Show of admirable restraint

That we have moved from ‘no talks until terror stops’ to ‘talk about terror’ proves how crucial diplomatic engagement is in any Indian government’s Pakistan policy

August 18, 2015 01:56 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:30 pm IST

An Indian army soldier stands guard close to the LoC, in Poonch.

An Indian army soldier stands guard close to the LoC, in Poonch.

In August 2013, exactly two years ago, 40 experts, comprising the most senior former diplomats, police officials and retired military officers, wrote a letter to the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Pakistan. “The policy of appeasement has failed,” they said at a press conference. “A new bipartisan policy is needed that will impose costs on Pakistan for terrorism,” they added. Their letter urged the Prime Minister to cancel the planned talks with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in September 2013, and to call off dialogue with Pakistan altogether.

So, it is ironic that one of the chief signatories to the letter is now the man who will lead the next round of talks with Pakistan, National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval. In his memoir Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years , former advisor to the Prime Minister on J&K, A.S. Dulat, recounts how in October 2003, Mr. Vajpayee announced that the Centre would talk to the Hurriyat leadership. According to Mr. Dulat, “Everyone in the room was startled.” When asked who would lead the talks, he said, “Advaniji, of course,” thus nipping in the bud any dissent by putting the person most opposed to the talks in the forefront.

As the former Intelligence Bureau Chief once posted in Pakistan and later head of Vivekananda Foundation, the right-wing think-tank, Mr. Doval’s tough views are well known. That both Mr. Modi and Mr. Doval have moved from “no talks until terror stops” to “talk about terror” is proof of the inevitability of engagement in any Indian government’s Pakistan policy.

In his new role, Mr. Doval has been protecting the talks from multiple challenges. When Pakistan began mortar shelling just days after the Ufa summit, it was the NSA who picked up the phone and called Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit three times to try and lower tensions. After the Gurdaspur attack, it was the NSA and the PMO that >ensured that the narrative pointed to terrorists “from Pakistan” as opposed to terrorists “sent by Pakistan.” Again, after Udhampur, the government >sent the same message , with a senior official telling the media: “The Pakistani government’s endorsement is not visible in the Gurdaspur attack.” With every provocation that has followed, from the deadly shelling at the LoC that killed several civilians last week to even the Pakistani High Commissioner’s surprisingly sharp speech on Kashmir on Independence Day — the government has responded with restraint.

Clearly restraint will be much needed this week in the run-up to the talks themselves. Mr. Doval’s task as he >prepares to meet Pakistan NSA Sartaj Aziz on August 23 in Delhi is three-fold: first, to put forth India’s case on terror emanating from Pakistan; second, to blunt Mr. Aziz’s attempts to draw an equivalence to alleged Indian activities in Balochistan and Khyber; and third, to put in place a series of interactions that ensure a productive visit to Pakistan by Prime Minister Modi for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) summit in 2016.

Line out of control

There is no question, however, that regardless of all that is on the agenda, it is the LoC that needs attention immediately. Casualties on both sides of the LoC have been rising at an alarming rate, and the ceasefire is practically ‘deceased’. A study by the U.S.-based Stimson Center finds that “that the Kashmir divide has become far more volatile since late 2012.” According to the study, the “rate of ceasefire violations” has more than doubled in 2014-15 over preceding years.

The two NSAs would do well to hasten the implementation of the Ufa agreement on holding a meet of the Director Generals of Military Operations, and perhaps include MEA and even intelligence officials.

On the main issue of terror, there is no question that Mr. Doval will have a stockpile of evidence for Mr. Aziz. However, India must focus on the >ongoing 26/11 trial in Pakistan , for two reasons. First, because the trial is under way and represents the hope, however slim, that some of the perpetrators may be brought to justice. Second because it represents a unique case where Pakistani investigators have independently confirmed all that India has said about terror groups inside that country. In a widely-circulated article, the former Director General of the Federal Investigative Agency (equivalent to the Indian National Intelligence Agency and Central Bureau of Intelligence combined) Tariq Khosa spelt out the evidence gathered against the 26/11 accused, their Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) commanders, and the training of men like Ajmal Kasab. The government must press ahead with this evidence, both with Pakistan and with the U.S., and the U.N.

A structure for talks

None of these issues can be discussed, however, unless there is a steady channel for talks between Indian and Pakistani interlocutors. A key takeaway from the NSA-level meeting could be an agreement to set up such a channel, whether a ‘back-channel’ of the kind Prime Ministers Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh set up with Mr. Musharraf, or regular meetings of the NSAs, Foreign and Home Secretaries.

Prime Ministerial meetings like >the one at Ufa , while helpful for the atmospherics, cannot substitute for legwork and hard negotiations. Nor can they substitute for India’s own national security considerations, as those opposed to talks often warn. The government must continue to carry out its responsibilities, whether at the border or anti-terror operations. Only then can India and Pakistan start work on the last part of the Ufa agenda — to construct a basket of agreements and announcements that would make Mr. Modi’s 2016 visit worthwhile. Many of these, such as a new visa regime, Most-Favoured Nation (MFN)-status from Pakistan, and the Sir Creek settlement, have already been negotiated and require only political will to be implemented.

Cynics of Track-1 diplomatic efforts between the two countries could take heart from the resilience of the Track-2 process. The Chaophraya Dialogue that met this month for the 16th Round (of which this writer was a part), for example, continues to draw in diplomats, generals, and other officials who till recently were inside Indian and Pakistani establishments.

These are men and women with decades of public experience and meet regularly to discuss the issues confronting India-Pakistan relations. Despite differences, they continue to meet and build a conversation that is eventually conveyed back to their respective governments. Interestingly, they now include some of those who wrote that letter in August 2013.

Ahead of the NSA-level talks, one of them described the predicament well. “There is so much ice in India-Pakistan relations, every high-level meeting is seen as an ice-breaker,” he said. It’s time to start chipping away at the ice and shaping building blocks for a lasting solution instead.

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