To talk or not to talk

To talk or not to talk

India-Pakistan talks

A combination of file pictures of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan. AFP

Relations between the two neighbours, India and Pakistan, since the latter’s violent birth in 1947 have been characterised by wars, distrust, meaningless and avoidable acrimony. To a dispassionate observer of South Asian affairs, Pakistan’s unrelenting obsession with Kashmir and efforts for equivalence with a much larger India, in virtually everything, have only led it up the path to perdition. That Pakistan has been universally acknowledged as the fountainhead of global and regional terrorism and India as having suffered countless times from terrorism emanating from it makes relations between the two nations not only bitter but just a spark away from armed conflict.

It is a fact of geopolitical history of the Indian subcontinent that wars between the two nations have been followed by dialogue between them, initiated by foreign powers to bring a semblance of peace between the two countries. It is equally a fact that most Indian prime ministers, on assuming office, have sincerely endeavoured to normalise relations with their recalcitrant neighbour.

Whenever a breakthrough appeared imminent between the two nations, a significant act of violence targeted at India by either non-state actors from Pakistan or those sponsored by Pakistan’s notorious spy agency, the ISI, ensured that any peace process would get derailed. Even PM Narendra Modi’s unscheduled stopover in Dec 2016 in Raiwind, Pakistan, to felicitate its then prime minister Nawaz Sharif on his birthday saw a Pakistani ISI sponsored surprise attack, just a week later, on the forward Indian air base of Pathankot.

In the past decade, the number of Pakistan-inspired terrorist attacks in J&K and the Indian hinterland have been rather large. In recent months, the February 16, terror strike in Pulwama, which led to over 40 fatalities to CRPF personnel, was the trigger that ended India’s patience and resulted in the IAF crossing the international border and striking at a terror camp deep in Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkwa on February 26. The Pakistan Air Force retaliated the next day against some military targets in the Rajouri-Poonch area.  

Modi government 1.0, since it assumed power and especially since the Pakistani terror strike in Uri in September 2016, has consistently and correctly maintained that “terror and talks cannot go together.” India has thus ignored many overtures from the Pakistani side for talks especially since Imran Khan took over as Pakistan’s prime minister in Sep 2018. New Delhi’s stand has been that despite Khan making the right noises, Pakistan has not desisted from stoking the fires of terrorism in Kashmir and thus no purpose will be served by talks as Pakistan’s sincerity is suspect.

The world knows that no civil government in Pakistan runs its India or Kashmir policy and its ‘deep state’ (an unholy trinity of the Pakistani Army, ISI and the many terror outfits), in reality, is the custodian of major decision-making in Pakistan’s relations with its neighbours. Thus the unequivocal Indian stand of avoiding meaningless talks since the last three-four years in particular.

Many peaceniks on both sides of the border felt that there would be some informal talks between Modi and Khan on the sidelines of the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Kyrgyzstan. However, from media reports, it appears that the Pakistani prime minister was studiously ignored by the Indian prime minister right through the conclave, except on the last day when they met fleetingly and exchanged pleasantries. Even that triggered some optimism among analysts in the subcontinent that, perhaps, a thaw between the two nations is possible.  

This brings us to the million, nay billion, dollar question: should India talk to Pakistan or not? With Modi government 2.0 having just assumed power and the general elections now behind, the Indian government does not have to display its “muscular approach” towards Pakistan to the Indian electorate. That the BJP government romped home on the plank of national security and a hard stance towards Pakistan is also an undeniable fact. Thus, it will not be surprising if the Modi government now reverses its hard stance and opts for talks with Pakistan. Whatever steps the Indian government takes, though, no dilution of the nation’s overall security preparedness, its vigilance along the borders and resolve to deal firmly with anti-national elements in J&K or elsewhere is warranted.

In the larger interests of peace in this impoverished subcontinent, there is no harm in India talking to Pakistan. Of course, there are redlines that India will never allow Pakistan to cross and so talks on a mutually agreed agenda can be held on all subjects under the sun. India is a much larger and powerful nation than Pakistan, so why have any hesitation? At these talks, India can spell out clearly and firmly how it expects Pakistan to handle bilateral relations if it wishes to pursue peace with India. Terrorist ‘tanzeems’ and the ISI will try their utmost to scuttle any thaw between the two nations.

The status of J&K and its accession to India is inviolable, beyond discussion and terrorism, too, is a total no-go. Considering Pakistan’s precarious condition, especially financially and politically on the world stage, it is in no shape to act now in a mischievous manner and India could thus guide Pakistan onto the right track for mutual benefit. However, before summit level talks take place, a fair amount of diplomatic preparation will be required. As a mature regional power, there is no harm in India accepting the Pakistani PM’s request for talks, without Delhi letting its guard down, and while keeping its powder dry.   

(The writer was the first chief of the Defence Intelligence Agency and Deputy Chief of the Integrated Defence Staff)