Siddharth Varadarajan

Journalist | Writer | Analyst

Missing the wood for the trees on Pakistan

Pakistan’s response to Mumbai may not be good enough, but delaying dialogue will not produce a better outcome for India …

29 July 2009
The Hindu

Missing the wood for the trees on Pakistan

Siddharth Varadarajan

When Manmohan Singh explains his government’s policy towards Pakistan to Parliament on Wednesday, the worst thing he can do is to disown, downplay, retract or resile from the joint statement he issued with Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani in Sharm el-Sheikh on July 17.

So irrational and poisonous has the Indian debate on the joint statement become that the Government is today under enormous psychological pressure to declare Sharm el-Sheikh a mistake. The Congress party is tongue-tied and a junior minister for external affairs unwisely sought refuge in the irrelevant plea that the text the Prime Minister had agreed to is not a legal document. The implication is clear: Sharm el-Sheikh may be a sell-out, but the sale deed is not legally binding so don’t worry.

What the opposition’s noise and government’s poor salesmanship have done is reinforce the idea that the current Indian policy of not talking to Pakistan — in place since the Mumbai terrorist attacks of November 2008 — is working fine and that there is no need for any change or adjustment. This is unfortunate. For, in the run up to Sharm el-Sheikh, Dr. Singh was bold enough to recognise the policy had already yielded the most it could. And that it was time to prepare the ground for change.

The idea that not talking is a good strategy is based on four myths, all of which are deeply flawed.

Myth #1: The Composite Dialogue benefits Pakistan and is bad for India.

Four rounds of composite dialogue have been completed and the fifth was under way when the Mumbai attacks happened. Progress has been modest in some areas like trade and CBMs, negligible in others like the Kashmir dispute and terrorism. But the achievements are not insignificant: An MoU to increase the frequencies, designated airlines and points of call in either country of air services; an agreement for trucks from one side to cross the border up to designated points on the other side at the Wagah-Attari border; an increase in frequency of the Delhi-Lahore bus service; an MoU between the Securities and Exchange Board of India and Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan; completion of the Joint Survey of Sir Creek and adjoining areas; agreement on consular access; implementation of CBMs with a view to enhancing interaction and cooperation across the LoC such as increased frequency of Muzaffarabad -Srinagar and Rawalkot-Poonch bus service, intra-Kashmir trade and truck service.

Of these, Sir Creek and cross-LoC CBMs are especially significant. Resumption of Composite Dialogue would lead to the Sir Creek issue being settled quickly, allowing both India and Pakistan to finalise their exclusive economic zone claims under the Law of the Seas convention. And measures could be taken to increase bilateral and cross-LoC trade. The Jammu Traders Association, for example, would like the current weight restriction on trucks to be increased from 1.5 tonnes to 10 tonnes. Traders on both sides also want the two governments to improve communications and banking facilities, which are virtually non-existent. It is hard to imagine why India would want to delay agreement on these kinds of issues.

Myth #2: Stopping the composite dialogue will protect India from further terrorist attacks.

The biggest fear the Congress party and Prime Minister Singh have as they move towards the resumption of dialogue with Pakistan is the political consequences of another major terrorist strike. The fear is justified. But not talking will hardly reduce the capability or intention of Pakistan-based terrorists. And to the extent to which talking may make Islamabad’s cooperation in fighting terror more likely, dialogue may even reduce the chances of a major terrorist strike. Of course, the truth is that the Pakistani government and military are unable to prevent terrorist attacks on their own soil. Even if India had full confidence in Islamabad, it would be foolish for any Indian government to rely on anything other than homeland security to protect itself. Too often in the past, a hardline stance vis-à-vis Pakistan was seen as a substitute for toning up and professionalising the Indian police, intelligence and security apparatus. And the country paid a heavy price.

Myth #3: Stopping the Composite Dialogue helps India put pressure on Pakistan to take action against terrorism.

