New Delhi’s options on Pakistan

Finally, what Mr. Modi could do differently from his predecessors, and from his own more recent past, is to take the people into confidence. File Photo: AP  

If you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you always got. That is probably the easiest way of describing the India-Pakistan engagement. And as the last month of the engagement played out, with two prime ministerial meetings speeding up the resumption of talks, it was clear where it was headed. In fact, it was so clear that when External Affairs Minister >Sushma Swaraj returned from her visit to Islamabad, she warned Parliament about “spoilers”, saying, “We want to ensure we are not provoked by saboteurs who want to stop the dialogue process.” Yet here we are, after the cycle of talks, talks on terrorism, and the terrorist attack in Pathankot, wondering if terrorism and talks can go together.

There are several myths that should be busted on this score, beginning with this one: talks and terrorism have almost always gone together, ever since India and Pakistan embarked on a structured dialogue in 1997. Within months of the foreign secretary talks that announced the composite dialogue that year came a series of terror attacks, including seven blasts in Delhi, that saw more than 60 people killed. >Talks in Agra in 2001 between then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and then President Pervez Musharraf may have failed in formulating a joint statement, but they were only called off months later, after the Parliament attack, carried out by the Jaish-e-Mohammad. In the Manmohan Singh era, it was hard to find any sequence of talks that wasn’t bombarded by terrorist attacks that were mostly from Pakistan. In 2007-08, years that saw the maximum engagement with close to a dozen secretary-level meetings, there was a major terror attack nearly every month, including the Samjhauta Express bombing, and bombing in Varanasi, Hyderabad and other cities. And Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s invitation to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in May 2014 was accompanied by the attack on the Indian consulate in Herat. In short, there has never been a dearth of blood spilt when Indian and Pakistani leaders have decided to talk.

Another myth is that the Indian > government is ‘engaging’ the military for the first time in the National Security Adviser (NSA)-level talks. While this idea has gained credence over the last month, especially given the reported success of the talks between the NSA, Ajit Doval, and his counterpart, Retd. General Naseer Khan Janjua, it doesn’t bear out in reality. After all, India engaged Gen. Musharraf from 2001 to 2007, when he was Pakistan’s army chief. When the Mumbai attacks occurred, Pakistan’s NSA was also a retired general, Mahmud Durrani, who engaged former NSA M.K. Narayanan, including just after the Indian embassy bombing in Kabul in 2008.

Finally, there is the >continuing myth that Pakistan’s military is a monolith, unitedly focussed on destroying India through overt and covert means. Instead, there have been very credibly sourced accounts of the ‘army within the army’, or jihadi elements that run counter to the country’s military establishment, that must be considered as well. Over the years they have been manifest in Pakistan’s war in Swat and Waziristan, where commanders complained of being ambushed by Taliban who had been tipped off, or of massive jailbreaks where militants who escaped were helped by security forces. The PNS Mehran naval base attack in Karachi was believed to have been carried out by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and the al-Qaeda with ‘insider’ support. In fact, attacks on the Army General Headquarters, the Kamra Airbase (2012), and the Peshawar airbase (2015) were all conducted as ‘fidayeen’ attacks by groups suspected to have inside support. While this by no means absolves the Pakistan military and the Inter-Services Intelligence of support to anti-India groups, the narrative in India needs to be further educated on this aspect.

What not to do

Perhaps Mr. Modi was trying to cut through some of the repetitions and false narratives of the past when he stepped down in Lahore. History was made. Now that the Christmas meeting has been predictably followed by a massive terror attack, does the government have other options so as to not “get what we have always got”?

They could, for starters, not call off the secretary-level talks. Instead they could accelerate the pace of meetings between the Foreign Secretaries and the NSAs, speaking of the terror attacks in both Pathankot and Mazar-i-Sharif, but also build a concrete timetable of engagement between other officials as well. After all, if the >attacks are so obviously aimed at derailing dialogue and raising tensions between the two countries, why allow the attackers to achieve those aims so easily? Why not, instead, bind Pakistan’s government down in other ways, engaging them not only bilaterally, but multilaterally, as the government had just started to do on trade, the TAPI pipeline, and SAARC vehicular movement agreements? Another idea may be to engage China, a country India has had tense ties with all year. Both India and China share an interest in fighting back Islamist terror that finds support in Pakistan, and this is something Mr. Doval, as interlocutor with China as well as Pakistan, could leverage in future talks with Beijing. India must also not give up on pushing the Pakistan government to deliver justice to terrorists, like Masood Azhar, who was facing a trial in India before being delivered to the IC814 hijackers in 1999, or Hafiz Saeed and Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi whose role in the Mumbai attacks is well documented and accepted by the UN and U.S. courts.

Finally, what Mr. Modi could do differently from his predecessors, and from his own more recent past, is to take the people into confidence. The Indian public is yet to be informed about why India-Pakistan talks since May 2014 have run such an unpredictable course, with both cancellation and renewal coming at odd and unexpected intervals. It is that public mandate — that welcomes strong and decisive leadership from the Prime Minister, as it did his Lahore ‘leap of faith’ — that will provide the government insulation from the pitfalls of engagement with Pakistan.


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This article has been edited for a factual error.

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Printable version | Jan 8, 2022 11:40:22 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/New-Delhi%E2%80%99s-options-on-Pakistan/article13982610.ece

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