Pakistan-India Relations A new beginning?

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By M. Saeed Khalid*

The Bharatiya Janata Party – BJP, led by Narendra Modi scored a stunning victory in the 2014 Indian general elections, on pledges of more jobs and greater development. Modi also resorted to anti-Pakistan rhetoric, castigating the Congress-led government for failing to be tough on Pakistan.

Once in office, the Modi government pursued a three point agenda that was first and foremost aimed at turning India into an economic power house. The second priority was to transform India into a country where Hindutva would be the hallmark of patriotism and the minorities put in a place of subservience. The third objective was to accentuate India’s coercive diplomacy toward Pakistan while trying to destabilize the country internally and isolate it internationally.

The BJP government will be completing its two years in office in May, 2016. This essay aims at reviewing important trends in India’s relations with Pakistan over that period.

Modi struck a positive note by inviting the leaders of SAARC countries to his inauguration in May, 2014. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif attended the ceremony in good faith but did not return any wiser because the Indian side remained unmoved about resumption of the composite dialogue with Pakistan. It maintained the Congress-led government’s policy of placing the issue of terrorism before any other matter in relations with Pakistan.

The aggressive posture of the Modi government was manifested through pressure tactics for a speedy trial of the alleged masterminds of the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008. Indian forces escalated tension along the Line of Control and the Working Boundary with frequent shelling and mortar fire. The cold start doctrine was honed to talking directly about the possibility of a limited war in the plains and surgical strikes in the Himalayas in Kashmir.

Earlier, since 9/11 Indian propaganda against Pakistan was centred around terms like ‘Pakistan, the epicentre of terrorism’. It was fully echoed by camp followers like Karzai & Co in Kabul. India treated the Mumbai tragedy in the same vein, exploiting the situation to portray Pakistan as a state backing terrorists despite the government’s emphatic position about Mumbai as an attempt by non-state actors to undermine relations with India. This Indian behaviour post-Mumbai implied that though Pakistan was under democratic rule, India still wanted to isolate the country internationally. That way India was off the hook to engage with Pakistan to normalize relations and resolve longstanding disputes.

The Indian media played a game along the same lines and so did many Indians on social media and on the websites of Pakistani newspapers. The largest democracy had no diversity of opinion. Everybody used the same language about Pakistan. President Zardari’s assertion that non-state actors were behind Mumbai cut no ice. His and Prime Minister Gillani’s unofficial visits failed to break the logjam as did Nawaz Sharif’s journey to attend Modi’s inauguration.

As BJP settled into the job of governing a country as large and as diverse as India in a post globalization world, certain constraints came to the fore. Success in the state of Gujarat was not a passport to success in India. The promises of more jobs and development for all began to ring hollow in the face of results on the ground. Hindutva zealots became more menacing with attacks on the minorities especially the Muslims.

Hindutva as an election slogan was scary for the minorities but its practice magnified the deep divisions in India that the Constitution aims to mitigate within a secular framework. India started to receive bad press internationally, leading to a sheepish admission by Modi that his government could not be blamed for all that goes on in the country.

Repeated attacks on minorities in the name of the holy cow did not attract a favorable feedback within or outside India. Pakistan-bashing proved to be another policy with diminishing returns. The partyline circulated to Indians that only the BJP had the solutions to problems of underdevelopment and poverty received a thrashing first in Delhi and then Bihar. The other plan to impose the BJP mythology on the Kashmiris and heightening tensions across the LoC and the working boundary provoked strong reactions. So the change of tactic by serving Hindutva Lite, if true, is very much a reaffirmation of the belief that interests not positions are permanent.

Besides practical considerations, the Indians might have been advised by common friends that their aspirations to make India a global power and get a permanent seat in the UN Security Council would remain challenged as long as their country does not cultivate peaceful relations with its neighbours.

The international reaction to India’s hawkish steps against Pakistan showed signs of weariness. The US in particular cautioned the Indian leaders that their aspiration to become a global power would not benefit from shutting the door of dialogue with Pakistan. This was followed by steps like Modi’s initiative for a meeting with Nawaz at the summit in Ufa, Russia. However, the Indian side insisted on addressing terrorism above all else in the resumed dialogue. The joint statement issued in Russia led to strong criticism and an adverse reaction in Pakistan.

