September 21, 2014

India-Pakistan: Back to Square One

Yohannan Chemarapally

EXPECTATIONS about the improvement of bilateral ties between India and Pakistan were buoyed after the Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif accepted the newly elected Indian prime minister’s invitation for his swearing in ceremony. Sharif had come to Delhi at short notice despite the misgivings expressed by many in Pakistan, including those in the powerful security establishment. Narendra Modi on the campaign trail had targeted Pakistan as a threat to India’s internal security and had pledged to take a tough and uncompromising stand on the Kashmir issue. Sharif had also come in for criticism after he failed to meet with the separatist Hurriyat leadership during his hurried visit to the Indian capital. Whenever Pakistani presidents and prime ministers visit New Delhi, a meeting with the separatist leadership had been the norm since the mid-nineties. However, during the Pakistani prime minister’s New Delhi visit in May and after his formal meeting with the new Indian prime minister, it was agreed that the stalled dialogue process between the two countries should once again be restarted. A cautious beginning was to be made with the Indian and Pakistani foreign secretaries scheduled to meet on August 25. The talks were to be the first between the foreign secretaries of the two countries in two years and were supposed to lay a roadmap for the dialogue to continue at a ministerial and prime ministerial level. Tentative plans were even being drawn up for a meeting between the Indian and Pakistani prime ministers in New York in September. Both Modi and Sharif will be addressing the annual UN general assembly meet in New York. Sharif will now probably have second thoughts on meeting Modi again any time soon. On August 18, the Indian government announced its surprise decision to scuttle the foreign secretary level talks. According to reports, the Pakistani High Commissioner, Abdul Basit was given just 10 minutes to call off the talks with a visiting Hurriyat leader, Shabir Shah. It was the Indian foreign secretary, Sujatha Singh who told Basit that if the meeting went ahead, she would not be proceeding to Islamabad for the scheduled talks with her Pakistani counterpart. The Pakistani side said that the Indian authorities were aware of the scheduled meeting with the Hurriyat for more than a week. The Indian government’s decision comes at a time when Sharif’s political opponents with the tacit support of influential sections of the Pakistani security establishment were braying for his resignation. Indian commentators, mostly retired generals and diplomats, close to the corridors of power in New Delhi are saying that one factor which influenced the Indian government’s decision was Sharif’s weakening hold on power and the possibility of impending regime change in Islamabad. It is being argued that Sharif will not be able to either make meaningful concessions or deliver on his pledges. With the majority in parliament backing him and public opinion too swinging in his favor, Sharif seems set to complete his five year term. Sharif was very keen to repair relations, especially economic ties, with India after he won the elections last year. He had told the media after being sworn into office, that there was an urgent need to “seriously address the fears” that have bedeviled bilateral ties. The Pakistani prime minister seems to be in broad agreement with many Pakistani economists and intellectuals who believe that economic integration in South Asia would help dissolve historical animosities and benefit the impoverished masses. The Indian government continues to insist that the decision to postpone the foreign secretaries meeting was solely triggered by the meeting the Pakistani High commissioner, held with a senior member of the Hurriyat Conference in Delhi. It has been a routine practice for the Pakistani diplomats based in Delhi to ascertain the views of the separatist leaders on the situation in Kashmir before serious official level talks begin. The former president Pervez Musharraf, had also met with the separatist leader before proceeding for talks with the NDA’s prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee during the Agra summit of July 2001. A durable peace deal was on the verge of being clinched then. It has been clear since the last decade that the Pakistani establishment had given up hopes of physically detaching the disputed parts of Kashmir from the Indian Union. From Musharraf onwards, Pakistani leaders have wanted a solution to the Kashmir problem without entailing any changes in the existing de facto borders between the two countries. SHIFTING THE GOAL POSTS But the latest avatar of the NDA government at the center under the leadership of Modi apparently wants to shift the goal posts in its dealings with Pakistan on the Kashmir issue. The decision to cancel the foreign secretaries meet emanated from the Prime Ministers Office (PMO). According to some reports, the external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj as well as the Indian foreign office was not kept in the loop. The precipitate diplomatic step by the Modi government would for all practical purposes mean the suspension of meaningful peace talks between the two countries for the duration of the NDA’s five year term in office. The Pakistani government has reiterated that it will continue to interact with the Hurriyat Conference as it considers them an important stake holder in the Kashmir conflict. The Pakistani