This weekend’s security dialogue between the national security czars of India and Pakistan ought to have been serious business. The point, after all, is to ensure that two nuclear-armed powers do not, through mis-step or accident, find themselves in a conflict. Instead, we have been given a kind of low farce. The two-hour incarceration of Kashmiri separatist leaders on Thursday, preceded by debate over whether their inclusion in the guest list at a Pakistan High Commission dinner ought to derail India-Pakistan dialogue, illustrates New Delhi’s confusion. Having called off foreign secretary talks last year in August because of Pakistan’s insistence on talking to the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, the government felt pressured to demonstrate similar resolve now. Till Wednesday night, BJP spokespersons were insisting that there were no parallels between the two situations — after all, the Hurriyat was only attending a reception, and that after the talks began, not before. Yet, hearing howls of outrage on 24-hour television, the government ordered the Hurriyat’s arrest — only to reverse course shortly afterwards, for reasons still unknown.
For Delhi, there are two lessons here. The first is not to lay down red lines that it will later have to resile on. There have been too many of these: remember Prime Minister Narendra Modi telling the United Nations, last year, that Delhi would only talk “without the shadow of terror”, or External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj saying, in May, that dialogue was contingent on action against 26/11 perpetrator Zaki-ur-Rahman Lakhvi. PM Manmohan Singh, and Deputy PM L.K. Advani before him, met with Hurriyat leaders, and approved their engagement with Pakistan. If this government now believes Kashmiri separatist leaders are guilty of sedition, it can prosecute them. If, on the other hand, the Hurriyat’s leadership is only guilty of saying things the government finds unacceptable, they must be free to meet whom they wish.
The second lesson is a more serious one. Talking is not a process the Indian government should be allowing to be held hostage to public-relations optics. Delhi is engaged in these talks to explain to Pakistan that terrorist acts could precipitate a crisis, as in 2001-2002. Islamabad may or may not be persuaded by this proposition — and if it isn’t, India will have to reconsider its options. False bluster, though, won’t help Delhi’s case. Indeed, its likely impact will be to persuade Pakistan’s military that the Modi government is all bark and no bite. It isn’t too late for the Indian government to turn off its television set, and get down to doing business with seriousness and dignity.