Updated: December 8, 2015 7:28:59 am
“There will be no talks in a third country,” External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said in August as a summit between the National Security Advisors of India and Pakistan disintegrated, summoning her sternest voice to tell off a journalist who had asked if it might be best for future engagements to be held abroad.
“When the talks are supposed to be held between India and Pakistan”, Swaraj said firmly, “then it should be in one of the two countries. It will take place either in New Delhi or Islamabad”.
Less than four months ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government had drawn a firm line in the New Delhi dust on the future of India-Pakistan engagement: no discussions on Kashmir until India’s concerns on terrorism were addressed, based on a five-step programme agreed on in the Russian city of Ufa.
The summit meeting between the NSAs and Foreign Secretaries of the two countries in Bangkok thus marks an apparently perplexing retreat from this high principle. Kashmir was discussed — and Pakistan was allowed to elide over its commitment on engaging the secessionists.
Few governments, in fairness, take their own red lines seriously. Former External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid had vowed not to talk to Pakistan after 26/11 until “specific expectations that we have about dismantling of terrorist infrastructure in Pakistan” were met. Earlier, in 2001, India threatened to go to war if Pakistan didn’t hand over 20 terrorists it was harbouring, but backed off without even one being returned.
In both cases, though, India received rewards for its behaviour that are being revealed only now. The real question is what Prime Minister Modi hopes to secure from his decision to talk. The answer could lie in the learning path of a leader Modi, until recently, was arguably even more loath to emulate than Jawaharlal Nehru.
“These are weapons of self-defence, to ensure that India is not subjected to nuclear threats or coercion,” Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said in the summer of 1998, days after India tested its nuclear weapons. For his part, Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani asserted that the tests had “brought about a qualitative new state in India-Pakistan relations, particularly in finding a lasting solution to the Kashmir problem”.
In the months after the tests, Vajpayee reached out to Pakistan, in an expansive visit that irked many in his party: the PM had, after all, only in February vowed to “take back that part of Kashmir that is under Pakistan’s occupation”.
His calculation, though, was simple: in a nuclear environment, India and Pakistan had no option but to live in peace. The status quo on Kashmir would help ensure that.
Even as Vajpayee travelled to Pakistan in 1999 to sign the Lahore declaration, Pakistan’s military had arrived at very different conclusions. It saw the nuclear landscape as an opportunity to push for advantage in Kashmir, certain that India would not risk all-out war, as it had done in 1965 and 1971.
General Pervez Musharraf’s gamble proved correct: even though his audacious campaign in Kargil was defeated, Pakistan ratcheted up the intensity of its proxy war in Kashmir to record levels over the next two years. More Indian troops died during this escalation than in the war itself. India was pushed to the edge — but the potential costs of deterring Pakistan were just too high.
Following the near-war which erupted after a terrorist attack on Parliament House in December 2001, both sides had to revisit their calculations. India realised it was in no position to wage a decisive war against Pakistan, unless it was willing to risk mutual annihilation — far too high a price to pay.
In Pakistan, too, the costs of proxy war were turning out to be just too high. Lt Gen Moinuddin Haider, Musharraf’s interior minister, told his boss: “Mr President, your economic plan will not work, people will not invest, if you don’t get rid of extremists”.
Pushed by the US, Musharraf announced a unilateral ceasefire on the LoC, and scaled back support for the jihad in Kashmir. For a decade, violence in Kashmir continued to fall, ending at levels lower, in population-adjusted terms, to most Indian cities.
Beginning in mid-2002, an extraordinary series of secret meetings and contacts began to explore how future crises might be averted. Led first by Vajpayee’s trusted lieutenant Brajesh Mishra, the process was carried on under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh by the diplomat Satinder Lambah.
From unsigned notes revealed in 2009, it is known the two governments were contemplating a four point deal: transformation of the LoC into a border, free movement across the LoC, greater autonomy for both sides of Kashmir, and gradually-phased cutbacks of troops as jihadist violence declined.
Then, the leadership of Pakistan’s military changed. Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani’s tenure saw the jihadists again unleashed — escalation on the LoC, an uptick in violence in Kashmir, and finally 26/11, undid the gains of the secret peace process.
From the accounts of high officials serving at the time, we know Manmohan Singh considered strikes against Pakistan, but held back after the Army said it wasn’t prepared for war. There were, however, gains from the restraint: the Lashkar-e-Toiba hasn’t staged a major operation since, and the ISI reined in Indian jihadists like Riyaz Shahbandri, who operate from Pakistan.
Modi’s campaign promises of “speaking to Pakistan in its language” emerged from the despair that grew after 26/11. In office, he has realised that the options aren’t great. The use of offensive covert means against jihadists in Pakistan sounds seductive, but carries the risk of tit-for-tat retaliation, a nightmare for the political leadership.
Airstrikes are known to cause only limited damage, and there’s no way of telling they won’t have the same outcome. There’s full-scale war, of course — but few experts believe the Indian Army can deliver a swift victory, and no one can promise it won’t end in the apocalypse.
In the end, the Prime Minister has made a simple choice: to stay the course with the status quo, and see what it might deliver. Though India is talking to Pakistan, thus giving it a cushion against the risk of war, it has probably asked for things in return — like a continued clamp- down on Lashkar terrorism, if not activity, and for a cooling down of infiltration.
There’s a saying in Punjabi, khoti bohr thalley: the donkey, after its wanderings, ends up returning to the village’s banyan. It’s a journey leaders in India and Pakistan have repeatedly made, learning that the costs of crisis are high, and the dividends minimal.
It’s time for leaders to tell the public on both sides that the road the countries travelled from 2001 is the only one that doesn’t lead to certain death.
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