It was hard to fathom how or why the Pakistan delegation agreed to a meeting between the two national security advisers to take up the issue of terrorism before reviving the dialogue process. Pakistan should have rejected the idea from a tactical viewpoint because its Foreign Affairs Adviser dealt only with policy matters pertaining to security. India’s National Security Adviser on the other hand appeared more like a super spy dealing with the operational side.

The Indian ploy came crashing down as soon as the Ufa communique was received in Pakistan because it sidelined the Kashmir issue. Islamabad tried to reassure the public that Kashmir was not forgotten.It was announced that before meeting his official interlocutors in New Delhi, Sartaj Aziz would meet the Hurriyet leaders from Kashmir. India’s strong reaction to the planned meeting led to the cancellation of Aziz’ visit.

The Ufa meeting was generally perceived as a failure in terms of its contribution to the process of normalization. The common friends of India and Pakistan were treated to another round of South Asia’s zero sum game. The environment was further aggravated by the Hindu extremist groups like the Shiv Sena and the Indian media. Pakistani TV echoed the bellicosity demonstrated by a majority of India’s TV networks which like to invite the most rabid anti-Pakistan commentators to their talk shows.

Even in this charged atmosphere, there were indications that the Modi government would re-engage with Pakistan. The Pakistan government carried out a structural change by appointing General (R) Naseer Janjua as National Security Adviser thus eliminating the need of Mr. Sartaj Aziz to discuss an anti-terrorist agenda with India’s NSA, Ajit Doval. The two NSAs have been meeting to carry forward talks on mutual concerns over terrorist groups.

The toxicity of anti-Pakistan elements surfaces in their vehement opposition to sports, cultural and literary visits to Mumbai. It came to the fore once again with the extremist Shiv Sena trying to block the launch in Mumbai of former Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri’s memoirs, “Neither a Hawk nor a Dove”. However, the launch took place but in a tense atmosphere as Sena’s goons vented their anger by splashing black paint on the host.

Dwelling on bilateral negotiations conducted after the Musharraf-Vajpayee meeting in 2004, Kasuri pointed out that there are forces working on both sides to scuttle peace efforts. He recalled that the attacks on Samjhota Express in 2007 and in Mumbai in 2008 were aimed at wrecking the dialogue process between Pakistan and India. The terrorist attack on Samjhota Express took place on the eve of his visit to Delhi. Kasuri said that he had been advised by certain quarters to call off the visit but he refused to do so as that would have encouraged the terrorists into believing that they had succeeded in sabotaging the visit.

In the case of Mumbai, the attack was more effective in jeopardizing the peace process as it was timed with his successor Shah Mahmud Qureshi’s visit to India in November, 2008 to re-launch the dialogue.Pakistan, though the aggrieved party in the Samjhota carnage, tried to salvage the dialogue. India decided after Mumbai not only to block the dialogue but threatened to launch aerial strikes against Pakistan, a scenario perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks might have anticipated as a step toward an armed conflict.

Kasuri, no longer in government at the time of Mumbai attacks in 2008, had told a visiting US delegation that an Indian reprisal in the shape of a strike against the Jamaat-u-Dawah in Muridke would incur a measured but definite response from Pakistan. The situation could get out of control in view of likely public outrage.

The worst scenario was averted but Mumbai remains ingrained in the Indian psyche and the desire for vengeance is still strong. The powers that counseled restraint after Mumbai were cautioned by India that another attack would certainly lead to retaliation. A large attack like Mumbai has not occurred but India has used it as a peg to block the normalization of ties with Pakistan.

Meanwhile a role reversal had taken place between Congress and the BJP. Since losing power, it is the Congress party that dares the BJP to engage with Pakistan. Bilateral relations have gradually deteriorated in every sphere. Kasuri’s exhortation to Modi to earn a place in history is overoptimistic as better ties with Pakistan cannot help him to win elections in India. Between anti-Pakistan hysteria rampant in India, unrelenting hostility of the RSS and Shiv Sena to Pakistan and tactical pressure by Congress on his government, Modi hardly had the space to make concessions to Pakistan even if he so desired.

The BJP has pursued the previous government’s policy of giving low priority to the Samjhota case proceedings while pushing the Mumbai dossier. While Pakistan has raised the issue of Indian agencies’ sponsorship of terrorism in Pakistan with friendly countries as well as the United Nations. India continues to blame Pakistan for not controlling militant groups hostile to India. Based on this, India has stopped sports and cultural exchanges. The situation led Pakistan’s top diplomat Sartaj Aziz to remark that India wanted to normalize relations with Pakistan on her own terms.

