NATIONAL

New terms for engaging Pakistan

NEW DELHI, DEC. 22. In deciding to recall its High Commissioner from Islamabad and debating additional diplomatic steps against Pakistan in the coming days, India is sending two mutually reinforcing messages to the international community.

First, India is making it clear that the terms of engagement with Pakistan have now changed. After the December 13 attack on Parliament, there was no question of returning to the old ways of dealing with Islamabad. For nearly a decade, India had been involved in a dialogue - on again, off again - with Pakistan on a whole range of bilateral issues, including on Jammu and Kashmir.

There were times, particularly after the Kargil war, when India said it would not talk to Pakistan unless Islamabad ended support to cross-border terrorism. There were other moments, like in Lahore and Agra, when India hoped that a dialogue with Pakistan would eventually result in a reduction of cross-border violence and improvement of bilateral relations.

With the threshold of its political tolerance having been breached on December 13, India is now declaring that if Pakistan does not meet its demands on ending cross-border terrorism, bilateral relations will head South. In hinting at additional diplomatic moves against Pakistan, India is suggesting that it is fully prepared for a definitive downgrading of relationship with Pakistan.

The second message is for the international community, in particular the U.S. In focusing on diplomatic escalation with Pakistan, India is signalling that it continues to act with restraint and responsibility.

India is conveying to the U.S. that any further ambiguity on Washington's part on terrorism emanating from Pakistani soil would lead to a rapid deterioration of the security environment in the subcontinent. Tolerance of the sources of terrorism in Pakistan because Islamabad is supporting American objectives in Afghanistan, India is saying, would only embolden the militants in Pakistan to step up their violent activity.

At the same time, India has not ruled out non-military options against Islamabad. New Delhi is making it abundantly clear that if the international community cannot get Pakistan to change its ways, a military confrontation with Islamabad may be inevitable. This message has already encouraged Washington to step up pressure on Islamabad to take action against the militant groups - the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad.

Besides a public call to the effect on Friday by the U.S. President, Mr. George W. Bush, in Washington, American and British envoys in Islamabad, apparently have conveyed the message directly to the Foreign Minister of Pakistan, Mr. Abdul Sattar yesterday.

India will now carefully assess Islamabad's response to the call of the international community and the effectiveness of its likely moves against the jehadi groups in the next few days. India is not impressed with the argument from sections of the West that it will be politically risky for the Pakistan President, Gen. Musharraf, to crack down on terrorist groups operating in Kashmir, given the popularity of the Kashmir cause in Pakistan.

The sense here is that the Pakistan Army has the strength and resources to discipline any segment of Pakistani society, including the jehadis. And such a crackdown does not involve any fundamental shift in Pakistan's position on the dispute with India over Jammu and Kashmir.

What it does involve is a conscious rejection, on Pakistan's part, of its recent tactics in Kashmir - the promotion of violent religious extremism. This is not as much a political favour to India, as it is an opportunity for Pakistan to change the self-destructive course it had embarked upon since the late 1970s.

In demanding that Pakistan act against terrorist groups on the ground, it is only fair that New Delhi clearly communicates to Islamabad the benchmarks it has set for assessing Pakistani response.

As India threatens a rapid down-slide in bilateral relations with Pakistan if the benchmarks are not met, it is important for New Delhi to publicly outline the prospects of a productive engagement with Islamabad on Kashmir under the right circumstances.