The India-Pakistan dialogue process is witnessing its longest severance following the beheading of an Indian soldier in Kashmir in January 2013. This pause in conversation was perpetuated by the ruling BJP raising the bar for engagement to ‘talks and terror cannot go together’, making dialogue virtually impossible.
SAARC is moribund and even Track 2 is on blip. What chances there were for minimal engagement during Modi 1.0 evaporated after BJP was re-elected in 2019 with a thumping majority after the Balakot air strikes.
Prime Minister Vajpayee heading previous BJP governments took big risks despite several cross-border terrorist attacks to remain engaged with Islamabad as did his successor, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh under similar provocations. Both leaders were determined in national interest to keep channels of communication open with a difficult neighbour. To do so today will be construed ‘anti-national’!
China & Pakistan’s Reactions To Indian Govt’s Actions In J&K
In 2018, a flicker of hope was generated by a New York Times report that Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa had suggested talks with his Indian counterpart General Bipin Rawat, but the Indian government did not explore the offer. The Modi government’s proclivity to kinetic response against Cross-Border Terrorism (CBT), especially Uri and Pulwama; revocation of status of J&K; internalising Kashmir to de-internationalise the dispute and extraordinary Pakistan-bashing were gigantic steps that were taken, whose consequences were not thought through.
The only oasis in the desert of discord was the Kartarpur corridor, facilitated by Islamabad, for which talks had been going on for one year in spite of New Delhi’s kinetic and coercive steps.
Iron Brothers Pakistan and China were taken by surprise by India’s constitutional coup in J&K. In 2018, Islamabad had said it would talk to New Delhi after the elections in 2019. This expectation was widely shared in both countries but Pulwama and its aftermath — Balakot air strikes — changed history. Reacting to constitutional and cartographic changes in J&K, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan said talks with India were possible only when the ‘siege’ of Kashmir was lifted and Article 370 was revoked.
Later, in an interview to Al Jazeera, he noted that India had ‘illegally’ occupied J&K, and human rights violations had to cease. He said he was never in favour of a military solution to resolve the Kashmir dispute.
Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi observed there was no possibility of dialogue with India under the prevailing conditions, until Indian atrocities in Kashmir were stopped. India’s continuing ‘lockdown’ like situation in J&K has damaged its democratic reputation. Both Islamabad and New Delhi have issued mirror image maps of J&K, incorporating disputed territory with the former, including Gilgit-Baltistan (Northern Areas) as the fifth province.
How Animosity Has Been A Hindrance To India-Pakistan Activity And Equation
Beijing declared as ‘unacceptable’ Ladakh being made a union territory, as it undermined its territorial integrity. India’s Foreign Minister Dr S Jaishankar even travelled to Beijing to explain that changes in the Indian Constitution had no implications for either external boundaries or the LAC, and India was not raising any additional territorial claims. Ladakh’s realignment is one of the key reasons for China’s military aggression and LAC becoming LoC.
Animosity verging on enmity with Pakistan has stopped cross border trade at Attari- Wagah border, cross-LOC interaction in J&K, and people-to-people activities.
In one fell stroke, the Modi government succeeded in creating a two-front situation when managing just the Pakistan front has not been easy. Things are likely to get a lot worse in the coming months due to a pandemic-ravaged economy affecting defence modernisation, with funds barely sufficient for salaries and pensions.
Having identified China as the primary threat eight months ago, it might have been wise to begin defusing tensions with Pakistan, however politically inconvenient it might be for diluting terms of engagement with Islamabad.
Why No Structured India-Pakistan Conversation Has Taken Place Under Modi Govt
Re-engaging Pakistan is both essential and necessary while retaining kinetic response to deter CBT. Altering behaviour of Pakistan Army remains India’s long term objective towards which notable success was achieved during General Pervez Musharraf’s rule when Army and civil government were rolled into one.
Both Vajpayee and Singh realised that mending fences with Pakistan was paramount. Vajpayee took enormous risks when he embarked upon his Lahore yatra but soon fought Kargil. Undeterred he invited Musharraf to Agra, and then Parliament was attacked culminating in Operation Parakram. Despite setbacks, in January 2004 Vajpayee went to Islamabad to meet Musharraf which facilitated the backchannel dialogue that produced the historic four point Musharraf formula which missed consummation under Singh, who too took grave risks in engaging Pakistan inspite of Mumbai, by reviving Composite Dialogue renamed as Resumed Dialogue.