In this atmosphere of low expectations for progress in Pakistan-India relations, Narendra Modi’s surprise visit to Nawaz Sharif’s estate in Raiwind near Lahore in December, 2015 brought a new hope of thaw. Khurshid Kasuri was vindicated in his premonition that Modi would end up engaging with Pakistan. According to him, the change came about due to various factors but in terms of importance, the BJP’s huge electoral setback in Bihar stood above others.

Indeed, Bihar was a watershed. It became Modi’s mission impossible. Modi addressed rally after rally, trying the fading Modi magic, promising development of Bihar but ended up reaping a stinging defeat in the state election. Even the warning that the BJP’s defeat would lead to celebrations in Pakistan failed to move the voters. Suddenly, the prospect of Modi leading the BJP to a re-election victory in 2019 dimmed substantially.

Credit goes to Nawaz Sharif for persevering and to Modi for changing tack on Hindutva laced Pakistan-bashing. RSS can rue the turn of events but Modi has proved that he is a politician who places success over ideology. If hate speech about India’s minorities hurts BJP’s electoral prospects, then it can be modified. If reaching out to Pakistan is going to add to his profile as a statesman, so be it. A new Modi image is not just on the drawing board anymore. It has been launched.

Credit should also be given to India’s leaders across board because they were never held back by dogmatic or tactical rigidity. As soon as the Soviet Union collapsed, they quietly realigned with the United States. The Indians were skeptical of the Organization of the Islamic Conference – OIC, yet tried to get its membership or observer status. They reached out to China showing respect for the world’s second largest economy.

Many observers saw in Modi’s visit a move away from India’s stance towards Pakistan demanding the elimination of terror first and talking later. Pakistan may have been unduly responsive to Modi’s change of tactics, caused by his own needs rather than by a genuine desire to improve ties with Pakistan. Some analysts raised questions about the BJP’s sincerity in resolving bilateral disputes through the Comprehensive Dialogue. A low key approach to the projected meeting of the two foreign secretaries was recommended rather than nursing of a misplaced expectation of results.

Pakistani diplomats with long experience of dealing with India were not optimistic. Was India offering nothing for concrete actions by Pakistan? Did India believe that a mere resumption of dialogue would make Pakistan content? India appears to be making only cosmetic changes in its modus operandi towards Pakistan. More seriously, some thought that India’s designs with regard to Pakistan remain unchanged but that the BJP had dropped temporarily an outright hostile posture.

Serious things were to start in the new year with the two foreign secretaries meeting in Islamabad. That first encounter of the resumed dialogue was expected to work out a roadmap of further thematic meetings. Yet there was a foreboding that both sides should resist the temptation of going for early breakthroughs because that often results in heightening expectations and ending in setbacks.

The proverbial “two steps back” in India-Pakistan moves towards détente did not take long to follow as on Januray 2, 2016 the Indian airbase of Pathankot came under a terrorist attack causing death of seven Indian soldiers and six attackers. The base had been on alert following signs of suspected terrorist movement in the area, thus preventing greater loss to Indian Air Force planes at the base.

India’s immediate official reaction to the Pathankot attack was somewhat restrained with Modi terming the attackers as enemies of humanity and refraining from blaming Pakistan. Indian media and analysts, however, demonstrated their typical knee jerk reaction blaming Pakistan’s army and intelligence of supporting the terrorists. Some Indian ministers pointed out that the attack could not have been possible without Pakistani support.

Pakistan condemned the attack and offered cooperation in investigating the role of Pak-based militant group Jaish e Muhammad.Its leader Masood Azhar was confined to his residence in Bahawalpur.

Both sides have tried to control the damage and keep communications open to re-launch the dialogue process. At the operational level, there has been unprecedented cooperation, with Pakistan providing information to India about a group of militants having crossed into India in early March that was followed by the revelation about three of them having been eliminated by the Indian security forces. This move by Pakistan should put to rest allegations that the terrorists were receiving help from Pakistan’s intelligence services. Pakistan has instituted a criminal case about the attack on Pathankot. India agreed to a visit by investigators from Pakistan to collect information that would help in preparing the case.

Pakistan’s security agencies have kept a close watch on the Indian spy agency RAW’s operations out of Afghanistan and Iran to fund anti-Pakistan terrorist operations in Baluchistan and Karachi. The periodic revelations about RAW’s activities assumed greater importance with the disclosures by a senior member and former mayor of Karachi Mustapha Kamal about the extensive involvement of RAW in destroying peace in the city through MQM.

