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Delaying dialogue with Pakistan will not suit India

Missing the wood for the trees

By Siddharth Varadarajan

Posted July 29, 2009


When Manmohan Singh explains his government’s policy towards Pakistan to Parliament on Wednesday, the worst thing he can do is to disown, downplay, retract or resile from the joint statement he issued with Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani in Sharm-el-Sheikh on July 17.

So irrational and poisonous has the Indian debate on the joint statement become that the government is today under enormous psychological pressure to declare Sharm-el-Sheikh a mistake. The Congress party is tongue-tied and a junior Minister for External Affairs unwisely sought refuge in the irrelevant plea that the text the Prime Minister had agreed to is not a legal document. The implication is clear: Sharm-el-Sheikh may be a sell-out, but the sale deed is not legally binding so don’t worry.

What the opposition’s noise and government’s poor salesmanship have done is reinforce the idea that the current Indian policy of not talking to Pakistan — in place since the Mumbai terrorist attacks of November 2008 — is working fine and that there is no need for any change or adjustment. This is unfortunate. For, in the run up to Sharm-el-Sheikh, Dr. Singh was bold enough to recognise the policy had already yielded the most it could. And that it was time to prepare the ground for change.


The idea that not talking is a good strategy is based on four myths, all of which are deeply flawed.

Myth #1: The Composite Dialogue benefits Pakistan and is bad for India.

Four rounds of composite dialogue have been completed and the fifth was under way when the Mumbai attacks happened. Progress has been modest in some areas like trade and CBMs, negligible in others like the Kashmir dispute and terrorism. But the achievements are not insignificant: An MoU to increase the frequencies, designated airlines and points of call in either country of air services; an agreement for trucks from one side to cross the border up to designated points on the other side at the Wagah-Attari border; an increase in frequency of the Delhi-Lahore bus service; an MoU between the Securities and Exchange Board of India and the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan; completion of the Joint Survey of Sir Creek and adjoining areas; agreement on consular access; implementation of CBMs with a view to enhancing interaction and cooperation across the LoC such as increased frequency of the Muzaffarabad-Srinagar and Rawalkot-Poonch bus services, intra-Kashmir trade and truck service.

Of these, Sir Creek and cross-LoC CBMs are especially significant. Resumption of Composite Dialogue would lead to the Sir Creek issue being settled quickly, allowing both India and Pakistan to finalise their exclusive economic zone claims under the Law of the Seas convention. And measures could be taken to increase bilateral and cross-LoC trade. The Jammu Traders Association, for example, would like the current weight restriction on trucks to be increased from 1.5 tonnes to 10 tonnes. Traders on both sides also want the two governments to improve communications and banking facilities, which are virtually non-existent. It is hard to imagine why India would want to delay agreement on these kinds of issues.


Myth #2: Stopping the composite dialogue will protect India from further terrorist attacks.

The biggest fear the Congress party and Prime Minister Singh have as they move towards the resumption of dialogue with Pakistan is the political consequences of another major terrorist strike. The fear is justified. But not talking will hardly reduce the capability or intention of Pakistan-based terrorists. And to the extent to which talking may make Islamabad’s cooperation in fighting terror more likely, dialogue may even reduce the chances of a major terrorist strike. Of course, the truth is that the Pakistani government and military are unable to prevent terrorist attacks on their own soil. Even if India had full confidence in Islamabad, it would be foolish for any Indian government to rely on anything other than homeland security to protect itself. Too often in the past, a hardline stance vis-À-vis Pakistan was seen as a substitute for toning up and professionalising the Indian police, intelligence and security apparatus. And the country paid a heavy price.


Myth #3: Stopping the Composite Dialogue helps India put pressure on Pakistan to take action against terrorism.

