The South Asia Channel

No Peace Farther East: The Indo-Pak Road to Nowhere

It had to happen. But it happened earlier than some would have predicted after Nawaz Sharif’s visit to New Delhi for the inauguration of the Narendra Modi government in May. The surprise invitation to Sharif had led some to hope that perhaps it would indeed be a new beginning in India-Pakistan relations. But that was not to be. Indian Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh was scheduled to travel to Islamabad for talks with her Pakistani counterpart Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhary on August 25, the first meeting at this level since September 2012. But India decided to call off these talks with Pakistan soon after Pakistan High Commissioner in India Abdul Basit met Kashmiri separatist leaders.

Indian response was sharp: “Foreign Secretary (Sujatha Singh) conveyed to the Pakistan High Commissioner today, in clear and unambiguous terms, that Pakistan’s continued efforts to interfere in India’s internal affairs were unacceptable. It was underlined that the Pakistani High Commissioner’s meetings with these so-called leaders of the Hurriyat undermines the constructive diplomatic engagement initiated by Prime Minister Modi in May on his very first day in office. Therefore, under the present circumstances, it is felt that no useful purpose will be served by the Indian Foreign Secretary going to Islamabad next week. Foreign Secretary’s visit to Islamabad for talks on 25 August stands cancelled.” Arguing that the Pakistani High Commissioner did not interfere in India’s internal affairs, Pakistan Foreign Office retorted that Kashmir was not part of India. It went on to underline that “Pakistan is not subservient to India” and is “a legitimate stakeholder in the Jammu and Kashmir dispute.”

The reactions have been predictable. Welcoming the decision to cancel the talks, Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said that “though India wants good relations with its neighbours, it will not tolerate any interference in its internal affairs by anyone.” The opposition Congress Party has flayed the government for its knee-jerk reaction, suggesting the government has “completely walked itself into a corner” on the Pakistan policy and termed the talks between Hurriyat leaders and Pakistan a “ritual”, which the neighbouring country always follows before any interaction between the two nations. The political parties in Kashmir have expressed their unhappinessover the development, terming it unfortunate. Pro-independence leader Yasin Malik said that by closing the option of a peaceful resolution, New Delhi was pushing the youth towards militancy.

If we remove the bluster, there is nothing new in what is happening. It happens after every few years when India and Pakistan decide that they need to talk. Either the talks happen and nothing comes out of them or even before the talks start, something happens to derail them. Lest we get carried away, after a few months, India and Pakistan would again be preparing for talks. So if talks are the real issue, actually there is nothing to cause worry. But if the world is looking for something concrete to happen in India-Pakistan ties, then this is a road to nowhere.

It can be considered the biggest strategic failure of Indian diplomacy that even after more than six decades, India has not found a way to neutralize the malevolence of a neighbour one-eighth its size. Business as usual has never been an option for India and yet India’s Pakistan policy in recent years has struggled to move beyond cultural exchanges and cross-border trade. Pakistan has continued to train its guns at India and drain India's diplomatic capital and military strength and India has continued to debate whether Pakistani musicians should be allowed to enter India. This disconnect between Pakistan's clear strategic priority and India's magnificently short-sighted approach will continue to exact its toll on India unless India makes it a priority to think outside the box on Pakistan. In recent years, India has found itself desperately seeking international attention for its troubles vis-à-vis Pakistan as well as Pakistan's own problems. And when it does not get that attention or is rebuffed, New Delhi behaves like a spoiled child, throwing a tantrum and going on the defensive.

Though the previous Indian government’s spin doctors would have us believe that then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was thinking in grand strategic terms when he tried to reach out to Pakistan a number of times during his decade-long term in office, the reality was that his government had realized that it had no other option but to talk to Pakistan. India’s strategic space had dramatically shrunk over the last few years. By failing to craft its own narrative on ‘Af-Pak’ ever since the U.S. troops went into Afghanistan in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, New Delhi had allowed the West, and increasingly Pakistan, to dictate the contours of Indian policy towards the region. As a result, India continued to rely on the United States to secure its interests in ‘Af-Pak’ under the assumption that there is a fundamental convergence between India and the Obama Administration in viewing Pakistan as the source of Afghanistan’s insecurity. New Delhi believed, therefore, that it would be best served by coordinating its counter-terror strategy with the United States and as such it needed to reach out to Islamabad. So even though there was no public appetite for talks with Pakistan when none of Indian demands after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks had been addressed, India ended up with the pretence of engaging Pakistan to deflect international pressure.

But Pakistan and especially its real power center -- the military-industrial complex -- had no real incentives to enter into a serious dialogue with India. Given India’s enormous economic, military, and geographical advantages, Pakistan has, since independence, relied on non-conventional means to limit India’s influence and power. It pursued nuclear weapons in order to prevent India from using its overwhelming conventional military superiority, thereby levelling the playing field. Under the nuclear umbrella, Pakistan has used terrorism as a major instrument of its foreign policy, especially in Jammu and Kashmir, which Pakistan has coveted since 1947.

