By Sushant Sareen
The absence of acrimony and recrimination during the recently concluded meeting between the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan was clearly reflected in the positive terms used by the two officials to describe their dialogue – ‘constructive and productive’, ‘frank and cordial’, ‘substantive’, ‘forward-looking’, ‘purposeful’ and ‘comprehensive’. Given that the talks took place on the eve of ‘elections’ in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), it is quite remarkable that the highly charged political rhetoric of the election campaign there did not find resonance in the dialogue and despite Jammu and Kashmir being on the agenda.
Whether it was by design or default, the pre-talks dampening down of any expectation of a major breakthrough worked to the benefit of the resumed dialogue process. Since not too much was expected in any case, the incremental progress made during the talks – most notably, the convening of Expert Level meetings on nuclear and conventional confidence building measures (CBMs) and of Working Groups to discuss cross-Line of Control (LoC) CBMs, and a possible start to military exchanges by allowing interaction between the National Defence University of Pakistan and the National Defence College of India as well as exchanges between military bands – conveyed an impression that the two countries had taken at least a small step forward in the direction of normalising their relations.
According to reports, the Pakistanis are proposing extending existing nuclear CBMs and including notification of cruise missile tests and nuclear accidents. India is, however, not keen on including cruise missiles in the menu. Even more significant is Pakistan’s reported proposal for ‘exchange of information and expertise on peaceful use of nuclear technology’. Despite reluctance to start a dialogue on these lines – not the least because it appears to be part of a larger Pakistani effort to force a ‘criteria based’ global regime for civilian nuclear cooperation in order to get a civil nuclear deal similar to India’s – India appears to have shown some flexibility by not outrightly rejecting this from being brought up in the Expert Level meeting. But the fact remains that India views Pakistan’s desire to discuss nuclear safety issues as a ploy to ultimately raise a hue and cry in international forums to block the construction of civilian nuclear plants in India.
While it is easy to dismiss the forward movement howsoever small it might be, on issues that have a direct bearing either on the welfare (trade, travel, religious tourism, people-to-people contacts) or even the existence of the peoples of the two countries (reducing the dangers of nuclear exchange), the fact remains that this is as best as can be achieved at the level of foreign secretaries. Big ticket items like Kashmir, Siachen and Sir Creek are way out of the league of officials who can, at best, exchange some ideas or propose steps to reduce tensions and threat of conflict over what are essentially sovereign disputes. Any final solution to these kinds of issues will have to be reached at a political level.
This simple reality has been implicitly acknowledged in both the Joint Statement issued after the meeting as well as in the remarks made by the two foreign secretaries at their joint press conference. Talking about the ‘complexities’ in the bilateral relationship, the Indian foreign secretary underlined the need for taking ‘incremental steps to promote mutual confidence and understanding’. For his part, Pakistan’s foreign secretary played down the lack of progress on Kashmir by saying that despite ‘well known positions of both countries on the issue’, efforts are being made to find ‘common ground’ and create ‘more comfort and relief for the Kashmiri people’ by facilitating travel and trade across the LoC. The Joint Statement referred to discussions on Kashmir in a neutral, but also optimistic, manner by repeating the formulation devised by Pervez Musharraf and Manmohan Singh – continuing discussions on the issue with the aim of ‘narrowing divergences and building convergences’.
Importantly, one of India’s red lines was clearly laid down by the Indian foreign secretary who said that a dialogue on Kashmir is only possible in ‘an atmosphere free of violence’ and not under the ‘shadow of the gun’. A similar stand was adopted on the issue of 26/11 trials in Pakistan with Ms. Nirupama Rao making it quite apparent that a ‘satisfactory closure’ to India’s concerns over the case was necessary to enable the two countries to move forward with the process of normalisation.
There are of course some troubling aspects of the formulations on both terrorism and Kashmir. While Kashmir does remain a big stumbling block, there has been excessive and quite unnecessary, focus on solving the problems of the Kashmiri people. It is almost as though the two countries are according to the Kashmiris a status quite different from that enjoyed by their other citizens. But what after all is the special disability being suffered by the people of Jammu and Kashmir that merits undertaking measures to ‘help’ them ‘connect with each other, to trade, to travel more easily’ across the LoC even though the same treatment is denied to other people in the two countries?
The other somewhat incongruous aspect of the Joint Statement is the agreement on the ‘need to strengthen cooperation on counter-terrorism’. While in principle there can be no disagreement on collaborating against terrorism, the practice of this principle is quite another thing especially in light of India’s unhappy experience of the Joint Anti-Terror Mechanism. Notwithstanding talk of Pakistan viewing terrorism from a different prism, there is as yet nothing on the ground to suggest that Pakistan has stopped making a distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ terrorists, much less given up the use of terrorism as an instrument of state policy.
The big question really is whether all the positive vibes that emanated during the meeting are a sign of greater realism dawning on the military-led Pakistani establishment that Pakistan’s ‘supreme national interest’ is served by normalising relations with India, or is it the case that the Pakistanis are showing reasonableness to secure their eastern flank in order to address the existential threat being faced from within and from the western flank.
There is so far no evidence that the Pakistan army is actually in the process of effecting, much less accepting, a strategic shift in its perception of India. Even so, the unfolding situation has opened a small window of opportunity for India to push the envelope a little bit more and exploit the space that has become available to move forward in areas of mutual interest and benefit. There is, at the same time, an alternative viewpoint in India that advocates exploiting the situation in Pakistan to push it further in the direction of ‘failure’. The only problem with this is that it has not been thought through sufficiently in terms of working out whether a ‘failed’ or ‘collapsed’ Pakistan will enhance India’s security or worsen it.
Needless to say, even as India engages Pakistan, it is imperative not to let down the guard under the false premise that with Pakistan engulfed in its own problems, the last thing it will do is indulge in adventurism against India. Given the strong possibility that Pakistan is being conciliatory towards India only for tactical reasons, this policy could change practically overnight if the Pakistan army decides that its corporate interests are better served by undertaking a more offensive posture towards India, either through cross-border military manoeuvres or cross-border terrorist attacks
Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/IndiaPakistanDialogueCautiousOptimismLotsofScepticism_ssareen_130711