Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision this week to cancel the foreign secretary-level talks with Pakistan has drawn much political flak at home and generated some international concern that the NDA government might be departing from its proclaimed commitment to improve relations with the neighbours.
Although many motivations have been attributed to the decision, the principal rationale is not difficult to discern — to change the terms of the dialogue with Pakistan on the question of Jammu and Kashmir. Delhi’s main argument is that Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit’s meetings with Kashmiri separatist leaders amounted to an unacceptable interference in India’s internal affairs.
Pakistan’s spokesperson, as well as the NDA government’s critics in India, point to the fact that Delhi had chosen to live with the engagement between Islamabad and Kashmiri separatists for many years. They argue that Delhi’s decision to cancel the talks is an unfortunate and unexpected departure from two-decade-old Indian policy.
That there is a discontinuity in India’s approach is exactly right. The Modi government appears to have come to the political judgement that it will no longer accept the involvement of the All Party Hurriyat Conference, a collection of Kashmiri separatist groups, in the India-Pakistan dialogue. Delhi wants to put the Kashmir question back in a strictly bilateral, inter-governmental framework with Islamabad.
The continuing turbulence in Kashmir, the frequent military crises with Pakistan and the consequent international pressures to engage Islamabad saw India reluctantly yield some space for the Hurriyat in the peace process nearly two decades ago. Since then, Delhi has often directly engaged the Hurriyat, opened back channel talks with Pakistan on resolving the Kashmir question, allowed contact between the Hurriyat and Islamabad and facilitated the travel of separatists to Pakistan.
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Throughout this period, both Pakistan and the separatists pressed for a trilateral dialogue. Delhi rejected a table for three but agreed willy-nilly for three separate bilateral tracks. The Modi government is now saying there is no place for the Hurriyat in the peace process with Pakistan. Delhi’s new approach is a bold gamble, to say the least.
Delhi’s rethinking on Kashmir came into view with the recent decision to end some of the freebies to the United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP), based in Delhi and J&K since 1949. Although Delhi thinks the UNMOGIP has outlived its utility, it is some distance away from simply asking the UNMOGIP to leave. Clearly, Delhi is keen on ending the vestiges of an international presence in Kashmir.
If Delhi succeeds in getting Pakistan to accept bilateralism on Kashmir, it will be a major political triumph for India. Despite the challenges it confronts at home and on its western frontiers, however, Pakistan is unlikely to return to status quo ante and drop the Hurriyat proxy. The Hurriyat has been a symbol of India’s own failures in J&K and of Pakistan’s capacity to intervene across the Line of Control.
It is one thing for the Modi government to declare that the Hurriyat is beyond the pale. It is entirely another to alter the ground realities in J&K. That the BJP is interested in forming the next government in J&K is not a secret. Modi himself has visited J&K twice in the last three months. If he has a strategy to bring peace, stability and development to J&K, Modi is yet to reveal it.
Equally important is the challenge of managing the Kashmir frontier with Pakistan. The ceasefire, which has been in place since the end of 2003, has been fraying for some time. If Pakistan has the ability to raise tensions on the LoC and the International Border in Kashmir, India needs an effective strategy to manage the escalation dynamic. Delhi needs to maintain tight political control over Indian military responses to Pakistani provocations and must avoid drifting into a conflict it does not want. Tough rhetoric is no substitute for calm reflection on how to cope with the multiple consequences of military escalation.
Given the presence of nuclear weapons in the arsenals of India and Pakistan, any escalation of border tensions or a vigorous Indian response across the LoC in the event of a major terror attack will quickly draw the international community into the regional dynamic. Foreign ministers from the West will fly into the subcontinent urging India and Pakistan to stop fighting and start talking.
Any number of busybodies will want to mediate between Delhi and Islamabad on Kashmir. While internationalising the Kashmir question has always been part of Pakistan’s strategy, preventing external intervention has been a major Indian political objective. It is India’s careful engagement with Pakistan and a dialogue on Kashmir that have kept the major powers at arm’s length. Any serious breakdown of the peace process will bring the great powers back into play and undermine Modi’s new emphasis on bilateralism.
As the NDA government recalibrates India’s Kashmir and Pakistan policies, Delhi must do a much better job explaining the logic behind the cancellation of the foreign secretary talks, widely seen as abrupt. It must let the international community — especially Pakistan’s friends, including the United States, China and Saudi Arabia — know that India is not abandoning the peace process with Islamabad and is ready to deal with all outstanding issues, including the Kashmir question, within a bilateral framework. Above all, Delhi must keep open all channels of communication with Pakistan.
The NDA government is betting that the changed circumstances and India’s own improved international standing since the 1990s allows it to reframe the dialogue with Pakistan. If Delhi can’t get its internal act together in J&K, prevent major terror attacks across the nation and bring synergy between the military management of the border and international diplomacy, Modi’s gamble could turn out to be rather risky.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’