Despite the passage of six decades and numerous attempts by India and Pakistan to patch up their differences, nothing much has changed in so far as the above narrative is concerned. Significant sections of Pakistani military and intelligence services continue to see themselves in a permanent state of conflict with India and have little incentive to moderate their behaviour as a continuing conflict with India is the raison d’etre of their pre-eminent position in Pakistani society. At a time when Pakistan’s Islamic identity is under siege because of its cooperation with the United States on counterterrorism and the rise of Islamist extremism challenging the writ of the Pakistani state, the need to define itself in opposition to India remains even stronger. Militarily, Pakistan’s strategy of low-intensity conflict based on supporting terrorism can be seen as successful in so far as it has prevented India from achieving its full potential as a major military power.

The success of any Indo-Pak dialogue hinges on the ability of Pakistan’s political establishment to control terrorist groups from wreaking havoc in India. It is doubtful how much control the civilian government in Islamabad can exert given that various terrorist outfits have vowed to continue their jihad in Kashmir. The Frankenstein monster that the Pakistani state had created to further its strategic objectives vis-à-vis its adversaries has now turned against it and threatens to derail any future attempts at Indo-Pak reconciliation. Moreover, there is little evidence of any significant Pakistani effort to dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism such as communications, launching pads, and training camps on its eastern border with India.

Finally, and perhaps most important from the point of view of the resolution of the Kashmir dispute, is the very different strategic goals India and Pakistan have in pursuing a peace-process. Pakistan has a revisionist agenda and would like to change the status quo in Kashmir while India would like the very opposite. India hopes that the negotiations with Pakistan would ratify the existing territorial status quo in Kashmir. At its foundation, these are irreconcilable differences and no confidence-building measure is likely to alter this situation. India’s premise largely has been that the peace process will persuade Pakistan to cease supporting and sending extremists into India and start building good neighbourly ties. Pakistan, in contrast, has viewed the process as a means to nudge India to make progress on Kashmir, a euphemism for Indian concessions. While Pakistan has a clear position on Kashmir and it shows little sign of budging from that, nobody really knows what India wants as it lacks clarity in its objectives and consistency in its plans. It is obvious that India would not give up its control over the Kashmir valley. Just as India has had difficulty thinking of what it would offer, Pakistan also has had a hard time articulating what it would be satisfied with, short of wresting Kashmir.

And this is primarily a function of the lack of national political consensus on this issue in both states. In Pakistan, not only radical Islamist groups but also many mainstream political parties are against diluting Islamabad’s traditional hard-line on the Kashmir issue. At one point, it had seemed that the Nawaz Sharif government was serious about normalizing ties with India and India bashing was not part of the last election. But that was then. Today as Pakistan lurches from one crisis to the next, it is not even clear who India’s interlocutors are today. In India, the Congress-led governments had found it difficult to make any concessions as they had to protect their flank from the right of the Indian political establishment. Now with the BJP in power, the Congress has been ready to pay back in the same coin. While there is a general political consensus in India on opening up trade routes and bus services, the threat of terrorism keeps all political parties on guard as no one would want to be held responsible for a terrorist attack that might come. Nearly two decades back, in the midst of turmoil of Kashmir and growing international pressure, New Delhi decided to engage Kashmiri separatist leaders, under the umbrella of All Party Hurriyat Conference. Now, the Narendra Modi government is laying down new terms of engagement by asserting that the Kashmir issue is a strictly bilateral matter between India and Pakistan and should be dealt with at the intergovernmental level. But mere rhetoric will not be enough. The nuclearized environment of South Asia makes the region a global flashpoint and an escalation in Indo-Pak tensions will once again trigger external involvement, much to India’s discomfiture.

The debate in India on Pakistan has long ceased to be substantive. The choice that India has is not between talking and sulking. Just as Pakistan has continued to manage the façade of talks with India even as its support for separatism and extremism in India continues unabated, India should continue to talk even as it needs to unleash other arrows in its quiver to manage Pakistan. If Pakistan manages to put its own house in order and refrain from using terrorism as a policy instrument against India, then India can show magnanimity deserving of a regional power. After all, that is the thrust of New Delhi’s new engagement with other regional states. Even the parameters of a peace deal with Kashmir are well-known. But Pakistan’s India obsession is not about Kashmir. The very manner in which Pakistan defines its identity makes it almost impossible that India will ever be able to find a modus vivendi with its neighbour. New Delhi and the world should be ready to face this hard reality. Otherwise, the charade of Indo-Pak dialogue will continue to disappoint one and all.


Harsh V. Pant is a professor of International Relations at King's College London and a non-resident fellow with the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C.