility would force the airline flying between Srinagar and Sharjah to take a more circuitous route, making cargo transportation a prohibitively costly proposition. To put it bluntly and precisely, what Islamabad did was tantamount to sabotaging the prosperity of Kashmiris!
This incident exposes the dark side of Pakistan’s Kashmir policy. On the one hand Prime Minister Imran Khan and even Pakistan army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa sheds copious tears on what they allege is institutionalised ‘persecution’ of Kashmiris, and project Pakistan as their genuine ‘well-wisher’. However, on the other hand, in order to suit its own self-serving interests, Islamabad just can’t bear to see the people of Kashmir happy and prospering. The people of Kashmir need to seriously introspect and this is the harsh and undeniable reality.
Stoic silence of the All Party Hurriyat Conference [APHC] and other pro-Pakistan lobbyists on the sudden suspension of overflight facility for airlines flying between Srinagar and Sharjah is another issue that Kashmiris should take note of. When it was abundantly clear that flights on this route would greatly benefit the people of Kashmir, why didn’t APHC leaders [who claim to be ‘real’ representatives of Kashmiris] request Islamabad to review its overflight revocation?
Luckily, with the J&K government now signing a MoU with the LuLu Group to set up a food processing and logistics hub in Srinagar, the plan to enhance and accelerate commercial activity in Kashmir, [which Islamabad had tried to thwart by its overflight revocation] now has a happy ending. Thanks to J&K govt’s determined efforts, products of Kashmir will now find place in 190 LuLu hypermarkets across the Gulf Cooperation Council and Egypt.
The food processing and commercial hub at Srinagar is the latest Kashmir-centric venture that follows the $100 million investment deal signed between J&K Government and Century Financial for three hotels and one commercial-cum-residential complex in the Union Territory. With the center allocating a ₹28,400 crore industrial package and J&K government already having signed a MoU with Dubai for real estate development, industrial parks, IT towers, multi-purpose towers, logistics, medical college and super-speciality hospitals, the UT of J&K will witness a sea-change in the days to come.
A word of caution. For reasons explained above, Pakistan will leave no stone unturned to ‘sabotage’ developmental activities in J&K through disruptive acts through its proxies. So, there’s a need for New Delhi to ensure that Pakistan’s nefarious designs are effectively thwarted. Kashmiri youth too have to decide whether they wish to follow the path of self-destruction in the form of ‘armed struggle’ being advocated by Pakistan, or facilitate Kashmir’s march towards peace and prosperity.