Within the Pakistani establishment, the military and the ISI are least enthusiastic about the resumption of composite dialogue. As are the various terrorist groups and their sympathisers. Indeed, hardliners in Pakistan are critical of the civilian government for appearing as if it is desperate for talks with India. It is this military-intelligence-jihadi nexus which has been the most vocal about India’s alleged involvement in Balochistan. That is why Mr. Gilani was anxious to take back from Sharm el-Sheikh some proof of the fact that he had raised the Balochistan issue with Dr. Singh.

Myth #4: Pakistan has “not done anything” to bring the perpetrators of Mumbai to book

Time will tell how serious Islamabad is about prosecuting the Lashkar-e-Taiba men it has charged for their role in the Mumbai case, and whether the ‘big fish’ like Zaki-ur-Lakhvi or Zarrar Shah are convicted or just LeT footsoldiers. But more than the fate of the individuals involved, India has reason to feel satisfied Pakistan has accepted in writing that the crime was hatched and executed from Pakistani soil. This is more than any Pakistani government has ever done in the past and it would be churlish to deny this reality. That said, given the manner in which power in Pakistan is fragmented, it is unlikely that the system there will go any further than it already has in meeting India’s post-Mumbai concerns, at least for now. If the consensus in India is that Pakistan has “not done enough”, then the country should be prepared for a long period during which there will be no dialogue, and bilateral relations will slowly deteriorate.

The joint statement

As far as the Sharm el-Sheikh statement is concerned, there is no doubt that better, more careful drafting was needed. A crucial sentence therein — “Action on terrorism should not be linked to the Composite Dialogue process and these should not be bracketed” — can be read two ways.

But even if India now says this does not mean the dialogue process should be delinked from Pakistani anti-terror actions, the sentence’s second, more direct meaning — that those actions should not depend on the dialogue process — is a definite improvement over the Islamabad joint statement of January 6, 2004. There, the operational paragraphs were: (i) India saying the prevention of terrorism would take forward the dialogue process, (ii) Pakistan assuring India it would not permit its territory to be used for terrorism, and (iii) Pakistan emphasising that “a sustained and productive dialogue addressing all issues would lead to positive results”.

It is clear that this reference to “positive results” was in relation to Pakistan’s commitments on terrorism. In other words, the Islamabad statement implicitly linked Pakistan’s actions on terror to “a sustained and productive dialogue addressing all issues”. To that extent, Sharm el-Sheikh is an improvement, though what matters at the end of the day are actions and not words

On Balochistan, Sharm el-Sheikh was not the first time the situation in the Pakistani province became an issue in the bilateral relationship. On December 27, 2005, the Ministry of External Affairs made the internal situation there a foreign policy concern: “The Government of India has been watching with concern the spiralling violence in Balochistan and the heavy military action, including the use of helicopter gunships and jet fighters by the Government of Pakistan to quell it. We hope that the Government of Pakistan will exercise restraint and take recourse to peaceful discussions to address the grievances of the people of Balochistan”, it said.

Islamabad hit back the same day, with its foreign ministry spokesperson rejecting the Indian statement as “unwarranted and baseless”. The statement was “tantamount to meddling in internal affairs”, the spokesperson said, adding, “India often shows an unacceptable proclivity to interfere in internal affairs of its neighbours”. Next, the Pakistani spokesperson made a comparison with Kashmir: “The statement is all the more surprising from the spokesman of India, a country that has long tried to suppress the freedom struggle of the Kashmiri people…”

Having made Balochistan a bilateral issue in such a public manner, India can hardly object to a Pakistani prime minister raising it in a summit meeting or linking it to Kashmir.

History will pass judgment on the wisdom of allowing a reference to the rebellious province in the joint statement. But what matters most is not the reference but the reality. If Indian agencies are not involved, no ‘Kasabs’ will ever be found and Pakistan will get little traction from raising the B word in bilateral or international forums. But if an Indian Kasab is ever found there, the absence of a reference to Balochistan in a joint statement will provide New Delhi no protection from the charge of involvement. The Prime Minister said India has nothing to hide. There is no reason to imagine he was whistling in the dark.

