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Self goal: Delhi shuts off life support to dialogue

Modi has signalled he means to talk tough but bringing about the changes he seeks to the India-Pakistan relationship will take more than words alone.

New Delhi gave its assent to a parallel set of meetings between the Hurriyat and Pakistan. New Delhi gave its assent to a parallel set of meetings between the Hurriyat and Pakistan.

“They did nothing,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in an emotional campaign speech about the carnage that hit India on 26/11. “So many people were slaughtered and the government in Delhi — it did nothing,” he went on. “Talk to Pakistan in Pakistan’s language,” he said, “because it won’t learn until then”.

Modi’s government has unveiled its diplomatic vocabulary, cancelling the Foreign Secretary-level talks with Pakistan to protest against a meeting between Kashmiri separatist leaders and Islamabad’s envoy to New Delhi — a regular event since the All Parties Hurriyat Conference was formed in March 1993.

In private, senior Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) officials said the decision was taken because the meeting took place despite protests from New Delhi, which said the meeting would open Modi to criticism from party hardliners.

Meeting Pakistan envoy to new on Dipity.

“Frankly, I can’t see much sense in making a meeting with the Hurriyat a touchstone for India-Pakistan relations,” said analyst Ajai Sahni of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi. “It’s almost as if the government is saying we can live with Pakistan shooting our troops on the Line of Control (LoC), but having tea with secessionists — that’s unforgivable”.

Also read: Modi govt overreacted to Pakistan envoy’s meeting with separatists?

New Delhi’s message, an official spokesperson said on Monday, was simple: “The only path available to Pakistan is to resolve outstanding issues through a peaceful bilateral dialogue within the framework and principles of the Simla Agreement and the Lahore Declaration”. Those words — omitting mention of the Composite Dialogue the two countries began in 2004 — suggests New Delhi is shutting off life support for a 10-year-old secret dialogue process that was meant to resolve the Kashmir conflict.

“This will strengthen anti-India hardliners, and won’t deter the Army and its Islamist proxies from pursuing terrorism,” said Ayesha Siddiqa, a prominent Pakistani defence analyst. “I just can’t see what the payoff for India is”.

The secret dialogue

The real significance of the decision is that it brings down the curtain on a secret dialogue on Kashmir dating back 10 years and more. In February 1999, Prime Ministers Atal Behari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif signed the Lahore Declaration, committing both countries “to implementing the Simla Agreement in letter and spirit”. Even as the Lahore agreement was being drafted, though, Pakistani troops were being trained to push their way across the LoC in Kargil — and the December 13, 2001 attack on Parliament broke Vajpayee’s patience.

Though the 2001-2002 crisis fizzled out, with India deterred from going to war by fears of a nuclear conflict, the crisis also inflicted sharp economic costs on Pakistan. General Pervez Musharraf, who displaced Sharif in a military coup, entered into a ceasefire with India and scaled back support for Kashmir jihadist groups.

From 2002, violence in Kashmir saw a year-on-year decline — paving the way for diplomats Satinder Lambah and Tariq Aziz to get to work. The two men met secretly from 2005, arriving at five points of convergence: there would be no redrawing of the LoC; greater autonomy on both sides; a phased troop withdrawal; cooperative management of some natural resources; and freedom of trade and movement.

Indian politicians agreed, early on, that this dialogue would need political legitimisation in Kashmir — and sought the Hurriyat’s support. In February 2004, then Home Minister L K Advani met the separatist leaders for ice-breaking talks. From 2006, Hurriyat leaders also met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Home Minister P Chidambaram, for both disclosed and secret talks.

New Delhi gave its assent to a parallel set of meetings between the Hurriyat and Pakistan, intended to push reluctant secessionists to back the nascent peace deal — one that fell well short of their aspiration of independence. In 2004, Pakistani Foreign Minister Khursheed Kasuri and Foreign Secretary Riaz Khokhar met Hurriyat leaders. Musharraf also held talks with the separatists in 2005, with Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz following up in April 2007.

“I think the agenda is pretty much set,” Srinagar cleric and Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq said soon after. “It is September 2007,” he said, “…that India and Pakistan are looking at, in terms of announcing something on Kashmir.”

Flailing peace process

But events didn’t pan out as planned: Musharraf was swept from power. His successor, Prime Minister Asif Ali Zardari, showed commitment to peace, calling Islamist insurgents in Kashmir “terrorists” and calling for economic integration. The 26/11 attacks, however, came weeks after, making clear that hawks in Pakistan’s military weren’t on board with their Prime Minister. Following the attacks in Mumbai, the peace process flailed — and never recovered.

India-Pakistan problems have steadily grown since. In 2012, the LoC ceasefire began to fray, with exchanges of fire increasing every year since. Inside Jammu and Kashmir, attacks on Indian forces increased from that year, reversing a decade-long trend.

New Delhi-based officials said the decision to call off talks over a relatively trivial issue was taken to make clear that there would be consequences if red lines were breached in the future. “We’ve called off talks because Pakistan would not heed our concerns,” a Ministry of Home Affairs official told The Indian Express. “We hope it will understand that we will also respond if more significant red lines, on issues like terrorism, are breached”.

Like Manmohan Singh before him, though, Modi may discover his options aren’t easy ones, if that does happen.

The Prime Minister could, for example, order strikes across the LoC in the event of a major terrorist attack, as Singh considered doing after 26/11. The tactic might not achieve much, though. In August 1998, the US fired missiles into Afghanistan, seeking to avenge bombings which killed 224 people. In all, 75 missiles, each priced at $1.5 million, killed six minor jihadists.

Moreover, Pakistan could hit back, targeting Indian industrial infrastructure, which is much more expensive than tent-and-donkey cart training camps. Nor can anyone guarantee missile strikes wouldn’t escalate into war, or even a nuclear exchange.

Modi has signalled he means to talk tough — but bringing about the changes he seeks to the India-Pakistan relationship will take more than words alone.

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