High Commissioner has strongly defended his right to meet with the separatist leaders. He told the media in Delhi that including the separatists in dialogue process “is the only way to find a lasting peace”. He said that it was a “long standing practice” to consult with Kashmiri leaders before the beginning of substantive talks with India. Basit said that the “bottom line” was to engage all stakeholders in the conflict. The Hurriyat leadership also stated that it always was in favour of peace talks between the two countries in order to resolve the Kashmir issue peacefully. The Pakistani foreign office issued a statement which said that the decision of the Indian government has dealt a blow “to efforts by our leadership to promote good neighbourly relations”. Announcing the postponement of the talks, the Indian external affairs ministry spokesman, Syed Akbaruddin, said that the Pakistani high commissioner’s invitation to the separatist leaders on the eve of the resumption of bilateral talks raised questions about the sincerity of the Pakistani leadership towards normalisation of bilateral relations. The spokesman said that the Indian government had conveyed to the Pakistan high commissioner “in clear and unambiguous terms that Pakistan’s continued efforts to interfere in India’s internal affairs were unacceptable”. He specifically stated that the Pakistani High Commissioner’s meeting with separatist leaders “undermines the constructive diplomatic engagement initiated by prime minister in May on his very first day in office”. Akbaruddin went on to add that under the terms of the Shimla Agreement there were only two stakeholders in the Kashmir dispute – the governments of India and Pakistan. Now with New Delhi sticking to its stance that Kashmir is an “internal” issue of India and the earlier talk by the BJP leaders of abrogating Article 370 during the election campaign, the people of Kashmir as well as the international community, are getting increasingly perturbed. It is Article 370 that gives Kashmir its special status. Besides, Kashmir has been the oldest international dispute that has been figuring in the UN files. There is a growing belief that the decision to stop meaningfully engaging Islamabad and score a “self goal” was taken by the Modi government to cater to its domestic political agenda. The BJP led by the Party president, Amit Shah, has been repeatedly stating that Kashmir needs a “nationalistic” leadership. The BJP president’s “Mission 44+” for Jammu and Kashmir aims at installing a BJP chief minister after the next state elections. This will be anathema for the majority Muslim community. If the BJP and its allies get a majority in the J&K legislature, the game plan of the Hindutva lobby to abrogate Article 370 could be easily realised. Abrogating Article 370 has been a long standing RSS demand. Modi, the loyal pracharak, will try his best to implement this cherished right wing nationalist goal. POLITICAL GAMESMANSHIP New Delhi and Islamabad now seem intent on resorting to political gamesmanship and military brinkmanship. The Line of Control (LOC) after months of relative calm is once again witnessing heavy exchanges of fire. A few soldiers and civilians on both sides of the LOC have already been killed in the daily exchanges of artillery fire that escalated soon after New Delhi called off the foreign secretary level talks. The Director Generals of Military Operations (DGMO’s) of India and Pakistan after conversing on the hotline on August 26 have announced an agreement to de-escalate tensions along the LOC with immediate effect. Insurgent activity in the valley too is showing signs of revival. With the US occupation forces all set to leave Afghanistan, Islamabad may soon have the upper hand there. If the Taliban comes back to power in Kabul, the Pakistan army and security services would once again be able to focus their undivided attention on Kashmir. The “jihadis” and the “Pakistani Taliban” could be encouraged to turn their attention to Kashmir once again. The security establishment, which is once again creeping towards centre stage, may be tempted to exercise the option of “asymmetrical warfare” by using proxy “jihadi” forces against India, as was done in the late 1980’s and 1990’s. Islamabad has once again toughened its stance on the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) Dispute. During talks with their Indian counterparts in Lahore in the fourth week of August, Pakistani officials expressed “serious concerns” over the construction of the Kishenganga Dam on the River Jhelum and four other small dams on the Chenab. They termed its construction as a “clear violation” of the IWT. Pakistan has said that it is proposing to take the dispute for arbitration by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague. A cloud now hangs over the resumption of the trade dialogue between the two countries. Trade talks were suspended last year when violence across the LOC had escalated. The commerce secretaries of the two countries were scheduled to meet after the foreign secretary level talks. In 2012, Pakistan had committed itself to giving most favoured nation (MFN) status to India. Modi’s “self goal” has come in for scathing criticism from the opposition parties. The Congress Party accused the NDA government of indulging in “knee jerk diplomacy” and questioned whether the government had formulated a coherent policy on Pakistan in the first place. Sitaram Yechury, the CPI(M) Polit Bureau member, said that the decision to call off the meeting was “inexplicable”.