Siddharth Varadarajan

Journalist | Writer | Analyst

For India and Pakistan, nomenclature triggers more unease than dialogue

As long as the rose is not named, each side can live in hope that it will prevail. But if the two sides start fighting over names at the first sight of a bud, chances are the rose will never bloom….

5 February 2010
The Hindu

For India and Pakistan, nomenclature triggers more unease than dialogue

Siddharth Varadarajan

What’s in a name? A lot, apparently, as India and Pakistan agonise over whether the dialogue they would both officially like to start should be called ‘composite’, ‘limited’, ‘measured’ or ‘open-ended.’

When India offered foreign secretary level talks to Pakistan, it decided not to publicise the initiative until Islamabad had responded. But after a fortnight of secrecy, officials here went semi-public on Thursday despite the absence of a Pakistani answer. The reason: to tamp down a potentially damaging controversy over nomenclature.

Mindful of the terminological minefield that sub-continental diplomacy can be, the Indian offer was purposely vague and open-ended.

Pakistani hawks want nothing less than the immediate resumption of the composite dialogue — the multi-track process involving sequential meetings between different sets of officials on a full range of issues from Kashmir and Siachen to trade.

Indian hawks want no dialogue or at best, limited dialogue on one topic — terrorism.

Under the circumstances, the foreign secretary’s invitation was crafted to satisfy Islamabad’s demand for meaningful discussions that went beyond simply reviewing what progress had been made on the 26/11 case, while sidestepping the right-wing charge at home that India’s concerns about terrorism were somehow being diluted.

The problem, however, is that the foreign policy and security establishments in both countries are deeply divided. And that for every official batting for the resumption of engagement on either side, there are many who remain unconvinced and some who feel they should bat for the opposite goal.

On Wednesday, unidentified officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Islamabad told the Aaj channel in Pakistan that India had offered the resumption of the composite dialogue. The leak was untrue, but was perhaps intended to tempt the Indian side to issue a denial, thereby killing the process before it had a chance to begin.

A few days earlier, in fact, the waters had already been muddied in Delhi by fleeting Indian wire service reports of “highly placed sources” saying India favoured only “measured” contact with Pakistan and not the resumption of composite dialogue.

The identity of these “sources” was never revealed and the comments themselves never got much play in the Indian press after the MEA realised the damage they might cause.

But in Pakistan, where officials were mulling over how to respond to the Indian offer of “open-ended” talks on all outstanding issues affecting peace and security, this apparently categorical rejection of the composite dialogue by a “highly placed” official did not go down well. That may have been the reason for the ‘leak’ to Aaj.

As with all damage limitation exercises, however, Thursday’s controlled release of information could have unpredictable consequences. Reporters under pressure to cover the story but with no access to additional information get tempted to embellish the barebones narrative with either their own opinion or the views of ‘sources’. Stories can thus emerge which end up destroying the carefully crafted ambiguity that officials worked so hard to introduce in the first place.

As long as the rose is not named, each side can live in hope that it will prevail. But if the two sides start fighting over names at the first sight of a bud, chances are the rose will never bloom.

Given the difficulty with which the latest proposal has emerged out of a divided Indian establishment and the reluctance of a divided Pakistani establishment to do what it takes to build confidence, the battle over what to call the dialogue adds a new and unhelpful layer of complexity.

If the amount of skill and energy being expended on talks about talks about talks were saved up for when the talks really begin, who knows, the two sides might well end up making progress on issues that actually matter.

One comment on “For India and Pakistan, nomenclature triggers more unease than dialogue

  1. Sudhir
    February 5, 2010


    I take strong objection to the statement “Indian hawks want no dialogue or at best, limited dialogue on one topic — terrorism.”.

    To blatantly generalize those arguing against the talks at this juncture with well founded arguments as “hawks” is totally uncalled for. I am all for peace, but have been constantly confused as to what and to whom we shall talk.

    We have placed legitimate demands on Pakistan's desk, and are yet to see tangible results. Our Home Minister and External Affairs ministers have themselves said this very recently too. Under an atmosphere where there is no consensus at the topmost level of the government, wouldn't the talks process turn out to be just another sham. Should we hurry through the process when there is such a deep divide amongst our top decision makers? Even your article says that we are still haggling over the name we want to give to these talks, which is proof enough of the vulnerable situation around.

    And despite having knowledge of these propsed talks, the Foreign Minister of Pakistan uses words like we are “shy” on a recent talk show. Is this the kind of committment we expect from the leaders of Pakistan? Is that not hawkish? Leaders of Pakistan have the guts to publicly demand that we talk to them and privately refuse to listen to reason and logic, and here we are, desperate to begin the process.

    I am as much concerned about the peace in this country as you are. To label the likes of me, and my opinion as hawkish just because it is not in consonance with your opinion is not befitting an author of your stature who has a wide reach of audience for his views.

    – Sudhir

    I am sorry if this sounds like a personal umbrage, but I am personally hurt at being called a “hawk”

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This entry was posted on February 5, 2010 by in Indian Foreign Policy, Pakistan.



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