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Dialogue is the only option

The >killing of five jawans at the Line of Control (LoC) has once again hobbled our already halting progress towards peace with Pakistan and shows that our soldiers have now become hostages to fortune: Pakistani naysayers and their Indian mirror-images know that the easiest way to stop a rapprochement is to kill an Indian soldier.

Under General Kayani, there has been a clear and very obvious shift in the use to which skirmishes at the LoC are being put. Sending infiltrators into Jammu and Kashmir is of secondary importance; the primary objective is to create incidents that would nip in the bud any attempt to make peace. In 2008, every public statement by Asif Zardari, proclaiming his intention to make peace was followed by an attack on a soft Indian target. When raids on Indian soldiers at the LoC did not work, our Embassy in Kabul was attacked, which did derail the process for several months. When the leaders nevertheless met in New York in the autumn and decided to resume the process, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) went further with Mumbai, attacking it on the evening that its Foreign Minister arrived in Delhi for talks.

Inverting past practice

Why are terrorists now attacking our troops at the LoC, when, earlier, infiltrators tried to evade them? It is because their primary aim then was to cause turmoil inside J&K, which could be passed off as local opposition to Indian rule. By definition, if armed men were fighting their way in, this fiction would be hard to maintain. Covering fire by the Pakistan Army let the infiltrators get in undetected as our forces kept their heads down.

The attacks now taking place are an inversion of earlier practice: the infiltrators only target an Indian patrol, kill a few and then retreat into Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). This has nothing to do with keeping the insurgency alive in J&K. These attacks have a purely political objective, to create an outrage in India that will force the government to take a hard line on the Pakistan government.

Why, though, must the Pakistan Army turn to subterfuge, instead of making its government say that unless Kashmir is settled on its terms, everything else has to wait? It is because there are few takers for this line now in Pakistan. Most Pakistanis want a normal relationship with India, and will support their government on this. The Army fears peace, except on its terms, but does not want to be seen as the spoiler. Instead of trying to mould Pakistani public opinion, therefore, it is, with great success, moulding ours.

The challenge put by our media to our government, to decide if it wants dialogue or security, is the one the Pakistan Army would like to pose to its people, but now cannot. There is no choice involved. Every dialogue between nations is to promote their interests, which include security. Between nuclear-armed States, which cannot settle their differences through war, as the United States and USSR showed, steady dialogue is the proven way of whittling away at concerns over security. Dialogue promotes security; security is not undermined by dialogue.

We have tried coercive belligerence, which stops short of war, in Operation Parakram, but this did not pay dividends. After a year of being Trishanku, we marched our men back from the border and resumed a dialogue with Pakistan. That, of course, was with a general in power, and it will be argued that a dialogue with a civilian government is futile as long as its Army calls the shots. It is true that the Army is still immensely powerful, but it no longer has an entirely freehand vis-à-vis India, as the devious ploys it is using to block progress show. This is because of the growing strength of Pakistani democracy.

Consensus for peace

Though we sneer at it, the last two elections there have been a clear reflection of the will of the majority. Baiting India was not an issue in either. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) are publicly committed to improving relations with us. There is an implicit national consensus on this in Pakistan, which its Army has shown that it cannot ignore, and which we must not.

It will still be argued that talking to Pakistan after terrorist attacks would be rewarding it for bad behaviour, and therefore its government must first give assurances that these will stop. This demand is illogical, for three reasons. First, if we believe its Army does not obey its politicians, we cannot expect them to give us these assurances. Predicating dialogue on a condition which cannot be met is self-defeating, because the Pakistan Army gets its strength from an absence of peace with India. Stasis is what it wants. The more we show that we will press ahead, and the more this determination is reflected in practical, tangible benefits for the common man, the more the Pakistan Army will be weakened, and the government strengthened. It is only then that a civilian government there can crack the whip, not now.

Second, if we should not talk to, or do business with, a government unwilling to rein in terrorists who operate from its territory, we should remember that Iqbal Mirchi lived and died in the United Kingdom and Dawood Ibrahim spends much of his time in the UAE. The governments there were insensitive on a matter of the gravest national importance to us, but we have deepened our ties with them nevertheless, simply because that served our interests best. Why should we make an exception in the case of the government of Pakistan?

Domestic parallel

Third, we are trying to make peace precisely because we do not have it. The complete end of violence is the objective we expect to negotiate. It is unreasonable to impose as a precondition for a dialogue something that we hope will be its outcome. We have not done this in dealing with politically-driven violence within India. The insurgencies in Mizoram, Nagaland, Assam and Punjab would never have been contained had the government of India not had the courage to start a political process even while they continued. Sacrifices had to be made and lives lost, but the violence was isolated and neutralised through a political process which began with a dialogue.

Even now, in Assam, the Bodos whom the Army and police kill are described in their reports as cadres of the “NDFB anti-talks faction.” Our government should look on the Pakistan Army as the anti-talks faction there, but hold a sustained dialogue with the civilian government. Not talking to it, or putting the peace process in cold storage, plays into the Pakistan Army’s hands; it does not persuade it to change. We must make it clear to the generals that they cannot stymie progress towards peace.

From Rajiv Gandhi’s time, every government has tried to make peace with Pakistan, but has been thwarted by political problems there. Benazir Bhutto in her first innings was undermined by the Army, using Nawaz Sharif; when he saw the light, he was sabotaged by Musharraf, who, however, as President, made a sustained effort with Prime Ministers Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh to make peace. That failed at the last gasp when he lost political support in Pakistan.

Now, however, between the PPP and the PML, there is a bipartisan consensus in Pakistan that peace with India is in its interest. When the time is propitious, it is tragic that politics has become so fractious in India that on a matter of national interest, party political differences dominate and inhibit our policy.

Moving ahead

It is important to stress, therefore, that talking to Pakistan does not mean that we are soft on it. Trying to make peace with Pakistan is not a sign of weakness. These are imperatives, which every government in India has acknowledged over the last three decades. The government that comes to power after the next election will do the same. It too will try to make peace with Pakistan. If it does not, it will be abdicating its responsibility and charting a course that diverges so completely from its predecessors that it is unlikely to get broad, political support.

This government must therefore reach out to the country and explain why it must continue to explore options of making peace with Pakistan. It is a given that if the Prime Ministers agree to meet at the U.N. General Assembly, there will be outrages at the LoC or in India, to torpedo the meeting and ensure that, if it does take place, no substantive discussions are possible. If the Prime Ministers do agree on the next steps, the provocations will increase. These are inevitable. We can certainly urge the government of Pakistan to stop these, but should know that, realistically, they currently cannot. We must nevertheless persevere so that they eventually can.

(Satyabrata Pal is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan.)

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2021 2:35:37 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/dialogue-is-the-only-option/article5082954.ece

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