Talk only terror

Talk only terror

Talk only terror

The Ministry of External Affairs confirmed on January 11 that National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval met his Pakistani counterpart Lt. Gen. (Retd) Nasser Janjua in Bangkok on December 26. Media reports had earlier surfaced in both countries about the meeting and it is good that India has officially acknowledged that it took place.

The official spokesperson clarified, "We have said that terror and talks cannot go together but talks on terror can definitely go ahead." This distinction between a full bilateral dialogue and narrowly focussed talks on Pakistani cross-border terrorism is valid. The former envisages an engagement to resolve bilateral issues, promote cooperation and attend to humanitarian concerns that arise from being neighbours. The latter sharply dwells only on terrorism.

Pakistan has not endorsed the Indian assertion regarding the nature of the NSA talks. Its media reports, based on sources, have claimed that the "two-hour" engagement meeting was "broad-based and issues of ceasefire violations, Jadhav's case, and mutual trade" were discussed. These reports went further to stress that Moscow, Beijing and Washington "facilitated the dialogue process between the neighbours". The reference to third countries is provocative but often made to establish that India and Pakistan cannot normalise relations according to the Simla Agreement and the Lahore Declaration; therefore, the way out is through third-party mediation, which India rejects in principle.

While source-based media reports are often ignored, it would be prudent for India, even if through similar reports, to categorically put the record straight. The history of India-Pakistan relations shows that Pakistan seeks to sow confusion in India and in the international community by misrepresenting bilateral processes and agreements. Hence, diplomatic reticence is counter-productive. This is relevant in this instance, for narrowly centred talks on terrorism represents a climb down for the Pakistani generals. To put this in context, it would be necessary to recall what transpired in the aftermath of the Modi-Nawaz Sharif agreement at Ufa (Russia) in July 2015.

The Ufa Joint Statement mandated the NSAs of the two countries to meet in New Delhi to discuss "all issues connected to terrorism". Pakistani generals led by the then army chief Raheel Sharif were furious that the statement had omitted a reference to J&K and gave singular salience to terrorism. They orchestrated a storm of protest and insisted that the NSA talks would include an exchange of views on the resumption of the dialogue process and also discuss Kashmir. They also emphasised that the then Pakistani NSA Sartaj Aziz should meet the Hurriyat during his Delhi visit. As the atmosphere was vitiated by Pakistan, Aziz's visit did not take place.

Five months after the Ufa Modi-Nawaz Sharif agreement, India, departing from the text of the agreement, authorised the NSAs to meet in Bangkok in December 2015. The foreign secretaries of the two countries accompanied the NSAs, thereby indicating that the talks were not limited to terrorism. This was corroborated when days after the NSAs met, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj went to Islamabad to attend a Heart of Asia process meeting on Afghanistan.

On its sidelines, she met the Pakistani leadership and agreed to commence full engagement with Pakistan, now to be called the Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue. A fortnight afterwards, Modi, returning from Kabul, dropped in at Lahore on Christmas day to greet Nawaz Sharif on his grand-daughter's wedding.

The Pakistani generals were furious with Nawaz Sharif at taking a major initiative on India. They struck back through the Pathankot terrorist attack in January 2016. The Modi initiative received a decisive blow. The initiative was over with Pakistan's all-out support to the Kashmir agitation in the summer of that year and the Uri terrorist attack. Clearly, the Pakistani army was unwilling to focus only on terror during bilateral talks, let alone give it up. Hence, if they are now willing that the NSAs only talk on terrorism, it is of great significance.

If Pakistan was reluctant, apparently till recently, to talk exclusively on terrorism during the Modi government's term, its opposition to do so was total when the structure and modalities of the Composite Dialogue were negotiated in 1997-98. Then, it insisted that the first item in the list of dialogue issues should be J&K, and that terrorism could not even be mentioned by itself. They stressed that it be coupled with narcotics.

India agreed, because in the wake of the 1998 nuclear tests, a sense of assurance about peace and stability in South Asia had to be given to the international community. Unlike 1998, there is no compulsion now to seek to establish that India is a responsible nuclear power. Thus, there is no need to resume the dialogue process, unless there is firm evidence that Pakistan has abandoned terrorism. Pakistan-motivated propaganda that a hard Indian response can escalate into a nuclear exchange should not deter actions such as surgical strikes.

In the past, India has bent over backwards to be seen as reasonable by the international community. Ironically, this led to pressure being put on India. This basic fact is ignored in India by the proponents of "uninterrupted and uninterruptible" dialogue between the two countries. All this has only led the Pakistani generals to believe that India does not have the stamina to turn its back to the dialogue process and that eventually it returns to comprehensive talks, ignoring their terrorism. This has meant that they have no incentive to change course.

It is only if India demonstrates sustained capacity to ignore both the advice of do-gooders in the international community and Pakistan's calls for dialogue so long as the latter persists with terrorism as a part of its security doctrine that there is the possibility that it may begin to think in constructive ways. This will have to be coupled with firm responses to Pakistani provocations. Hence, the NSA talks must only be on terrorism and nothing else.

(The writer is retired Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs)

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