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Opinion » Comment

Posted at: Jun 20, 2017, 12:42 AM; last updated: Jun 20, 2017, 1:52 AM (IST)

Why India, Pak don’t talk to each other

Maj Gen Ashok K. Mehta (retd)
The year 2016 was horrible for the dialogue process, what with the Pathankot attack, Burhan Wani episode, Uri strike and the retaliatory surgical strikes. At the recent SCO Summit in Astana, there was no move to initiate dialogue. The red lines are now shallow, cl;oser to the LoC and inside Jammu and Kashmir.
Why India, Pak don’t talk to each other
Chill in air: (From L) Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Russian President Vladimir Putin and Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif gather for a "family photo" at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit in Kazakhstan''s capital Astana. AFP
IN these times of acute famine in dialogue between India and Pakistan, now in its fifth year of suspension following the beheading of an Indian soldier in January 2013, it was gratifying that at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meet at Astana, Kazakhstan, recently, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Narendra Modi shook hands and exchanged pleasantries. But sadly, that's only as far as they went, a full 18 months after the two-strand Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue format was worked out on the sidelines of the Paris Climate Change talks in December 2015. 

That one was a real quickie because within days, the two NSAs and the two Foreign Secretaries were meeting at Bangkok to enable External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to attend the Heart of Asia conference in Islamabad on December 9, proving that where there's a will, there's a way. It was also on the sidelines of the 15th SCO summit at Ufa in July 2015 that bilateral talks were held. At Astana, Modi could easily have pulled Sharif aside for a tete-a-tete to start the comprehensive bilateral dialogue as soon as possible. Modi has the political mandate to pull a rabbit out of the hat though Sharif has less of a say in such matters due to big brother, Gen Bajwa, watching. Swaraj unfortunately had  already robbed the little surprise there was of any structured conversation on the sidelines by announcing that this would not happen. 

The year 2016 was horrible for the dialogue process, what with the Pathankot attack, Burhan Wani episode, Uri strike and the retaliatory surgical strikes which did not force a clampdown on cross-border terrorism as was claimed by the government. Violence continued without any breakthrough on Track I. The dearth of any official engagement was made up by the number of Track II dialogues, two of which two were held in the last two months at Dubai and Kathmandu which I attended. These happened in April and May when after the winter lull, violence had kicked up again. Panelists from both sides recognised that the time was not conducive for talks given the growing levels of vigilante-ism and high-decibel television frenzy on both sides of the Line of Control to wipe each other off the map. Pakistan has sought moral equivalence with India as a victim of terrorism, thanks to what our Prime Minister, Defence Minister and National Security Adviser have been saying about punishing Pakistan in Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan. The charges specifically listed are unleashing of state terrorism in Balochistan through people like Kulbhushan Jadhav, a spy who incidentally was sentenced to death by a military court on the day after the Dubai conference. Reaching out to Baloch leader in exile, Brahamdagh Khan Bugti, financing of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, colluding with Kabul agencies for disruptive activities in Pakistan and most of all, the desire and intent to break up the CPEC project: these are the allegations now openly made against India. Samjhauta is forgotten. Pakistanis urged India to join CPEC, which eventually might provide an opening to the settlement of the Kashmir dispute.

Two new elements have clouded the discourse: firstly, the tolerance threshold of cross-border terrorism never articulated by India has been abridged. Red lines are now shallow, closer to the LoC and inside Jammu and Kashmir. Previously, these were crossed mainly in attacks outside Jammu and Kashmir. Now, 19 dead in Uri would evoke a surgical strike. The red line has now been shifted to inside the state --- with Uri becoming  the new normal. Ajit Doval, before he became the NSA, used to say if there is another Mumbai, there will be no Balochistan. Rawalpindi has identified this red line and confined its attacks mainly within Jammu and Kashmir. 

Secondly, a retired Pakistani General observed at Kathmandu that the equation between India and Pakistan has moved beyond LoC violations to kidnapping of each other's officials. An advisory governing the attendance of Track II meetings anywhere in the neighbourhood has warned about threats from hostile intelligence agencies. He was referring to the disappearance in Nepal in April this year of one recently retired believed to be ISI Lt Col Mohammad Habib Zahir by R&AW to facilitate the eventual release of Kulbhushan Jadhav. A retired Indian General who was to attend the conference stayed away. A former Pakistan minister attended the conference, ignoring the advice from his party President but kept a low profile and left immediately after the conference. 

Swaraj has attached three conditions for resumption of talks - resolve all issues through dialogue, bilateral without any third party; and talks and terror cannot go together. It is the last provision which is tricky and one Pakistan has been unable to fulfil even during Gen Musharraf's time. Then infiltration reduced by nearly half but violence in Jammu and Kashmir did not end. Insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir has acquired a certain grassroot motivation and momentum. The tap of infiltration can be partially closed, not shut at least not till progress is seen to be made on Kashmir. Not long ago, both sides argued endlessly over which of the two core concerns of each other was more important: terrorism or Kashmir. In the end, the principle of simultaneity won the argument. Mentioning only terrorism, not Kashmir, grounded the Ufa agreement.  Further, New Delhi has quietly removed the red line of Pakistani officials not meeting the Hurriyat before the dialogue which wrecked a meeting between Swaraj and Sartaj Aziz in 2015. 

With a miss at Astana, the next window of opportunity will be on the sidelines of UNGA or a Saarc summit later in the year which was postponed last year due to the tensions between India and Pakistan.  Track II veterans at Kathmandu last month said that the next window of opportunity would arrive only after the elections in  Pakistan, 2018 and elections in India, 2019. Such is the sorry state of India-Pakistan relations.

The writer is the convener of an uninterrupted India-Pakistan dialogue.

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