Spitting In The Wind

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A few days ago, India cancelled scheduled talks at the foreign secretary level with Pakistan to express its displeasure over the meeting between Pakistan’s high commissioner to Delhi, Abdul Basit, and leaders of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), a Kashmiri separatist group. Predictably, this has met with strong criticism from Pakistan, their former high commissioner to the United Kingdom calling Prime Minister Modi a hardliner. A section of the Indian media have also expressed disappointment at the cancellation of talks, suggesting that such gestures only strengthen the more extreme elements of Pakistan’s society.

It is only natural for Pakistan’s officials to defend its interests, and Basit’s statement that Pakistan has always met with separatists is only a statement of fact. The fault lies with the Indian side for allowing this practice to continue under previous administrations. Criticism from the Fourth Estate, however, needs to be taken with a grain of salt, especially since several senior journalists are part of the Track II Diplomacy gravy train. In a dynastic democracy like India, it is largely via such opportunities that journalists have access to the corridors of power and remain relevant in the news business. It is of little surprise then that they defend these perks jealously.

In his interesting article, R Jagannathan of FirstPost mentions Christine Fair’s work on the Pakistani state in which the American academic dismisses Kashmir as the crux of problems between India and Pakistan. If the raison d’etre of the Islamic Republic is anti-Indianism, Kashmir is merely one symptom of the problem and not a gateway to everlasting peace between the two South Asian neighbours. This point is worth considering at a broader strategic level but the more immediate reality that should cause greater concern at a tactical level is that negotiations with Islamabad have never borne fruit.

Despite several initiatives at various levels over the past two decades, India’s leaders have not brought home from Pakistan even a cessation of arbitrary cross-border firing: just in the past three weeks, Pakistan has fired upon Indian border outposts 16 times with small arms, automatic weapons, and even mortars. Indian soldiers have been abducted, tortured and killed along the border on several occasions. This is hardly the action of a state committed to peace talks.

These cross-border assaults are hardly new, nor are they minor in scope. In May 1999, Pakistan violated the Shimla Accords by seizing several heights in the Karakoram. Islamabad’s use of its regular troops as well as terrorists to achieve its goals were on clear display for the next two months during the Kargil War. The fighting proved that Pakistan has never seen peace treaties as anything more than temporary ceasefire agreements, not stepping stones to a lasting peace. If India could not force a peace upon Pakistan after humiliating it in war as India did in 1971, there is little reason to believe that summit meetings will do much to bring about India’s desired goals.

More recently, the attack on Bombay in 2008 was masterminded by terrorist kingpin Hafiz Saeed. Saeed is known to have close ties with Pakistani intelligence services and despite being a wanted man in both India and the United States – with a $10 million reward on his head – moves about freely, participating in Pakistan’s politics and society. Islamabad has refused to extradite Saeed on terrorism charges despite several requests and submission of evidence by India. Delhi has presented Pakistan with a list of at least 30 names but has been stonewalled consistently; the Pakistani government claims, for example, to have no knowledge of Dawood Ibrahim‘s whereabouts. Technically, one might argue that this goes against the spirit of the Sharm el-Sheikh discussions. If there was any genuine interest in peace in Islamabad, a little cooperation with India on these matters would have indicated so.

Then there are, of course, the nightly farces on Pakistani television wherein talk show hosts and guests pour vitriol on India. Zaid Hamid is a particularly entertaining variety of this genre though there are several others. One might be tempted to say something about the freedom of the press but one might suppress a snigger at the thought as one remembers the plight of journalists in the country. Pakistan keeps its journalists on a tight leash via official as well as unofficial means. It is highly unlikely that many of the “talk shows” that incite hatred of India go on without the tacit approval of Pakistan’s military.

One argument that has been made in favour of continued talks with Pakistan is that  their cancellation would strengthen the more extreme elements in Pakistan’s society; it is in India’s interests to maintain cordial relations with the moderates. This line of reasoning is utter nonsense. First, it is not India’s responsibility to secure for a Pakistani politician his constituency. While India would benefit from cooperative and moderate leaders, such figures have never been able to deliver on peace. Second, no civilian prime minister of Pakistan has ever gained control of its military or intelligence services. While India can be petulant about the failure of democracy in its western neighbour, a more fruitful strategy would be to learn to live with the military.

As US intelligence documents reveal, the new prime minister after the death of Zia ul-Haq, Benazir Bhutto, did not have a clue about the state of Pakistan’s nuclear programme, let alone control. The same situation occurred again during Kargil when Pakistan is rumoured to have put its nuclear missile forces on alert without the knowledge of the prime minister, Sharif. If there is anything India can learn from America’s adventures in the Middle East, it is that democracy cannot be foisted upon a people but must grow locally. Until Pakistan learns to be a democracy, it is best that India deal with the men who actually run the country, not those who are supposed to.

Modi has in fact been quite lenient with Pakistan until now. He has continued India’s traditional policy towards its vexed neighbour, one that has been a failure for the past three decades. The cancellation of talks at this juncture hopefully signifies some change in policy.

In terms of what sparked this frenzy, the APHC has no need to talk to Pakistan, the source of instability in the Kashmir Valley. If it wishes to discuss its grievances in Kashmir, the right authority to do it would be the Indian government; the practice of talking to Pakistan should never have been allowed. Delhi’s masters have been, at best, incompetent or, at worst, self-serving in their dealings with Islamabad.

Talking to Pakistan has proven a waste of time so far. There was no lack of carrot at India’s end while it repeatedly got the stick from Pakistan. Now, India needs to raise the price of even talking to Pakistan. For starters, it must not accept any talks with leaders who cannot deliver on their commitments. Diplomatic ties must be downgraded to the consular level, and trade and travel limited or taxed. Delhi must use its weight in international bodies to throttle aid to Pakistan whenever possible, or at least affix conditions that demand that the aid be sanitised from contact with terrorism via sub-contractors, finance, labour, and other avenues. If Pakistan is able to gain international sympathy and put pressure on Delhi to resume talks, they must be cursory in scope and conducted only via a third party. These are just some of India’s diplomatic options – a discussion of non-diplomatic options is beyond the scope of this article.

By stubbornly maintaining talks with Pakistan despite all provocations, India has gained nothing; raising the stakes to force resolution can hardly make matters worse. By cancelling talks with Pakistan, Modi did not make a mistake – he rectified a long-standing earlier blunder.


This post appeared on Daily News & Analysis on August 22, 2014.