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Resuming the India-Pakistan Dialogue

Sumita Kumar is Senior Research Associate at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • December 22, 2015

    The government’s decision to resume dialogue with Pakistan was announced during Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s recent visit to Islamabad on 8-9 December 2015 for the ‘Heart of Asia’ Conference. It was decided that India and Pakistan would hold discussions on wide-ranging issues under the rubric of a ‘Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue’ as opposed to the nomenclature of ‘Composite Dialogue’ or ‘Resumed Dialogue’ used earlier. This decision to engage with Pakistan has been perceived as a change in policy by the Modi Government, which had on previous occasions made it known that talks would only be resumed if Pakistan took tangible steps to curtail terrorism targeting India and undertook concrete action against the culprits of the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. The government’s determination to define what is acceptable came across clearly in the cancellation of talks with Pakistan on two previous occasions. In the first instance, the government did not find it acceptable that the Pakistan High Commissioner or any Pakistani leader should meet members of the Hurriyat Conference. In the second instance, India rejected Pakistan’s attempt to bring Kashmir on the agenda, post the understanding at Ufa.

    The Modi government’s criticism of the previous government’s policy of engaging with Pakistan has been more than apparent. It is thus obvious that there must have been a number of compulsions arising from realpolitik that made the Modi government change its stance to the extent that it accepted Jammu and Kashmir being discussed along with peace and security and terrorism at the Bangkok meeting between the National Security Advisers (NSAs) and Foreign Secretaries. One of the factors at work could be the continued pressure from the international community. The United States has repeatedly emphasised how the normalisation of India-Pakistan would be beneficial not only for both the countries but for the region as well. While there may not be direct attempts by China to influence India in this regard, its pronouncements with regard to India-Pakistan relations in the recent past were also significant. These referred to China’s desire for Pakistan’s relations with India to be less acrimonious so that the two countries would jointly work towards peace, stability and development of the region. In addition, India’s need to retain influence in Afghanistan and remain involved in discussions about the future of that country was a possible factor in the decision to send the Indian delegation to Islamabad for the ‘Heart of Asia’ Conference. Finally, the results of the elections in Bihar underscored the fact that anti-Pakistan pronouncements do not necessarily pay in domestic politics.

    According to the Joint Statement that emerged after the meetings in Islamabad, the two NSAs are to continue to address all issues connected to terrorism. Pakistan gave assurances about the measures being taken to expedite the early conclusion of the trial of the culprits of the Mumbai terrorist attacks. It was agreed that the two countries would resume a Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue, with the Foreign Secretaries being assigned the task of working out the modalities and schedule of meetings. The issues to be discussed include Peace and Security, Confidence Building Measures, Jammu and Kashmir, Siachen, Sir Creek, Wullar Barrage/Tulbul Navigation Project, Economic and Commercial Cooperation, Counter-Terrorism, Narcotics Control, Humanitarian Issues, People-to-People exchanges and religious tourism. The fact that the dialogue has been resumed is very good in itself. But it is important to examine what will emerge from the talks in concrete terms. In this context, the two most important issues under the scanner will be terrorism and Kashmir.

    It is difficult to expect concrete progress with regard to terrorism for a number of reasons. Firstly, promoting terrorism by sponsoring non-state actors has been a carefully considered policy of the Pakistan Army for such a long time that there is little reason to expect that it would be given up. Pakistan has held the belief that India poses an existential threat to it, and the army has always wanted revenge for its defeat in the 1971 war. While the Pakistani leadership has suggested in recent years that internal security is the main threat, it is unlikely that Pakistan will regard India as any less a threat than it has historically.

    Secondly, the army seems to be in even greater command than before and the popularity of the Army Chief has increased after his moves to curb domestic terrorism, political violence and crime. The number of civilians and soldiers killed in terrorist attacks is purported to be much less than in previous years. Popularity has enabled the army to further grasp control over security and foreign policy, an area in which it has traditionally brooked little interference. The civilian leadership has been forced to yield space to the military. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has gradually allowed himself to accept the supremacy of General Raheel Sharif and his India policy is also guided by the wishes of the army. It can even be said that the Pakistan military has acquired a direct role in the dialogue, with the new NSA Lt. Gen. Naseer Janjua enjoying close proximity to the Army Chief.

    Thirdly, India’s demands for taking effective action against terrorism have not been met satisfactorily. For instance, not only has the mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai killings and Jamaat ud Dawa Chief Hafiz Saeed not been apprehended, he has been allowed to move about freely. It does not seem plausible that the Pakistan Government could deliver on this front, given its intricate links with non-state actors involved in terrorist acts in India. Any strong action against the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) leadership is likely to cause an intense domestic backlash due to the street support that the latter wields. There are thus limitations to Pakistani action in this regard.

    Further, Nawaz Sharif’s own manoeuvrability with regard to such elements has been in question given that the Punjab provincial government has over the last few years been allocating considerable funds in its annual budget for the Jamaat ud Dawa. The deeply ingrained attitudes of the religious right constituency are not likely to undergo any drastic change in the near future. There are continuing reports of LeT infiltrating across the Line of Control (LoC) as well as continuing terrorist attacks like the one in Gurdaspur. Therefore, it is inconceivable that the Pakistani establishment would dilute its policy of sub-conventional war against India. The trial of the Mumbai attack culprits has been hanging fire for the last seven years and it is unrealistic to expect speedy progress despite promises.

    It is also difficult to expect much progress on the Kashmir issue. Pakistan does not seem to have any clear idea about what it wants on Kashmir. It has kept the issue alive by raising it at the United Nations (UN) and through ceasefire violations. While Pakistan had agreed during President Musharraf’s tenure to drop all references to UN Resolutions and the demand for plebiscite, its formal demand continues to be that the Kashmir question should be resolved in accordance with UN Resolutions and the will of the people of Kashmir. The Army Chief’s reiteration that Kashmir is the “jugular vein” of Pakistan is a reflection of the fact that Pakistan will not give up its position on the Kashmir issue easily.

    This is in contrast to the view that India holds. According to India, the UN Resolutions are redundant because Pakistan did not fulfil its part. Besides, the UN Resolutions were superseded by the Simla Agreement which ordains that all issues be resolved bilaterally. At the most, what may be acceptable to India is a possible solution within the framework discussed between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Musharraf through back channel diplomacy. Ambassador Satinder Lambah’s speech delivered at Kashmir University in May 2014 gave some insights into this framework, which included demilitarisation, free movement of people across the LoC, self-governance for internal management on both sides, and a cooperative and consultative mechanism for solving problems of social and economic development. Lambah also referred to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s advocacy of a solution to the Kashmir issue – one that did not seek to redraw the border but instead made it irrelevant. The closest position that the two governments came to on the Kashmir question was this formula. However, post-Musharraf governments in Pakistan did not take any steps to carry forward discussions on this framework. With the increasing salience of Islamic extremist groups in Pakistan, the question of Kashmir has acquired even greater sharpness in its political discourse. This found its manifestation in the increased periodicity of LoC violations in the last two years.

    Even faced with the improbability of making much headway on terrorism and Kashmir in the resumed dialogue, it is still important for India to engage with Pakistan. If India hopes to be taken seriously by the international community it should be seen to be managing its relationships with the neighbours earnestly. Also, continuing the dialogue might tend to weaken the anti-India elements in Pakistan. Besides, the experience of the last 18 months during which the dialogue was interrupted twice has brought both governments to the view that if any forward movement has to be made in improving relations they can only resort to a dialogue and nothing else.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.