There is much hope in Pakistan that the recent meetings with Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj in Islamabad and later an informal meeting between Prime Ministers of the two countries in Lahore will usher in an era of durable diplomatic engagement with Delhi. There is another hope that this engagement will be productive and useful because Delhi’s hardline government led by Narendra Modi and his Hindu fundamentalist BJP represents the hardest nut in India. If this nut can be cracked then the most formidable obstacle to peace can be achieved since there is no other party that is as tough on Pakistan as the one in power.
These hopes and the assumptions that are creating them are all false. While all diplomatic engagements should be welcome, and particularly those between nuclear-armed border-neighbours, optimism must stem from reality not fiction. Moreover, these talks and their terms seem hopelessly unilateral. The present government in Pakistan, in order to come across flexible and reasonable, has moved so far away from the agreed agendas of talks of the recent past that going back to what was once considered a ‘normal meeting ground’ between the two countries looks impossible. The so-called joint statement issued at the end of the recent parleys looks fairly reasonable at first glance but a closer examination of what this statement has left out from its fold shows that this degrades Pakistan’s position and allows India to put its own wicked spin on it.
So what has this statement left out? To know this, we have to remind ourselves of what India has been willing to accept as the bottom-line in its engagement with Pakistan. Recall what the meeting ground between Pakistan’s military strongman Ziaul Haq and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was. That dialogue process contained Siachen; Sir Creek; commercial ties; issues related to terrorism/ immigration and people-to-people contact. As many committees were created to register progress on these counts. Since the Zia regime was not big on Kashmir and only woke up to the issue when rigged elections of 1987 aggravated the farce and an intifada broke out, therefore, Kashmir practically was left out. But there were back-channel contacts on this count as well.
The Shimla Agreement did not prevent Delhi to discuss the full range of issues with Pakistan and this trend continued later on as well in the 1990s when the so-called ‘non-papers’ were exchanged between India and Pakistan and a nuclear dimension was added to these talks. Then the international community played a vital part on these talks that had several rounds that revolved around:
- Peace and security and confidence building measures (CBMs)
- Jammu and Kashmir
- Wullar Barrage/Tulbul Navigation Project
- Sir Creek
- Economic and commercial cooperation
- Terrorism and drug trafficking
- Promotion of friendly exchanges in a range of fields
The trend did not break under the third military regime. General Pervez Musharraf added a new dimension to the talks by creating a fast-track on Kashmir. It is now well-documented that this fast-track approach almost created that formula that could have solved the Kashmir problem for good. It is not in the scope of this article to dwell on the nature of that formula and discuss whether this was just or not. Principally, legally and morally all solutions that aim to divide a people must necessarily be compromise formulas and therefore hugely problematic. But mentioning the Musharraf era in the context of dialogue between India and Pakistan is important for a different reason: a BJP government as well a Congress government was willing to discuss all issues and there was never any doubt that the two states had a common ground on which they wanted to interact.
Now this grid has been changed. The government of Pakistan’s new policy endorsed by all state institutions is to engage with India at all costs. This has given Delhi reason to put its own definitions on what is discussable and what is not. In India a steady effort is afoot to keep the context of the dialogue straight, narrow and singularly centered on one issue: “Pakistan-sponsored terrorism”. Sushma Swaraj—whose unassuming demeanour is a bewitching cover for entrenched viciousness—has been leading from the front the drill of reducing dialogue’s renewal to these three words. Her statement before the Indian Parliament was perfectly crafted for this purpose.
She said: “The underlying sentiment, on which I am confident that this House concurs fully, was that the continued estrangement of two neighbours was a hurdle to the realization of our shared vision of a peaceful and prosperous region. At the same time, there was also a sharp awareness that the principal obstacles to the growth of ties, especially terrorism, would have to be clearly and directly addressed.
“…The National Security Advisors of the two countries accordingly met on 6 December 2015… They focused on peace and security, terrorism, tranquility along the Line of Control, and Jammu & Kashmir–the State which has been most directly impacted by terrorism and violation of LoC.”
Since then every time she has spoken or responded to a question, she has insisted that the dialogue is all about terrorism and Indian security. She and others throw in references to Line of Control, Jammu and Kashmir, and use phrases such as “all outstanding issues,” but don’t be fooled by them. Delhi mentions Line of Control in the context of its allegations of ‘infiltration’; it speaks of “Jammu and Kashmir” in the framework of its stand that only “Pakistan-occupied Kashmir” is the focus of talks; and it interprets “all outstanding issues” to mean any other issues that Delhi might consider related to its security and cross-border infiltration.
Pakistan has not done anything to put a stop to these self-serving interpretations by Delhi. Islamabad could have at least insisted that by using the word “bilateral” in the new dialogue process Delhi is conveying the misperception, particularly after the Pathankote attack, that Kashmir is a settled issue and that there is only one item on the agenda viz terrorism. India may have come to the dialogue table but it has come there with a twisted mindset and preconceived notions. If Islamabad does not set the context of this dialogue right, this could become a disastrous exercise.
—The author is Pakistan’s leading journalist currently associated with the Jang Group of Publications. He wrote this piece exclusively for Kashmir Narrator