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Acrimonious Indo-Pak Exchange: Correcting a false start

by Praful Bidwai, 1 August 2010

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26 July 2010

Neither India nor Pakistan covered itself with glory during their Foreign Ministers’ meeting last week—the first ministerial talks since the Mumbai terrorist attacks of November 2008. In fact, both have damaged their international image by demonstrating antipathy to each other’s concerns and a refusal to establish a framework conducive to a productive dialogue. Both governments have disappointed a majority of people in their respective countries who had hoped for such a dialogue and some improvement in mutual relations. It is ordinary people whose progress suffers the most when bilateral relations sour and mistrust prevails.

The blame game now under way in both countries presents an even uglier picture of the talks than reality—thanks to grotesque distortions by the media, especially the 24-hour news channels which compulsively sensationalise issues. Yet, on a sober view, it is clear that Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi was more blunt and abrasive than India’s SM Krishna and taunted him in a manner bordering on the undiplomatic when he said the Indian Minister hadn’t come to Islamabad with a full mandate and had to consult New Delhi periodically on the phone.

Yet, it would be naïve to see this as the cause of the talks’ failure. Rather, it was the effect. The talks failed because India and Pakistan couldn’t agree on the bilateral agendas and a time-table for discussing issues of mutual concern. This failure is large even by the standards of the volatile, often fractious, and always tension-ridden, India-Pakistan relationship and its many ups and downs over the past quarter-century.

The stage for the breakdown was set by Indian Home Secretary GK Pillai’s extraordinarily ill-timed and maladroit remarks to Indian Express journalists alleging that Indian interrogators had obtained irrefutable evidence from David Coleman Headley, a Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) operative detained in the United States, of deep involvement of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency in the Mumbai attacks. It’s ludicrous to take the confessions of a terrorist collaborator, who is looking to be an approver, as clinching evidence. The interrogation happened in June.

Home Minister P Chidambaram was briefed on it and raised the issue with his counterpart Rahman Malik during his visit to Pakistan for a SAARC conference three weeks ago. Mr Chidambaram returned assured that Mr Malik “understood the situation and agreed that we should address [it] with the seriousness it deserves”. The issue was also discussed between the two nations’ Foreign Secretaries.

It must have taken exceptional ineptitude and miscalculation on Mr Pillai’s part to rake up the issue and level damaging accusations against Pakistan right on the eve of the Islamabad talks. Mr Krishna too didn’t help matters by announcing in Islamabad: “I am here to see what action Pakistan has taken so far” on Headley’s confessions.

Underlying such remarks was India’s preoccupation with getting Pakistan to crack down on terrorist groups like LeT. This is understandable up to a point because of the exceptional, terrifying and traumatising nature of the Mumbai attacks. No government in India can ignore the scars these have left. But carrying the concern to rigidity and to the virtual exclusion of all other issues risks losing the talks altogether. That’s exactly what happened.

India wasn’t prepared to accommodate Pakistan’s concerns including a structured dialogue leading to progress towards a Kashmir settlement, non-interference in Balochistan, improved cooperation on water management within the Indus Water Treaty framework, and a settlement of the festering Siachen dispute.

All New Delhi wanted to discuss, besides action against jehadi terrorists, is cross-border confidence-building measures, improved trade relations, and people-to-people contacts. These issues are unarguably pertinent. But it’s futile to expect Pakistan to accept them as satisfactory substitutes for its own concerns and preoccupations.

Nor did India agree with the schedule proposed by Pakistan for Secretary- and Minister-level meetings. India was apparently apprehensive that Pakistan would use the timelines to secure what it has long wanted, namely, a resumption of the “composite dialogue” process which ran between 2004 and 2008—as if Mumbai hadn’t happened.

In the end, the timelines clashed. Pakistan wanted all outstanding issues addressed in a time-bound manner. India felt the terror issue must first be comprehensively addressed “to inject a degree of normality into the situation”, as Indian officials put it. There was no agreement.

