If terrorism will not compel India to settle outstanding disputes with Pakistan, keeping the dialogue process suspended indefinitely is not going to force Islamabad to be more mindful of New Delhi's concerns either. Both strategies have failed; it is time the two countries moved beyond them

There is a story senior journalist A.S. Panneerselvan tells of the experience of the first group of Tamil Tigers who were brought to a remote camp in Uttar Pradesh for arms training by the Indian government in the early 1980s. Every evening, the camp’s Tibetan cook would look at the group of Sri Lankan Tamils and start laughing. Eventually, one of the Tamils learnt enough Hindi to ask the cook what was so funny. “Thirty years ago,” the old man said, “I was in this camp with other Tibetans getting trained and there was somebody else to cook for us. Now you are here and I am cooking for you!” “That may be so,” the LTTE man said, “but I still don’t see what’s so funny.” Prompt came the reply: “You see, I’m wondering who you will be cooking for 20 years from now ? I think it may be the Chakmas!”

Unfortunately for the Indian establishment, the LTTE story did not end so tamely, over cooking pots and a camp fire. Well before the terrorist group eventually met its end in the Vanni earlier this year, the Tigers assassinated a former Prime Minister of India and were responsible for the death of countless Indian soldiers.

I am recalling this story in an article about India and Pakistan because it reminds us of three processes that are an essential part of modern South Asian statecraft and which help define the contours of the current crisis in the bilateral relationship. First, that every state in the region has, at one time or another, patronised extremist groups or tolerated their violent activities in order to advance its domestic political or regional strategic interests. Second, the activities of these groups invariably “overshoot” their target and begin to undermine the core interests of their original patrons. Third, there comes a time in the life of all such groups when the nature and extent of their violence reach a “tipping point” as far as the same state is concerned.

A mature, well-developed state is one which is able to read the early warning signs and effect a course correction in official policy well before that tipping point is reached. In the absence of this maturity, states respond in one of two ways. States with a tendency to stability are at least able to recognise when a tipping point has been reached and act accordingly. But states which are unable to recognise either the early warning signs or the tipping point itself and which continue to pretend that the non-state actors they have patronised can be subordinated to an official command structure despite evidence to the contrary run the risk of destabilising themselves.

The Congress party leader in Bombay, S.K. Patil, encouraged the rise of the Shiv Sena in the 1960s in order to undermine the city’s communist-led trade union movement. The Sena overshot its target and eventually became a political rival to the Congress. By the time the Sena revealed its true self in the communal violence it helped orchestrate in Bombay in 1992, it was too late for anyone to act against it. The Sena had already become a part of the establishment, its violence normalised, its leaders insulated from police action and proper judicial sanction.

A second example of the same phenomenon, but with a different ending, emerged in Punjab in the 1980s. Indira Gandhi welcomed the rise of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his extremist politics because she saw in him an effective counter to the Akali Dal in Punjab. The Khalistani ideologue’s violence was tolerated for some time; the tipping point for the establishment should arguably have come when a senior police officer, A.S. Atwal, was gunned down by Bhindranwale’s men in April 1983. But New Delhi waited and waited, acting against the ‘Sant’ only in June 1984.

The trouble with acting against extremist groups after the tipping point is reached is that the process can be long drawn out and costly, especially in terms of human life. Successive governments at the Centre pacified Punjab but not before nearly 20,000 people lost their lives in Operation Bluestar, the November 1984 massacres, and the brutal police campaigns in the Punjab.

In Pakistan, the military-cum-intelligence establishment has had a long-term policy of creating, cultivating and using extremist groups both as a lever against mainstream political parties within the country and as a tool of foreign and military policy against India and Afghanistan. Some of these groups very rapidly ‘overshot’ their initial targets, especially domestically. The state responded by targeting particularly wayward terrorist leaders but did not abandon the overall structures of official permissiveness. External pressure following 9/11 led to the temporary course correction of abandoning the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Lal Masjid situation in Islamabad was another potential tipping point but its lessons were ignored, leading to the growth of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. Then came Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, but the nexus between extremism and a military establishment keen to subvert the return of democracy muddied the waters. Sufi Mohammad’s folly in openly defying the Pakistani state soon after the Nizam-e-Adl fiasco in Swat brought about a more decisive point of inflection, which is today still being played out in the Malakand division.

But even if the Pakistani army has joined the battle against terrorism in the frontier regions bordering Afghanistan in earnest, there is no question of the military establishment recognising the danger that anti-India terrorist groups have started to pose to Pakistan itself. A section of the Pakistani political leadership saw in the terrorist attack on Mumbai in November 2008 the grave threat that groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba pose to the stability of the region. Nudged along by the United States and by a non-confrontationist Indian approach, an unprecedented criminal investigation was launched against a section of LeT operatives. Since the LeT has never launched a terrorist attack inside Pakistan, however, it is easy for sceptics there to argue that the group does not pose a threat. That is why the establishment there is reluctant to act against Lashkar chief Hafiz Saeed. But wise statecraft is about recognising the early warning signs, not waiting for the tipping point. Imtiaz Gul’s book, The Al-Qaeda Connection, provides plenty of evidence on the deep links which exist between the LeT, the Jaish-e-Mohammed and even the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, on the one hand, and the TTP in Pakistan’s tribal areas, on the other.

Given these political realities, what can India do to encourage Pakistan to recognise that the terrorist groups operating on its soil are an undifferentiated syndicate and pose a common threat to both countries? Of all the forms of encouragement, refusing to talk is the least effective. It is not a coincidence that those sections of the Pakistani establishment which continue to see the jihadi terror groups as future assets are the very sections least anxious to see the resumption of the bilateral dialogue. Exchanging rhetoric and putting pressure via public statements are also not likely to pay dividends. Nor is there any point in messing up the strong case India has in Mumbai with overkill. Pakistani officials have pointed out, for example, that the salutation “Major General sahab” — one of the co-conspirators allegedly identified by Ajmal ‘Kasab’ and seen by the Indians as proof of Islamabad’s official complicity in 26/11 — is never used in the subcontinent; the preferred greeting is ‘General sahab’.

At a recent Track-II meeting of Indian and Pakistani analysts, former ambassadors, military officers and intelligence chiefs organised by the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in Bangkok, there was consensus on the grave threat terrorism poses to Pakistan and to India. Specifically, the need for India and Pakistan to open a back channel on counter-terrorism was recognised, with the participation of intelligence agencies from the two countries. This would supplement the back channel on Jammu and Kashmir which worked effectively till 2006 and which, the Track-II meeting felt, needs to be revived at an early date. The Composite Dialogue process, too, was seen as having served a useful purpose in the past.

With last month’s meeting in New York between the Foreign Ministers of India and Pakistan yielding little in terms of forward movement by either side, there is a danger of the bilateral relationship getting stuck into one of those ruts that finally require the mediation of extra hands in order to be rescued. Rather than wait for that, the first available improvement in optics — the start of the Mumbai trial in Pakistan, for example — should be seized upon to move ahead on the back channel, with the front channel being revived in a calibrated manner as confidence increases. Indefinitely postponing talks will not help protect India from future terrorist attacks. And talking will not make it more vulnerable. India should stop confusing hard line diplomatic strategy for effective counter-terrorism.

If terrorism will not compel India to settle outstanding disputes with Pakistan, keeping the dialogue process suspended indefinitely is not going to force Islamabad to be more mindful of New Delhi’s concerns either. Both strategies have failed; it is time the two countries moved beyond them.