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Knowing when not to talk

By resuming dialogue with Pakistan,India reinforces the impression that it can’t sustain a tough stand,even post-Mumbai

Written by Satish Chandra | Published: February 19, 2011 2:59:36 am

The ministry of external affairs press release of February 10,and our foreign secretary’s press conference of February 8,clearly indicate that the latter and her Pakistani counterpart agreed at Thimphu to resume the stalled India-Pakistan dialogue in a “composite” plus mode. Thus,while the press release reveals that the resumed dialogue would cover “all issues”,the foreign secretary,in her press conference,made out not only that the dialogue would be “comprehensive… covering all outstanding issues”,but also that “more issues”,like Afghanistan and cooperation in the UN,could be discussed. Ab initio,however,it seems that the dialogue would only be in the “composite” mode as the issues specified for discussion in the press release,with some nominal changes,are identical to the subjects in the erstwhile “composite dialogue”— a term that our foreign secretary was at pains to avert. Moreover,as under the composite dialogue,these issues are to be discussed sequentially. Discussions on all these issues are to be completed prior to the Pakistan foreign minister’s visit to India scheduled for July 2011 who would “review progress” in the matter with his Indian counterpart.

Normally,few would question the propriety of our engaging in discussions with any country. However,such discussions are not desirable with Pakistan as the latter shows no indication of either bringing the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks to book or of curbing the export of terror to India,despite the fact that our leaders have repeatedly been predicating the resumption of the composite dialogue process on its taking such actions. In these circumstances,the resumption of the dialogue process exposes India as a paper tiger and promotes the perception that its leadership is weak,vacillating and incapable of penalising Pakistan. Such a perception is likely not only to embolden Pakistan to continue with the export of terror to India but also to encourage it to consider other even more adventurist actions.

The government’s obsession with resumption of the dialogue process with Pakistan is inexplicable since the latter’s inimical mindset towards India forecloses the normalisation of relations between the two countries. As one of our most cerebral prime ministers,the late P.V. Narasimha Rao,observed,in a discussion in the ’90s,the normalisation of India-Pakistan ties would only be possible when the latter is prepared to accept the reality of being the smaller of the two countries. Since such acceptance was not on the cards any time soon,he predicted that the composite dialogue process,which was still at an embryonic stage,would be an exercise in futility.

Indeed,coincidental or not,whenever the dialogue process has been underway the number of terrorist actions by Pakistan against India,exclusive of J&K,have been higher than when it has been under suspension. Thus between 2004 and 2008 when the talks were in full flow,there were as many as 21 major terrorist actions against India,as compared to two between 2000 and 2004 and one after 2008 when the dialogue process was in abeyance.

The rumour mills have it that,in order to provide sustenance to the resumed dialogue,there may be compromises on issues like Sir Creek and Siachen. Going by historical record,one can rest assured that Pakistan will not be the one to make any compromises and any forward movement would require India to do all the running. Such one-sided compromises are best avoided.

With respect to Siachen,one must be particularly cautious. It may be recalled that India has long envisaged the possibility of its demilitarisation subject to Pakistan’s acceptance of the actual ground position line. Pakistan’s failure to do so explicitly has so far stalled progress in the matter. But even if it were today to accept the actual ground position line,demilitarisation would not be in India’s national interest as once our troops give up the commanding heights on the Saltoro ridge,a return to the same would be impossible in the event of their seizure by Pakistan,something which is much more easily accomplished from the Pakistani side than from ours.

The logic of India’s interest in demilitarisation through the ’80s and much of the ’90s stemmed from the difficulty of maintaining our posts on the Saltoro ridge and the confidence that we could bring to bear our conventional military superiority across the Line of Control or the International Border in order to address any Pakistani bad faith in Siachen. While,on the one hand,improved logistics have greatly eased the problem of maintaining our posts,on the other hand,our ability to address Pakistani bad faith by use of our conventional military superiority has been limited by the nuclearised environment. Accordingly,changed circumstances coupled with Pakistan’s propensity to unabashedly violate the Line of Control,as during its Kargil actions,militate against any settlement of the Siachen issue on the basis of demilitarisation.

It is unfortunate that there has been little critical comment or analysis in the media on the decision to resume the dialogue process. Perhaps this is due to its preoccupation with the innumerable scams that have afflicted the nation. The same excuse does not,however,hold good for many of our security analysts involved in Track II India-Pakistan love-fests at various exotic locations lending their names to joint statements calling for “sustained engagement” between the two countries on a “full range of issues”. Such exhortations are not only contrary to our stated policy,following the Mumbai attacks,but are also reflective of how soon some of us find it possible to forget the enormity of the injury and shame that these attacks imposed upon the nation.

The writer is former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan and former deputy national security adviser. He is currently distinguished fellow,Vivekananda International Foundation

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