The prevalent mood in India in favour of engaging rather than isolating Pakistan was summed up in a piece in Diplomat magazine by Sumit Kumar, an Indian scholar who expressed the view that:

“Understandably the Pathankot airbase attack has put the Indian government in a difficult situation, especially at a time when Modi is ready to travel miles to forge a durable peace with Pakistan… the attack has given opponents the opportunity to criticize Modi’s overtures towards Pakistan. However, it is equally true that New Delhi has very limited options as far as its relations with Islamabad are concerned. It is only through talks that India and Pakistan will be able to move towards building a peaceful environment in South Asia. What makes the current phase in India- Pakistan relations different is the fact that both sides have refrained from attacking and counter-attacking each other, preventing the relationship from dropping to its nadir, as has happened after past terrorist attacks in India. There is reason to hope then that the two countries can work around the vested interests that do not want to see them live together in peace and prosperity.”

A joint Track II forum of India-Pakistan, meeting in Thailand in March, 2016 under the rubric of Chaophraya Dialogue “welcomed the mature and constructive response of the governments of India and Pakistan to the Pathankot terrorist attack, and expressed the hope that the recent interaction between the Pakistani Adviser to the PM on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz and Indian EAM Sushma Swaraj in Pokhara, Nepal would lead to a revival of the dialogue process.

The informal contacts between Sartaj Aziz and Sushma Swaraj in Nepal, however, appeared more of an exploratory nature especially about a meeting between the two Prime Ministers during the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington later in the month. Aziz also handed over Nawaz Sharif’s invitation to Narendra Modi to attend the SAARC summit in Islamabad in November, 2016.

Commenting on the Aziz-Swaraj meeting, Pakistan’s daily Dawn noted that the conversation did not go far beyond talk of the Pathankot probe. The Dawn editorial went on to stress that Modi and Sharif “need to invest their time and capital in dialogue – both to ensure that it restarts and, subsequently, to nudge bureaucratic negotiations towards results. While Pakistan needs to acknowledge the centrality of terrorism to India’s concerns…India needs to recognise that dialogue should not hinge on any single issue, especially if that issue is a militant attack meant to derail dialogue.” (Dawn 19 March, 2016).

A panel discussion held by Pakistan’s Geo TV a day earlier, ended with four out of five participants agreeing that the atmosphere was not indicative of a resumption of dialogue. These low expectations on the Pakistani side are understandable in view of the repeated postponement of the Foreign Secretaries meeting over several months. Questions remain about the scheduling of that meeting.

Indeed, both sides have tried to control the damage and keep the channels for communication open to re-launch the dialogue process. On the operational level, there has been unprecedented cooperation with Pakistan providing information to India.

In an article captioned, “The state of play in Pakistan-India relations” Gen Talat Masood wrote in the Express Tribune:

“Although there is a realisation by the Indian leadership that a gradual change in Pakistan’s establishment is in the offing, it will await a more robust demonstration of it. They are, however, willing to remain engaged at various levels where it suits them, politically. Providing the Pakistani joint investigation team access to the crime spot(Pathankot) is perhaps a demonstration of this policy, notwithstanding that it also provides good optics and a means of testing Islamabad’s intentions in dealing with terrorist crimes committed in India.

Unsurprisingly, masked in this approach is the demand, though not spelt out in public, that unless concrete measures are adopted to neutralize Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) , it will not be possible for India to move forward on the peace process”.

In his message of felicitations to Sharif, on Pakistan’s National Day(23rd March) Modi affirmed that “India remains firmly committed to resolving all outstanding issues with Pakistan through a peaceful bilateral dialogue in an atmosphere free from terrorism and violence”.

Regardless of when the dialogue is resumed, the Pakistan-India diplomatic match of wills has to come out of its zero sum mode. India will need to move on issues other than terrorism falling in the ambit of the comprehensive dialogue. If the Modi team is making a virtue of difficulties at home to score points through statesmanship without a give and take approach, the applecart of a comprehensive dialogue would not go far.

Pakistan can play along the idea of a resumed dialogue, re-baptized by India as comprehensive rather than composite. A realistic approach would dictate that Pakistan pursues a negotiating strategy of something for something and nothing for nothing. The Indian tendency of treating a cricket series or a resumed dialogue as favours to Pakistan would stymie the negotiations from the outset.