5 comments on “Missing the wood for the trees on Pakistan

  1. Anonymous
    July 29, 2009

    There is nothing to “talk” about with pak . Objectives are opposite and our land will not be given away , not for “peace” not for “trade” not for “US” .

  2. sanjith
    July 29, 2009

    dear mr.siddarth,
    ” But if an Indian Kasab is ever found there, the absence of a reference to Balochistan in a joint statement will provide New Delhi no protection from the charge of involvement. The Prime Minister said India has nothing to hide. There is no reason to imagine he was whistling in the dark.”
    hamid mir, in hindu says, pakistan has arrested 3 indian nationals, who have been fomenting trouble in balochistan.
    only leads us to beleive that we were armtwisted by pakistan, in egypt.

  3. Suman
    July 29, 2009

    For a better understanding of the Baloch question and a broader perspective the following article may be useful:

    There are advantages and disadvantages of both 'talking' or not talking. I am afraid however, Government of India does not publicly say what its own assessments are of the likely outcomes of engagement. More importantly, is India willing to talk just to get the positives Sid mentioned? Is there a reasonable possibility that talking to the civilian government will improve the overall atmosphere or even, be enabling for the civilian government of Pakistan towards this?

    In my view (one out of 1.16 billion Indians) we have been here before, have done this and it's been like a yo yo. Sad reality is (most probably) talking or not talking is immaterial, like giving placebo pills to a patient. Unless Pakistani people resolve their existential question and are united and ready for meaningful engagement the region and the world will not be at peace. I am glad that Sid does not set India's Pakistan policy.

  4. I, Me, Myself !
    July 29, 2009

    The point here is not just about talking, but how the entire foreign affairs machinery bungled up the approach. We have the secretary telling us that this was a case of bad drafting. We then have the MoS telling us that this is not legal, so why the ruckus? We have the Minister for External Affairs saying… well, nothing ( which in itself is embarassing)! If words don't reflect action, what good are they?

    Why is confusion reigning so supreme, when we ought to be very clear on such matters? Why were we under immense pressure to bring out a Joint Statement? And why did we accept to make it more controversial? 4 days before the joint statement, we were told that nothing is being done, and in 4 days the thought process of the PM changed? Why did the PM backtrack on the Joint Statement just hours after it was released? It is not only the apporach in question, but the approach we are taking to follow the approach that is bothering me a lot.

    So, post 26/11, when the PM said we will not talk until action is taken, did he mean that “action” meant Pakistan owning that it's citizens were involved? Did he mean that once such “action” was taken, they will resume talks on Sir Creek and other topics? The “not talking” thing is also beginning to sound like mere rhetoric now.

    I think we owe it to the kith and kin of those killed in Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad etc, more than just “This is more than any Pakistani government has ever done in the past..” Can the Prime Minister, or for that matter, you and I look directly into the eyes of the relatives and ask them to accept this?

    I agree it is beneficial for both of us to talk. I was a big proponent of the talks till the terror attacks intensified. Mumbai was the last straw. An extra-ordinary situation demanded an extra-ordinary response. Sadly, we didn't get to see that. If “not talking” doesn't work in the long run, why even follow that approach every time there is an attack?

    The whole thing about both of us being joint victims of terror is also something that bothers me, but that topic is for a different day.

    Sorry Sid, “irrational” as it may sound, I am not with you on this one.

    – Sudhir

  5. foolsparadise
    July 29, 2009

    Well this whole thing is so stupid “that we will not talk, If..”, It sounds more like a hollow warning and dirversion tactick for public, when every one knows they are still talking through back channels and practically its impossible “”not to talk””, we aren't talking of bf-gf stuff here, but at the same time if you want to really show your anger, cut all the ties/cut cultural ties/make your TV / radio channels say Pakistanis are pigs and be seriously ready to take them on. not just “talk” about it.

    But when you know its not feasible and want to act without loosing your cool, don't say some thing only to take it back in 6 months.

    my 2 paisa to Indian Foregin Department, never say we will not talk only to say after 6 months to start it where we left :-)).

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This entry was posted on July 28, 2009 by in Indian Foreign Policy, Pakistan.



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