Manmohan Singh’s meeting with his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, in New York on September 29 produced limited results. After Singh himself mentioned toned down expectations from the encounter, it became clear that little would emerge from it.
As it is, many were of the opinion that with mounting cease-fire violations since Nawaz Sharif took over, his declared intention to highlight the Kashmir issue internationally, the permissiveness in dealing with anti-Indian elements like Hafiz Saeed and the decision to postpone according India ‘most favoured nation’ status, it was desirable to delay the summit meeting till the Pakistani premier went beyond avowals of friendship and concretely signalled a substantive change in Pakistan’s approach towards India.
Pakistan’s cross-border terrorist action in Samba just before the scheduled meeting tested once more the rationale of India’s policy of persistently engaging Pakistan, undeterred by terrorist attacks from its soil against us. The Samba attack provided a handy occasion to signal to the new Pakistani premier that after two decades of tolerating Pakistani terrorist blows in the belied hope that the dialogue process will eventually wean Pakistan away from such abnormal behaviour, it could not be business as usual with it. This opportunity to retrieve the political mistake of delinking dialogue from terrorism was, regrettably, lost by the decision to meet Nawaz Sharif.
Nawaz Sharif’s other provocations in New York provided additional reasons to try to recover lost diplomatic ground with Pakistan, represented by our litany that we have no option but to have a dialogue with it and that both countries are victims of terrorism. Nawaz Sharif was more vocal on Kashmir in his speech at the United Nations general assembly than he needed to be, if improving the atmospherics with India is intended. He reverted to traditional diplomatic baiting of India by seeking UN or third-party intervention on bilateral issues, contrary to the Simla Agreement. In his interviews, he spoke of both sides ending terrorist activities against each other, signalling that he will not be defensive on this central issue and will reject that only Pakistan is answerable on this account. His barb comparing our prime minister with a complaining village woman — unconvincingly denied — is less important for its contemptuousness than for Pakistan’s growing impatience with Indian accusations of terrorism, which were voiced also by the former foreign minister of Pakistan, Hina Rabbani Khar, who admonished India to go beyond its tiresome discourse on Pakistan-sponsored terrorism.
Those supportive of the New York meeting marshal the usual arguments that do not stand scrutiny. To say that it was necessary to have the meeting if only to talk tough with Nawaz Sharif and clearly convey our expectations on cross-border terrorism and the trial of those responsible for the Mumbai attack, implies that we have not talked tough with Pakistan’s leaders in previous meetings and have not forcefully demanded tangible progress on the Mumbai massacre. If we have, and Pakistan’s leaders have not listened to our robust urgings, what makes us believe that Nawaz Sharif would be more impressionable? Pakistan may respond to tough actions, but certainly not to tough words. More so because if we say that we have no choice but to have a dialogue with Pakistan, we are clearly conveying that tough actions are excluded from our panoply of responses.
The argument that we must strengthen the hands of the civilian government in Pakistan against the military by engaging the former assumes that this is achievable without making the kind of concessions Pakistan wants from us, whether on Siachen or Sir Creek, as advance payment to prove our sincerity before moving on to Kashmir. Already the Pakistanis believe at large that their friendly overtures are not being reciprocated by India and that we are laying down pre-conditions for progress such as action on terrorism. This argument also presumes that the democratically elected government in Pakistan would be willing to be complicit with India to weaken the role and power of the country’s armed forces. The politicians in Pakistan may want to change the internal political balance between them and the armed forces, but to suppose that they want to weaken Pakistan’s defences against ‘enemy’ India would be an error of judgment.
This line of thinking also assumes that the masses who have elected the government want friendly relations with India, but are being thwarted by the military. This is wilfully ignoring powerful elements in Pakistan’s civilian life who view India as an inveterate enemy. We have engaged with democratically elected governments in Pakistan before, including the reputedly well-intentioned Zardari government, without the desired breakthrough. On Kashmir, the Pakistani leadership argues it must take into account its “public opinion”. The same opinion is voiced agitatedly about the water issue, giving us the translated Urdu version of MFN, besides refusing to amend the Pakistani school text-books to end brainwashing against India. This “public opinion” has not been invented, even if it is manipulated.
Nawaz Sharif raised the Balochistan issue with the prime minister. This red herring distracts from the reality that the core problem of violence and extremism in Pakistan today is not in Balochistan but in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and in Karachi, besides the atrocities being committed on the Shias and minorities. That Nawaz Sharif has also picked up the Balochistan issue without providing any evidence of Indian interference, much like his predecessor, is a bow to the military. Afghanistan was apparently not discussed, nor was much attention paid to the MFN issue, even though it is touted that Nawaz Sharif gives priority to the trade agenda.
Stabilizing the line of control and ending cease-fire violations were clearly uppermost in the minds of the two leaders. The director generals of military operations on both sides have been asked to devise the appropriate mechanisms for achieving this objective. One should be sceptical about results so long as Pakistan either argues that non-state actors are not operating from its side or that they are not under its control, which means an unwillingness to assume responsibility for such cross-border transgressions. The real problem is not on the LoC, it is Pakistan’s hinterland where jihadi groups are not being put out of circulation. So long as the Pakistan government, at the very least, tolerates these groups and they remain useful to Pakistan’s military in its asymmetric warfare against India, the LoC will not be peaceful and the DGMOs will not succeed in their task durably.
As regards the trial of those responsible for the Mumbai terrorist attack, the visit of the Pakistani judicial commission to Mumbai to question witnesses fits into Pakistan’s strategy of using dilatory legal procedures to steadily deplete the political relevance of the issue to the dynamic of the overall relationship. Already five years have elapsed and we are reduced to parroting our demand for justice, which Pakistan treats with essential indifference. We are, meanwhile, unwilling even to make our PM’s visit to Pakistan contingent on its civilian, democratic, well-intentioned political leadership making the requisite judicial amends for the Mumbai mayhem.
The PM’s meeting with Nawaz Sharif could not have been useless, given the complexity of living with our truculent neighbour. Whether it was necessary at this stage is not clear.