Within the Pakistani establishment, the military and the ISI are least enthusiastic about the resumption of composite dialogue; as are the various terrorist groups and their sympathisers. Indeed, hardliners in Pakistan are critical of the civilian government for appearing as if it is desperate for talks with India. It is this military-intelligence-jihadi nexus which has been the most vocal about India’s alleged involvement in Balochistan. That is why Mr. Gilani was anxious to take back from Sharm-el-Sheikh some proof of the fact that he had raised the Balochistan issue with Dr. Singh.


Myth #4: Pakistan has “not done anything” to bring the perpetrators of Mumbai to book

Time will tell how serious Islamabad is about prosecuting the Lashkar-e-Taiba men it has charged for their role in the Mumbai case, and whether the “big fish” like Zaki-ur-Lakhvi or Zarrar Shah are convicted or just LeT foot-soldiers. But more than the fate of the individuals involved, India has reason to feel satisfied Pakistan has accepted in writing that the crime was hatched and executed from Pakistani soil. This is more than any Pakistani government has ever done in the past and it would be churlish to deny this reality. That said, given the manner in which power in Pakistan is fragmented, it is unlikely that the system there will go any further than it already has in meeting India’s post-Mumbai concerns, at least for now. If the consensus in India is that Pakistan has “not done enough”, then the country should be prepared for a long period during which there will be no dialogue, and bilateral relations will slowly deteriorate.


The joint statement

As far as the Sharm-el-Sheikh statement is concerned, there is no doubt that better, more careful drafting was needed. A crucial sentence therein — “Action on terrorism should not be linked to the Composite Dialogue process and these should not be bracketed.” — can be read two ways. But even if India now says this does not mean the dialogue process should be delinked from Pakistani anti-terror actions, the sentence’s second, more direct meaning — that those actions should not depend on the dialogue process — is a definite improvement over the Islamabad joint statement of January 6, 2004. There, the operational paragraphs were: (i) India saying the prevention of terrorism would take forward the dialogue process, (ii) Pakistan assuring India it would not permit its territory to be used for terrorism, and (iii) Pakistan emphasising that “a sustained and productive dialogue addressing all issues would lead to positive results”. It is clear that this reference to “positive results” was in relation to Pakistan’s commitments on terrorism. In other words, the Islamabad statement implicitly linked Pakistan’s actions on terror to “a sustained and productive dialogue addressing all issues”. To that extent, Sharm-el-Sheikh is an improvement, though what matters at the end of the day are actions and not words.

On Balochistan, Sharm-el-Sheikh was not the first time the situation in the Pakistani province became an issue in the bilateral relationship. On December 27, 2005, the Ministry of External Affairs made the internal situation there a foreign policy concern: “The Government of India has been watching with concern the spiralling violence in Balochistan and the heavy military action, including the use of helicopter gunships and jet fighters by the Government of Pakistan to quell it. We hope that the Government of Pakistan will exercise restraint and take recourse to peaceful discussions to address the grievances of the people of Balochistan,” it said. Islamabad hit back the same day, with its Foreign Ministry spokesperson rejecting the Indian statement as “unwarranted and baseless”. The statement was “tantamount to meddling in internal affairs,” the spokesperson said, adding, “India often shows an unacceptable proclivity to interfere in internal affairs of its neighbours”. Next, the Pakistani spokesperson made a comparison with Kashmir: “The statement is all the more surprising from the spokesman of India, a country that has long tried to suppress the freedom struggle of the Kashmiri people…”

Having made Balochistan a bilateral issue in such a public manner, India can hardly object to a Pakistani Prime Minister raising it in a summit meeting or linking it to Kashmir. History will pass judgment on the wisdom of allowing a reference to the rebellious province in the joint statement. But what matters most is not the reference but the reality. If Indian agencies are not involved, no “Kasabs” will ever be found and Pakistan will get little traction from raising the B-word in bilateral or international forums. But if an Indian Kasab is ever found there, the absence of a reference will provide New Delhi no protection from the charge of involvement. The Prime Minister said India has nothing to hide. There is no reason to imagine he was whistling in the dark.

Source: The Hindu, New Delhi