During Modi 1.0 the structure and nomenclature for dialogue was changed to twin track engagement designated Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue. While the primary track on Kashmir and Terrorism was assigned to National Security Advisors, the other themes (similar to previous dialogues) were to be handled by Foreign Secretary.
But not a single piece of structured conversation could take place due to Modi government’s initial refusal to let Pakistani emissaries meet the Hurriyat. Modi’s own surprise ‘helicopter drop in’ at Lahore in 2015 to attend Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s grand daughter’s wedding was followed by Pathankot and Uri attacks. Modi responded with India’s first transparent and publicly acclaimed surgical strike in 2016. While Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Islamabad for Heart of Asia dialogue in Islamabad in early 2016, NSA Ajit Doval met his Pakistan counterpart in Bangkok. The NSA’s engagement died when Imran Khan did not appoint a national security advisor.
What Jaishankar ‘Forgot’ To Mention About Vajpayee’s Approach to India-Pakistan
Modi was re-elected in 2019 on a massive Balakot-kinetic mandate. Earlier the central argument between India and Pakistan was: what to address first – Kashmir or Terrorism. At one point, this was settled by dealing with both simultaneously. Another troubling factor was the geographical spread of CBT, which was pan-India, culminating in Mumbai but concentrated in J&K.
While Americans have kept Pakistan on a leash since the Mumbai attacks, the size and scale of CBT in J&K has waxed and waned. Modi not only disengaged completely from any dialogue but also switched to kinetic response.
In December 2020, Jaishankar extolled the virtues of Vajpayee’s foreign policy but pointedly missed out mentioning his untiring efforts towards maintaining dialogue with Pakistan.
In his recent memoirs, late (former) President of India Pranab Mukherjee, a mentor for Modi, has advised against overstating the kinetic and romanticising the political approach to Pakistan. Neither revocation of Article 370 and reorganisation of J&K nor this kinetic response has curtailed or ended CBT.
That J&K will not become India’s internal matter by the constitutional rejig has become clear. Besides Pakistan and China who are directly affected and who have partially succeeded in internationalising an internal development, there are other voices that echo concern.
UN Secretary General António Guterres has remarked: “In order to resolve the Kashmir dispute, talks between India and Pakistan are essential. Human rights must be respected in J&K.”
UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab noted: “The Kashmir dispute is a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan, yet, human rights concerns make it an international issue.”
A State Department readout asked India to take ‘rapid action’ to lift restrictions in J&K, release detainees, and start political dialogue to reduce tensions in the region.
How India Pushed Pakistan Into China’s Embrace
The silver lining to India’s prolonged disengagement with Pakistan was the opening of the Kartarpur corridor in November 2019 which India fears could become an avenue for Pakistan’s Khalistan project.
Kartarpur was another missed opportunity to re-engage Islamabad.
But there is outstanding cooperation: On 1 January, India and Pakistan exchanged a list of nuclear facilities — as per a 1988 agreement this was the 30th consecutive exchange of lists; the two countries also exchanged lists of prisoners and fishermen in custody and they inform each other about ballistic missile tests.
Like China’s aggression has pushed India into US’s arms, India has driven Pakistan into a closer embrace with China.
All previous governments including two BJP-led coalitions had engaged Pakistan even after core principles were violated. Adversarial relations will remain but channels of engagement require gradual reopening, even while retaining the right to kinetic response.
Back channeling is always a good restarting point.
Never attempted earlier with Pakistan, a military dialogue should be given a shot.
India’s choice of kinetic force to the exclusion of engagement is bad in conflict-resolution, and one that is breeding a two-front situation. Though decoupling the ‘Iron Brothers’ will not be easy, the new year challenge is” ‘reviving diplomacy, resuming dialogue but keeping powder dry’.
(Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta is a founding member of the Defence Planning Staff, the forerunner of the current Integrated Defence Staff. He was Commander of Indian Peace-Keeping Forces, Sri Lanka (South). He was also the convenor of an India-Pakistan Track 2 since 2003, which has now been suspended. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)