While we wait to know more about the road map to a normal relationship between the two countries, one can only be skeptical about the possible breakthroughs, often anticipated but seldom realized. The talks at technical or senior official level usually end in the two sides restating their positions. The only way to overcome almost seven decades of conflict and mistrust is a push by the two leaders. It can be equally argued that any major deal may be seen as a sell out and an incremental approach with a series of CBMs may yield better results.

The time may have come where the common people on both sides are allowed to travel as visitors or for cultural and commercial exchanges to promote confidence and harmony. Sports exchanges should not be allowed to become hostage to the hate-filled agenda of the extremist groups.

A lot has been said about the reasons behind Modi’s abrupt change of tactics of which the stop over in Lahore is the greatest manifestation. As a result, the iceberg of mistrust has started to melt. However, people on both sides have become so accustomed to the adversarial mode that they may find it difficult to cope with over friendly gestures.

Subjects like terrorism and trade are daunting enough, not to speak of a resolution of the Jammu & Kashmir dispute. Even the once ‘low hanging fruits’ like Siachen and Sir Creek have proved to be intractable.The first goal should, therefore, be to improve atmospherics and desist from portraying the other as the enemy. That would ease tensions and prepare opinion for eventual breakthroughs.

It has been reported that the Pak army is on board to go ahead with the renewed efforts for durable peace with India. Let us remember that the other army has to be equally on board. The Indian army had blocked an earlier formula for disengagement of troops from Siachen. Armies being on board is only the first step. They should also be prepared to endorse the accords reached through negotiations. It is important that the intelligence networks on both sides are also brought onboard to minimize setbacks to the dialogue process.

The Indian side has, more or less, made their goals in the resumed dialogue known, with Mumbai related trials and transit trade topping the list. The same cannot be said about Pakistan. A reactive approach is not helpful when the other side is going ahead full speed in articulating their position.

Unresolved territorial disputes constitute the major obstacle to better relations. Trade issues too have been intractable primarily due to Pakistan’s fear of becoming a dumping ground for cheaper Indian goods while Pakistan’s exports would be hindered due to a web of non-tariff barriers in the Indian economy. India’s agricultural produce is highly subsidized while Pakistan’s agriculture is largely liberalized. Non-tariff barriers hinder the export of Pakistan’s agricultural produce to India.

In a meeting with Gautam Bambawale, India’s High Commissioner to Pakistan, in March 2016, Commerce Minister Khurram Dastgir Khan expressed the view that in order to enhance trade as suggested by India, both countries should first focus on the removal of tariff and non tariff barriers to facilitate bilateral trade.

Physical and technical barriers abound in the growth of Pakistan-India trade. The land route is not being exploited and trade in goods via Karachi or Dubai adds to costs. The agreement to have two banks from each side operate in the other remains unimplemented. The formulation has been revised from Most Favoured Nation to Non Discriminatory Market Access but the will to go ahead is wavering. Trade enhancement is linked to the revival of a comprehensive dialogue. The whole thing comes crumbling with a terror attack.

The cautiously upbeat mood about a possible resumption of Pak-India dialogue received a setback with the discovery of a major Indian spy operation in Balochistan. The arrest in March, 2016 of a senior Indian operative, a former navy officer Bhushan Yadav has further highlighted India’s role in fomenting trouble by helping Baloch militant groups as well as jihadi/sectarian outfits. The Indians appear to have concentrated their destabilization plans to southern Pakistan after the military operations in the Pukhtun tribal areas forced the TTP and its affiliates to seek shelter in Afghanistan.

Yadav confessed to having provided funding and logistic support to Baloch militants. He admitted RAW’s deep involvement in subversive operations in Balochistan focusing on CPEC and fanning terrorism in Karachi. The Pakistan government claimed that sabotage of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor – CPEC is now very much a major aim of RAW’s operations in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s military intelligence had been tailing the Yadav led operation for over a year and managed to turn some of his operatives to expand their investigation net, finally busting the group with the arrest of the ringleader and his accomplices. India’s efforts at destabilizing southern Pakistan and undermining the CPEC betray her real intentions and in a certain way reveal her lack of interest in purposeful negotiations with Pakistan.

Whether Nawaz and Modi can lead the two countries to a jinx free relationship is the big question. Since the Pathankot attack, Pakistan has demonstrated its will to contain the activities of non-state actors trying to obstruct the normalization of relations with India. New Delhi needs to reciprocate by putting a stop to its state actors bent upon fomenting unrest and instability in Pakistan.

*The author is a former Ambassador of Pakistan.