Some sharp exchanges between Indian and Pakistani leaders were grossly exaggerated and distorted by the media. An Indian paper alleged that Mr Qureshi had called Mr Pillai a “clone” of the LeT leader Hafiz Mohammed Saeed. In reality, he only said that Mr Pillai’s remarks had come up for discussion and Mr Krishna agreed that they were unhelpful. But the media distortion created the impression of an irretrievable breakdown and a deadlock which might last long.

In reality, the outcome was not so dismal, although it cannot be denied that a setback did occur. However, both sides have put a relatively positive spin on the outcome. Thus, Mr Krishna said he confined himself to his mandate and “I am quite satisfied”.

Both India and Pakistan must draw some lessons from this episode. The greater lesson for India is not, as many hawks were quick to argue, that it’s futile to try to engage with Pakistan until it radically transforms itself, but that the engagement shouldn’t be half-hearted and tentative. It must embrace the full range of outstanding issues. Secondly, rigidity on the terrorism question is counter-productive. India must recognise that a civilian government in Pakistan that’s seen to be weak vis-à-vis India and yielding to New Delhi’s demands will be highly vulnerable to extremist elements.

This would be especially unfortunate at a time when Pakistan’s ordinary public is getting increasingly alienated from and turning against extremists—witness the outrage at the Punjab Taliban’s attack on the Data Darbar shrine in Lahore. This shrine is an integral part of the Sufi and Barelvi traditions and of Punjab’s cultural identity. The Taliban’s harsh Salafi Islam is hostile to Sufism and dargah worship and rejects all folk-Islamic traditions.

India must not over-react to Mr Qureshi’s abrasive behaviour or let matters of form, optics and atmospherics trump substance and content. India has far too much at stake in its relationship with Pakistan. It must not allow the process of dialogue resumption to be ruptured. India must persevere and bind Pakistan into a cooperative relationship while pressing its own concerns with Islamabad with resilience, wisdom and patience. Results from the dialogue process cannot come instantly. But absent a dialogue, negative outcomes are virtually guaranteed.

The lessons for Pakistan are no less important. Islamabad cannot credibly claim to be a responsible state which acts against jehadi terrorists if it persists with its two-faced strategy—of hunting with the Americans (against al-Qaeda-Taliban) while running with (and shielding) the extremists. The jehadis have used the cover and support offered by Pakistan’s covert agencies to create independent power centres, which now threaten the public. As the jehadis increasingly become uncontrollable, Pakistan will pay for their depredations with innocent blood. It’s in Pakistan’s interest to put terrorism on the bilateral agenda with India—albeit without being seen to be caving in.

Second, the only way in which Pakistan’s civilian government can hope to consolidate itself and build on its recent gains in getting the 18th Constitutional Amendment passed is to loosen the military’s hold on power by reining in secret agencies like the ISI and bringing them gradually under civilian control. So Mr Qureshi is probably making a mistake in pushing an agenda that could endear him to the Army and help his political career.

Mr Qureshi is an ambitious politician, who would like to replace his much less articulate fellow Multani, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani. Mr Qureshi comes from a far more powerful and wealthier family than Mr Gilani and claims descent from a pir. But it would be disastrous for him to try and fulfil his ambitions with the Army’s acquiescence and help. That course, as many Pakistani politicians have discovered in the past, is self-defeating.

Third, no matter how hard Pakistan tries, it cannot deny India a role in Afghanistan while using that country to gain “strategic depth” vis-à-vis India. India has not only had historically important trade and cultural links with Afghanistan. India also enjoys a huge amount of goodwill in Afghanistan because of its well-targeted $1.75 billion aid programme which is far better tailored to Afghan needs than Western assistance programmes, which are typically routed through tiers of outsourcing agencies and middlemen.

It makes eminent sense for both Pakistan and India to get into a non-adversarial relationship in Afghanistan instead of stalking each other. They should explore such cooperation.

There is no alternative to a dialogue that consolidates and puts real content into the notion of peaceful coexistence and mutually beneficial relations. These alone can free the two nations’ peoples from the burden of rivalry and allow them to realise the objective of equitable progress with human dignity and rights for all. In the coming weeks, Indian and Pakistani leaders must engage in some creative introspection and find productive ways of mutually engaging one another.—end—