The recent decision by the government of India to call off the India-Pakistan foreign secretary level talks scheduled for August 25 in Islamabad, has raised a debate inside the country on the new government’s Pakistan policy.
From whatever information available, the decision was taken by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in consultation with Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj. And the reason: despite a message to the Pakistani Ambassador in New Delhi Abdul Bashit from the Indian Foreign Secretary Ms. Sujata Singh not to meet the Kashmiri Hurriyat Conference leaders before the talk, Ambassador Bashit did exactly that.
From one point of view this was an affront from the Pakistani envoy. The Hurriyat leaders, notwithstanding their stand for an independent Kashmir, are Indian citizens, and Bashit was meeting them in India.
According to the Pakistani position as well as that of some Indian experts, Pakistani officials and leaders have been meeting Hurriyat leaders for the last 19 years. Even Pakistani President Pervez Musharaf met them in Agra the day before the summit meeting. The Pakistanis have taken it as their right to meet the Hurriyat leaders who Islamabad thinks represent the Kashmiris, and the third stake-holder in the Kashmir dispute. Either the Pakistanis have not read Narendra Modi, or they are testing him out. There are some very clever people back home in Pakistan and they would certainly have drawn a rough character sketch of Modi.
Prime Minister Modi gave a loud and clear signal when he invited all heads of SAARC governments for his swearing in ceremony. It was a departure form past practices. The most important invitee of course, was Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. For Indians, it was a peaceful and happy diplomatic coup by the new Indian Prime Minister who is known to be unorthodox in his ways, and rigid once he takes a decision.
Meeting with the Hurriyat leaders naturally came up. Nawaz Sharif was persuaded not to meet the Huriyat leaders, and he did not. According to reports from Islamabad, the Pak army was not keen that Nawaz Sharif visit India for the occasion. In their calculations, perhaps, the visit could signal a softening of Pakistan’s position in India. Nawaz Sharif’s younger brother and the Chief Minister of Punjab Province, Shabaz Sharif had to negotiate and plead with army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif to get the army’s clearance for his India visit for Prime Minister Modi’s investiture ceremony.
The development, once again proved that the army continued its clear hold over their India policy. Nawaz Sharif committed one transgression- he stayed overnight after the formal dinner to hold talks with Modi, which he was not supposed to do. He may have to pay a price for that. There are some questions that need to be resolved in India. Is the issue of allowing Pakistani officials to meet Hurriyat leaders written in stone? After 19 years of this practice it is still debatable what has been achieved. There was the ‘Kargil’ war, the ‘Mumbai’ terrorist attack, and continuous cross-border terrorism.
Next, why the Hurriyat Conference? They are hardline separatists. They have not demonstrated in any way that they represent the voice of the Kashmiri people. Yes, they have gained notoriety by leaning towards terrorists, and take orders from the ISI periodically. How does this help India?
The Hurriyat leaders claim they are for independence of Kashmir. It is known Pakistan is not in favour of an independent Kashmir. That would be strategically inconvenient for them, and the Hurriyat leaders know that.
Then there is the question of the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir. Neither Hindu Jammu nor Buddhist Ladakh are in line with the Muslim majority Kashmir valley. And the valley must take into consideration the Hindu population, and the Kashmiri Pundits who were driven out of the valley in 1990 and live in appalling conditions in camps in Jammu.
The moot question is which party/group can represent Kashmir as a third stakeholder. None. At a stretch, the ruling political party in Kashmir should be the one to represent the Kashmiri people in a democratic process, if at all.
Pakistan’s official position is emphatic on their “political and moral” support to the people of Kashmir, and their dialogue with the Hurriyat leaders is an important example. This bizarre practice has been allowed by successive Indian governments including by BJP led NDA government under Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. This had led to a situation that Pakistan interpreted as their legal right supported by the international community.
Although neither the Simla Agreement nor the Lahore Declaration endorse or even mention the Pak-Hurriyat meetings, the stoppage of the talks has created confusion in India. Promoters of a soft line have criticized the decision as a negative step while realists feel that it was time that the Indian government stopped appeasing Pakistan.
The argument that Prime minster Modi’s action may have weakened Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s position does not pass muster. Yes, the Sharifs are pro-business but have they been really successful even in a minor break through in trade with India? This is the third time that Nawaz Sharif became prime minister of Pakistan. He failed to complete the two previous terms. The last time Gen. Parvez Musharraf removed him in a coup after the Kargil war. Musharraf has said that Nawaz was kept informed of the Kargil plan. The close contacts of the Sharif brothers with hard-line terrorist groups who have religious cover is well known. The organization of viscerally anti-India Hafeez Saeed receives money from the Punjab budget, overseen by Shabaz Sharif. India does not matter with regard to Nawaz Sharif’s prime ministership. It is the internal political dynamics of Pakistan and the army that matters. Moving into the political fray caused by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and religious leader Tahir-ul-Qadri against Nawaz Sharif, the army has acquired its desired power in the affairs of the state. The army can stage another coup very easily, but it suits them now to ride on the government without taking over the government.
It may not be correct to assume that an irritated Pakistan has stepped up crossborder firing. In fact, Pakistan may read such feelings in India and increase provocation to just catalyse warring sentiments. Much worse, crossborder violation has been committed by Pakistan earlier especially the gruesome beheading of an Indian soldier, demonstrating their extreme mind-set, like that of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). This kind of twisted mentality is difficult to deal with for India.
It is a fact that the earlier UPA government has been too accommodative to Pakistan. Agreeing that Pakistan like India, was also suffering from terrorism in a written declaration at the NAM meeting in Sharm-el-Sheik made India lose its superior position. India has generally been accommodating and gracious with its neighbours.
But on Pakistan, accommodation has been excessive. Most Indian Prime Ministers like Pt. Nehru, I.K. Gujral, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Dr. Manmohan Sing had past emotional connection with the land that is now Pakistan. Indira Gandhi, though Pt. Nehru’s daughter, did not carry such baggage. Narendra Modi entirely bereft of any such connection has exposed his views on this matter periodically. As prime minister, however, Modi will have to polish the edges of his earlier views.
Calling off the talks with Pakistan the NDA government has taken upon itself a huge responsibility of charting out a new policy on Pakistan. Earlier governments in New Delhi had taken rigid positions, which had to be diluted when facing reality, because actions were not well thought out. India lost several points in bilateral relations.
Prime Minister Modi would have to resolutely stick to his position, while Pakistan will argue that talks cannot resume until their talks with the Hurriyat recommences. This can become a log jam. But everything has a cost and India will have to bear this cost and ensure that third parties do not enter in the guise of mediators. This cannot be allowed.
It may be recalled that China and the Soviet Union were in a long drawn out negotiation on their border issue. At the time of their worst bilateral relations (cold war, and Cultural Revolution in China), bilateral exchanges almost ceased. But border talks and discussions continued covertly. When the situation improved and both sides had leaders who wanted to normalize bilateral relations, the border issue was resolved. (After several years through intense discussions). Talks are very important. Even officials can meet discreetly. But it takes two to tango. If one partner does not follow the steps their arms and legs get entangled resulting in a crash.
It is time that the Pakistani hardliners understood that there can be no resolution of any bilateral dispute unless there is a total catharsis in the Pakistani army. India will have to be patient, and move ahead with the rest of the SAARC countries.
Red lines have been drawn on both sides. The preferred advice to both is to create a new structure for talks and conducting relations. The old structure is virtually dead.
(The writer is a New Delhi based strategic analyst. He can be reached at e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org)