PAKISTAN’S sudden decision to open the Kartarpur shrine for Indian pilgrims predictably raised suspicions in India. Pakistan had earlier opened other Sikh holy shrines, like Gurdwara Nankana Sahib and Dera Sahib Gurdwara in Lahore, under a bilateral agreement. The decision to open the Kartarpur shrine, located virtually on the India-Pakistan border, was, however, conveyed ‘informally’ by Pakistan’s army chief Gen Bajwa to Punjab’s tempestuous minister, Navjot Sidhu. Interestingly, General Bajwa’s sudden interest was manifested much after repeated requests by Indian leaders, including former PM Vajpayee, were ignored.
This unusual action by Pakistan’s army chief raised hackles in New Delhi, as the Pakistan army controls the gurdwaras there through the Pakistani Gurudwara Prabandak Committee. This committee’s first head was former ISI chief, Lt Gen Javed Nasir, the mastermind of the 1993 Mumbai blasts. ‘Khalistani’ flags are often provocatively raised during visits of Sikh pilgrims from India. They are also constantly sought to be incited by specially invited ‘Khalistani’ activists from countries like Canada, the US and the UK. Obviously, the ISI is now again looking to fish in troubled waters in Punjab, evident from the recent terrorist strike in Amritsar and the continuing smuggling of narcotics across the border.
These developments took place when PM Imran Khan was engaged in organising countrywide celebrations for his first hundred days in office. Contrary to his expectations, his first hundred days have been marked by a less than satisfactory performance in fulfilling the expectations he had raised. This happened despite being the blue-eyed boy of the army, which had facilitated his election as Prime Minister. Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves have reached the perilously low level of $8 billion. With the country expecting to have a further $12 billion trade deficit in the current financial year, Pakistan had to go with bended knees to its past financial mentors — Saudi Arabia, China, US, EU, UAE and IMF — for a bailout.
The Saudis were not quite as generous as they have been in the past. On offer was a short-term deposit of $3 billion in a Pakistani bank and a similar offer of petroleum under a short-term, deferred payment arrangement. The IMF imposed strict conditionalities, including asking for details of repayment liabilities on Chinese loans for CPEC. Negotiations with the IMF are presently on hold. Pakistan’s expectations of long-term, low-interest/interest-free credits from China were not fulfilled. The US has ended military and economic aid for Pakistan. Pakistan’s finance minister Asad Umar recently proclaimed: ‘Right now, we have a $18 billion deficit and $9 billion of debt repayment due this year, which brings the total to $27 billion... we cannot afford that.’
Imran Khan has reached out to India, urging the resumption of dialogue and India’s participation at SAARC summit in Islamabad. Our standard reply ‘talks and terrorism can’t go together’ is not endorsed internationally and conveys rigidity. It needs to be nuanced. Detailed ‘back-channel’ negotiations after the JeM attack on our Parliament, resulted in an agreement in which General Musharraf assured Vajpayee that ‘territory under Pakistan’s control’ would not be used for terrorism against India. Pakistan abided by that assurance till 2007. The Composite Dialogue Process also resumed on all issues, including Kashmir. There was progress, based on PM Manmohan Singh’s offer that while ‘borders can’t be redrawn’, we can work towards making them ‘irrelevant’ by making them ‘just lines on a map’. The 26/11 attacks ended it.
Pakistan would like to resume the Composite Dialogue Process. This should be rejected as terrorism is accorded a low priority. This does not mean that India should cut off all diplomatic contacts with Pakistan. It is essential that we stand firm on refusing to discuss J&K unless the sponsorship of terrorism ends.
But, we go wrong by equating the priorities of the Pakistan army, with the interest about India across wide sections of ordinary Pakistanis. Vajpayee’s directive on liberal issue of visas, particularly to Mohajirs in Karachi and urban Sind, produced dramatic results in changing public opinion about India. It pays us richly to expose ordinary Pakistanis to realities in contemporary India. We need to welcome exchanges of visits by students, academics, business organisations, cultural troupes and those with familial ties.
There also has to be firmness and realism in dealing with the Pakistan military establishment. Pakistan has to be told bluntly that it has rendered SAARC non-functional and SAARC Free Trade Agreement meaningless by its restrictions on Indian exports and by denial of transit to Afghanistan. Not just India, Bangladesh and Afghanistan should also have reservations on the next summit being hosted in Pakistan. Moreover, Pakistan wastes time and resources in pushing for China, which is not a South Asian country, to be admitted to SAARC. This is a proposal India will not accept. We need not, therefore, be in a hurry to respond positively to Imran Khan’s call for an early summit.
Apart from reaching out to people, back-channel contacts — free from the glare of publicity — between diplomats, army officials and intelligence agencies are essential to deal with terrorism and bilateral cooperation, while at the same time, maintaining pressure to respond to challenges of terrorism. With the snows closing the passes, cross-border terrorism in the Valley falls. Imran Khan has shown some readiness to consider moving forward on proposals to address the J&K issue, on lines akin to what happened in 2004-2007, when terrorism was minimal. We can, however, address major issues only after the general election. But, we should spare no effort to raise the costs of sponsoring terrorism for the military establishment of Pakistan.
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