M. K. Narayanan
Arguably, this is one of the darkest periods in India-Pakistan relations. The moot point is whether the two neighbours are meandering towards an existential crisis, given their history of troubled relations. It would seem so, as every time an attempt is made by India to reduce tensions, matters only seem to spiral downwards.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi did reach out to his counterpart Nawaz Sharif even before he took office by inviting him to his swearing-in ceremony, but nothing has gone right since then. Terror attacks on Indian targets, both military and civilian, have only increased. A surge in hurling of invectives by both sides has also occurred. Both India and Pakistan have tweaked protocol to expel not one or two diplomats at a time but in far larger numbers. Recent incidents in the region are reminiscent of the Cold War era in the West; on one occasion in the latter half of the 20th century, the U.K. and the then Soviet Union had expelled as many as a hundred diplomats from their respective countries.
More ‘give’ than ‘take’
In the past too, Indian Prime Ministers had reached out to their Pakistani counterparts, hoping to find a solution to problems that eluded their diplomats. The Indian side – with the benefit of hindsight – at times had been over-generous (the Simla Agreement in 1972 between Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Pakistan Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, for example). Such initiatives were hailed when made, but reviled in the absence of any real progress. The Pakistani side has been more consistent, using such occasions to extract maximum benefits for itself, with little ‘give’ on their part. Yet, India has persisted on this path. Both Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee were recent practitioners of this ‘art of the possible’.
The debris of successive setbacks: Lahore (1999) and Agra (2001); Shimla and Sharm-el-Sheikh (2009), as well as more recent initiatives, have not quite dampened enthusiasm on our part for diplomatic negotiations at the very highest levels. On assuming office, Mr. Modi energised this kind of ‘top-down’ diplomacy and himself took the lead. His example was followed at the level of the Foreign Minister, National Security Adviser and the Foreign Secretary. All this only underscored the calibrated approach that India had followed for many years – balancing diplomatic moves with an occasional retaliatory step, even if the policy did not produce results.
Weak international support
In the wake of the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai (in which 166 people were killed) there was intense pressure on India to adopt a more robust and aggressive policy. India desisted from doing so, in the belief and hope that the international uproar that followed – what was described as “an action just short of war”, and the identification of Pakistan as a ‘terror state’ – would bring that nation and its leaders to their senses. This has not happened. Instead, what we have seen more recently is a marked escalation in terrorist attacks from across the Line of Control and the International Boundary.
It is apparent, therefore, that despite India utilising all diplomatic means at its disposal, Pakistan has remained unmoved and has rejected all overtures. Questions are hence beginning to be raised as to whether this policy of ‘more of the same’ should continue. Meanwhile, the persistence of the India-Pakistan conflict seems to be giving certain ‘meddlesome outsiders’ an opportunity to purvey the view that a war between the two neighbours is imminent, and that it could lead to a nuclear conflict. Such speculation is totally unwarranted, but is nevertheless gaining some traction.
The world does recognise that India is a victim of Pakistan’s ‘Terror Infrastructure Limited’. Nevertheless, the same world, including the UN, refuses to formally declare Pakistan a ‘terrorist state’. Even the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism, which India has been pursuing in the UN for nearly two decades, is yet to see the light of day.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s provocations are increasing. Since the beginning of this year, several terror attacks have occurred, starting with Pampore (in February) to Uri (in September) and now Nagrota. Worse, Pakistan has resorted to mutilation of the bodies of Indian soldiers killed in terror attacks. India has hence been forced to take retaliatory steps, including intense bombardment of Pakistani positions. Looked at from any angle (in one five-day period in November, there were 27 ceasefire violations), it would appear that the 2003 Ceasefire Agreement lies in tatters.
The road from here
Where do we go from here? The road ahead is far from clear. It is proving even more difficult to decide on the future steps. Everyone agrees that a change of strategy and approach is called for, but no one is certain what the strategy should be. We are indeed at the crossroads, and the time has come to define the nature and scope of our conflict with Pakistan. We should do so before it defines us. Perpetual conflict would play into Pakistan’s hands and only perpetuate the ‘hyphenation’ of India-Pakistan. We have assiduously tried, and with difficulty succeeded, after years of effort in erasing this kind of ‘hyphenation’. A change in strategy is needed if we are to get out of this modern-day ‘Chakravyuha’.
Given the way Pakistan is structured, anyone negotiating a peace deal with India runs the risk of committing
At the same time, since peace is not at hand, any kind of a compromise on India’s part – even a kind of grudging compromise – needs to be ruled out. Pakistan, for its part, would be only too happy to continue with its current ‘zero-sum’ approach, but India should not fall into this trap.
Pakistan’s military, identified by one and all as the most pervasive anti-India elemental force in Pakistan, remains opposed to any understanding with India – perhaps even on Pakistan’s terms – as that would remove a key rationale for it to remain the dominant element in the country’s affairs. With regard to foreign policy and national security affairs, the Pakistan Army has only recently tightened its grip. General Raheel Sharif’s exit as Chief of the Army Staff and replacement by General Qamar Javed Bajwa does not presage any shift in policy.
No peace any time soon
Two other aspects militate against an India-Pakistan rapprochement, as of now. One is the rising influence of radical extremist ideas and ideologies inside Pakistan. This is evident from the boldness with which terrorist outfits such as the Tehrik-e-Taliban, Pakistan, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and elements of the Islamic State have recently carried out attacks inside Pakistan. This is becoming the ‘new normal’ in Pakistan, further shrinking the space available for any India-Pakistan détente.
The other is the continuing turmoil and escalating unrest inside Jammu and Kashmir. This is giving Pakistan an opportunity to mobilise international opinion against India on the issue of violation of human rights. Pakistan’s Prime Minister could even afford to utter the word ‘intifada’ with respect to Kashmir in his UN speech on this account. With separatist leaders in Jammu and Kashmir also voicing concerns about civilian deaths, and how this was endangering peace and stability in the region and beyond, Pakistan sees an opportunity to put India on the back foot.
One predicament India faces is that even as the U.S. and certain other nations have distanced themselves from Pakistan – given its penchant to use terror as a ‘strategic instrumentality’ against India and Afghanistan – it is not facing isolation. It is being befriended by not only China but even Russia. China sees Pakistan as not merely an ally, but a crucial partner in achieving success for its One Belt One Road initiative. Several countries of Asia and some in Eurasia have similarly fallen in line, but Pakistan’s location is crucial for the success of the Chinese initiative. This is certain to increase Pakistan’s recalcitrance towards India.
With the world facing an unusual degree of turbulence and a cluster of crises, achieving coherence in foreign policy is proving difficult for most countries. India faces even more difficult obstacles. It cannot afford more flip-flops in policy, or indulge in knee-jerk reactions. As the dominant power in South Asia and one of the world’s leading democracies, India must find a proper answer to what could otherwise become a serious existential crisis of monumental proportions.
M.K. Narayanan is former National Security Adviser and former Governor of West Bengal.
M. K. Narayanan