An anxious swivel-point in India-Pak relations

An anxious swivel-point in India-Pak relations

By M.J. Akbar | 22 August, 2015
The meeting between NSAs is the first step on a difficult ladder. Each rung will have to be negotiated with care.

The India-Pakistan dialogue has been comatose ever since it suffered a severe stroke at Agra in 2001; will it sink into deeper relapse in 2015? The diagnosis has not changed. Agra collapsed because Pakistan would not accept terrorism as a central problem, largely because to do so would be self-incriminating. Its equivocation is evident in the threat that always accompanies any dispute over the agenda: talk about Kashmir, or else!

Sometimes it seems as if the language hasn't changed in 15 years: Sartaj Aziz told a press conference in Pakistan that if India did not discuss Kashmir it would soon realise what the consequences would be. In other words, the tap of violence is controlled by Islamabad, and it can be turned on or off at its command. But the situation is changed. Neither India nor Pakistan is where they were 15 years ago. There are possibilities in the air.

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's problem is a familiar trope of his country's hydra-headed approach towards India. The analogy bears attention. Hydra, in Greek mythology, was a water serpent with a unique propensity. Each time you cut its head off, two more appeared. Hercules found the solution. The hero burnt the serpent's neck after cutting the head. There is no Hercules around capable of such a feat because the serpent sups milk supplied by powerful sections of Pakistan's army and sleeps in the sanctuary offered by the vast infrastructure of terrorist groups that conduct war by other means against India. When Nawaz Sharif, in an earlier incarnation, sought, sincerely, to improve relations through the Lahore summit with Atal Behari Vajpayee, Kargil followed. Today, the far less dramatic understanding at Ufa provoked the same lobby into stepping up cross-border terrorism and ceasefire violations.

In his attempts to appease Hydra, Sartaj Aziz, Nawaz Sharif's NSA, slipped into distortion when he asserted that Kashmir was mentioned on the agenda drawn up at Ufa for his discussions with India's NSA Ajit Doval. There is no mention of Kashmir in the text of the Ufa joint statement. Pakistan now says that if all issues connected to terrorism are on the table then Kashmir is implicitly there. Statements are not formulated to cover the implicit; every word is used, and fought over, because it has an explicit connotation. If Kashmir is not mentioned then it is not there.

There is some confusion over the precise meaning of "talks" in the context of India and Pakistan. Both sides are committed to what is known as a "composite" dialogue, and this indeed covers all issues, including Kashmir. The Narendra Modi government has never shied away from this commitment. But the Ajit Doval-Sartaj Aziz meeting is not part of a composite dialogue, but a by-product of a conversation between Modi and Sharif on the sidelines of an international conference, with a specific subject of high concern, terrorism. Delhi holds that Kashmir is a dispute between India and Pakistan, without reference to any third party, whether the third party be a foreign country or elements that do not consider themselves Indian.

The Ajit Doval-Sartaj Aziz meeting is not part of a composite dialogue, but a by-product of a conversation between PMs Modi and Sharif on the sidelines of an international conference, with a specific subject of high concern, terrorism. The meeting between NSAs is designed to try and clear hurdles that block resumption of the composite dialogue.

The meeting between NSAs is designed to try and clear hurdles that block resumption of the composite dialogue. If Pakistan is honest about confronting terrorism, then it surely cannot send a signal of support to secessionists who promote or condone terrorism. An in-your-face policy is deliberately inflammatory, and hardly conducive to preparing public opinion for larger tasks ahead. Would Pakistan applaud if the Indian NSA or Foreign Secretary insisted on meeting Baloch separatists prior to talks in Islamabad?

At the moment of writing, doors have been banged, loudly, but not fully shut. Talking to Pakistan is always like walking on glass; you never know when it is going to crack. It is safer to hope for the best and expect the worst; and don't place any bets. Perhaps this may not be the best time to mention an inconvenient truth, but Islamabad has accepted this position of the Narendra Modi government before — on the day the Prime Minister took his oath of office.

This is an anxious swivel-point in relations between India and Pakistan. We have rather lost sight of an important fact: at Ufa, Sharif invited Narendra Modi to visit Pakistan for the Saarc conference next year, and our Prime Minister accepted. If that visit does take place, it could mark a very high point in the history of Saarc. The meeting between NSAs is the first step on that difficult ladder. Each rung will have to be negotiated with care. India will provide hard evidence on terrorists nurtured within Pakistan, including about a kingpin, Dawood Ibrahim. If Pakistan acts it will assuage not only India's concerns, but also those of the United States, which has been the Pakistan army's most consistent fund manager.

There will be many ways to slip between now and 2016, but to fall off the first rung is equivalent to sending a gilt-edged invitation to misfortune.

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