The indefiniteness about the terms to be set for the resumption of India-Pakistan dialogue at a time when a high-powered team of Pakistan officials visited the Pathankot airbase, the perceived India-US differential on India’s role in Afghanistan and at home the controversies thrown up by the Ishrat Jahan case—currently in the realm of judiciary—have together put the handling of national security under public scrutiny.
The NSA-level interactions in the period following the meeting of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif at Ufa have apparently been centred round securing acknowledgement by Pakistan of its accountability in regard to cross border terrorism—the prime threat to India’s national security for years. India has accommodated Pakistan’s request for letting a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) from Pakistan visit the scene of occurrence in Pathankot to facilitate the investigation into the recent terrorist attack at the forward airbase. As the team included a high ranking ISI official, the visit created a political furore, with the opposition even accusing the government of “caving in” to Pakistan on the issue of terrorism.
It is no doubt odd that in the backdrop of Indian intelligence establishing ISI’s hand in the Pathankot incident, an investigation team from Pakistan should flaunt the inclusion of that agency’s representative in the JIT. This gives strength to Pakistan’s plea that terrorist attacks on India were the handiwork of “non-state actors” entirely and further that Pakistan, like India, was at the receiving end of terrorism. It will be totally inexplicable if the Modi government, like its predecessor, moved towards validating the line that granted “shared victimhood” to Pakistan in regard to terrorism at Havana. In the “war on terror”, Islamic radicals took on the Pak establishment, whereas the instrument of cross border terrorism facing India was the HuM-LeT combine, which was controlled by the ISI.
One would like to believe that the JIT’s visit was part of India’s strategy of giving a long rope to Pakistan to show its bona fides, without India compromising its declared stand that terrorism had to be the first issue on the agenda of India-Pak talks. So long as the NIA on the Indian side prevails on the visiting team with our evidence and presses for a reciprocal visit by Indian investigators to interrogate Masood Azhar in the Pathankot case—which it has—the composition of the JIT would not really matter for India.
One would like to believe that the JIT’s visit to Pathankot was part of India’s strategy of giving a long rope to Pakistan to show its bona fides, without India compromising its stand that terrorism had to be the first issue on the agenda of India-Pak talks.
As things stand, however, the Pak army continues to dictate the script for its civilian representatives at India-Pak talks, plays the deniability card on cross border terrorism and seeks resumption of the comprehensive dialogue to put the issue of Kashmir on the agenda. Pak High Commissioner Abdul Basit’s familiar act of inviting the Hurriyat leaders for Pakistan Day celebrations, was a tactical attempt to bring in that issue through the back door. The separatists, earlier marginalised, have suddenly become vocal and aggressive as Pak proxies and need to be shown their place in Kashmir by the BJP-PDP regime.
The attitude of Pakistan is determined by a combination of factors: the new level of animosity against India that has prevailed ever since Bangladesh was liberated, the deepening of the hold of Islam on the thinking of many sections of society there, and the intuitive belief of the Pak army that the US is on its side because of the continued American dependence on the former due to the rise of ISIS on one hand and the revival of the Al Qaeda-Taliban axis in Afghanistan, on the other. India’s foreign policy is on test in Afghanistan as it becomes increasingly evident that the US is willing to let Pakistan have its way there, somewhat at the cost of India.
It is important that there is political convergence in the country on issues of national security. The system of national security management is adversely impacted by any impression of injection of domestic politics into a national security case, as was apparently the matter with the Ishrat Jahan episode. In India, Intelligence Bureau performs the sovereign function of taking a judgement call on what constitutes an emerging threat to national security and moving to initiate its coverage.
This involves an implicit acceptance of the principle that national security stayed above politics.
There is little doubt that the Intelligence Bureau had established a benchmark in organisational quality, insistence on reliability of intelligence and acceptance of total accountability for the information furnished. The unaltered tradition is to give out intelligence only when it could be labelled “reliable and confirmed”. In the Ishrat Jahan case, a public impression was created that the government of the day had run down the intelligence produced by its own agency.
This was strange. Not all intelligence is “evidence”, but intelligence would not lose its value just because “action” taken on it was subjected to legal scrutiny. Hopefully the case will find judicial clarity soon.
The strong response that the ruling party at the Centre has shown to the detention of former Navy officer Kulbhushan Yadav, on the charge of his being an Indian “spy”, presages the decision of the present regime to deal with Pakistan strictly on merit, notwithstanding the gesture earlier shown by Prime Minister Modi of reaching out to his Pak counterpart to convey a message of friendship and hope for a new beginning in India-Pak relations. This will be welcomed by the people at large.
D.C. Pathak is a former Director, Intelligence Bureau.