On Oct 1 Prime Minister Manmohan Singh landed back in India from the US, capping a week of unusual events that saw him negotiate a few tricky turns occurring back home and some equally tricky moments abroad, even as he met with the US president, addressed the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and concluded the much-debated meeting with the Pakistani prime minster in New York.
At least 10 people, including a lieutenant colonel of the Indian Army, were killed and four injured in twin terror attacks by a single suicide squad in Kathua and Samba districts of Jammu region on the morning of Sep 26. An unknown outfit, Shohada Brigade, suspected to be Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) front, claimed responsibility. The terror attack raised the already contentious issue of proposed talks between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on the sidelines of the UNGA, to a feverish pitch. There were cries to shelve the meeting and send a ‘strong’ signal to Pakistan as Sharif had failed to prevent Pakistani soil from being used to launch a terror attack on India. It left one wondering if Sharif is unable to prevent the terror groups based on Pakistani soil from attacking Pakistanis and launching suicide attacks on each other how effective would he be in stopping attacks on India.
It was not surprising though, that most of the proponents of ‘do not talk to Pakistan’ struggled to put their finger on the ‘Hows’ of the ‘strong signal’ while navigating between the two extremes of not talking and declaring war on Pakistan. However, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to his credit confirmed his intention of going ahead with the talks as he left for Washington.
While the Samba terror attack (and a concurrent Line of Control violation) was interpreted as an effort to disrupt the planned Singh-Sharif talks, it appeared to be straight from the Pakistani playbook which calls for staging of such incidents whenever the Jammu and Kashmir issue is raked up at the UN; which was what Sharif did at the UNGA.
Sharif addressed the UNGA on Sep 27, a day prior to the address by Manmohan Singh. He said he looked forward to meeting with his Indian counterpart to “make a new beginning” in the relationship between the two nations. The Kashmir issue was raised during his speech at the UNGA and so was the fact that it remains unaddressed since1948.
Sharif in his address, quite strangely, also said that Pakistan and India have wasted massive resources on an arms race. “We could have used those resources for the economic well-being of our people.” A remark he repeated in his interview to NDTV, citing purchase of F-16 aircrafts as an unnecessary expenditure. An indication, perhaps, of the tightening fiscal situation in Pakistan, drying up of the freebies from the US/ NATO and that the expenditure on defence, including internal security, was beginning to pinch.
Trade not Aid
Sharif had earlier on Sep 22 addressed a high-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development in New York as a keynote speaker, where he urged that trade and not aid should be adopted as the path to economic development, as aid leads to dependency. India has taken a stand that bilateral cooperation in trade, economy and other areas is contingent on peace along the LoC, as well as on Pakistan combating cross-border terrorism.
Taking off on the fact that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had raised the issue of Pakistani state support to terror groups at his meeting with US President Barack Obama, Sharif was reported by a Pakistani journalist to have likened Manmohan Singh, in an off-the-record remark, to a rural woman (dehati aurat) who keeps running to the local maulvi to solve all her problems concerning her neighbours. While the Indian side played down the issue, it reportedly upset Sharif, who got Pakistani Foreign Secretary Jalil Abbas Jilani to call up India’s National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon to convey that he had never insulted the Indian prime minister. Besides being a case of irresponsible reporting, Sharif did not put much space between himself and the ‘dehati aurat’ when he raised the bilateral issue of J&K at the UNGA.
The prime minister met Sharif on Sep 29 in New York and held an hour long “useful and friendly” talks. At the end of which India was explicit in stressing that restoration of peace along the LoC was a pre-requisite for a composite dialogue. The two leaders agreed that reducing violence and tension along the LoC will be a priority for both countries and the Directors General of Military Operations( DGMOs) will be asked to “find effective means to restore the ceasefire” that had been in place since 2003.
The decision on the LoC violations, though not a new measure, puts the issue back in the military domain where it should rightfully reside. From the Indian point of view, the incorporation of the military will make the resolution of the issue more composite, while from the Pakistani perspective, Indians will be talking to the institution that calls the shots on the subject.
Talk or not to Talk
On the issue of dealing with the Pakistani government on cross-border terrorism and the futility of talking to Nawaz Sharif, the Indian approach has not moved on from the time it dealt with a nation under military rule, where all the power was concentrated with the military head of state. The Indian approach has not fine-tuned itself to dealing with a state with two centres of power. Neither has it reconciled to the reality of an Islamic nation facing Islamic insurgency and terror.
To persevere with diplomacy, India and Pakistan should take a cue from the seemingly irreconcilable US-Iran relations. Even though Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Obama did not meet at the recent UNGA as it was thought to be too “complicated”, the first presidential phone conversation between the two countries since 1979 did take place. Rouhani went on to describe the 15-minute call in his six tweets. This came against stiff internal opposition, evident as Rouhani on his return to Tehran sought to play down as to who initiated the telephone call while his six tweets were deleted from his account the same evening.
Though the Manmohan-Sharif meet may have been a small hop on the long and uncertain road to peace and the supposed tango more of a tangle, let us not deny them their due for persisting against opposition back home.
(Monish Gulati is a Research Fellow with the Society for Policy Studies. He can be contacted at [email protected])
This article appeared at the South Asia Monitor and is reprinted with permission.