By Manoj Joshi*
It is a measure of the failure of the Modi government’s Pakistan policy that after one and a half year’s effort to deal with Islamabad in a new and more muscular way, New Delhi has reverted to the old formula of flexibility, wherein India seeks to simultaneously contain and engage Islamabad, with a view of transforming Pakistani behaviour.
The substance of the new joint statement issued following External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s talks with her Pakistani counterparts on Wednesday is not very different from that of the Ufa declaration of August 2015. It commits the two sides to cooperate to eliminate terrorism and to establish an NSA-level dialogue to operationalise that commitment. But where the Ufa statement led off saying the two would discuss “all outstanding issues,” the new joint statement has categorically specified these issues under the rubric of Peace and Security, CBMs, Jammu & Kashmir, Siachen, Sir Creek, Wullar Barrage/Tulbul Navigation Project, Economic and Commercial Cooperation, Counter-Terrorism, Narcotics Control, Humanitarian Issues, People to People exchanges and religious tourism.
What the joint statement spells out is nothing but the Composite Dialogue process that the two countries have been undertaking since 1997, only that this time it has been re-christened as the “Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue”. The problem is that the composite dialogue ran out of steam a long time ago. When it was constituted in the 1994-1997 period, there was a belief that in solving the smaller problems like Siachen, Wullar Barrage, and Sir Creek, the two countries would build momentum which would resolve their bigger problems like Kashmir and terrorism.
India and Pakistan were ready to settle Siachen in the 1989-92 period, but the Kargil war of 1999, where Pakistan claimed that the Line of Control was “vague”, undermined the rationale of the settlement. The Indian Army has balked at accepting a Siachen settlement that would have them withdraw from positions they have gained with great sacrifice, since the existing ground positions of the two sides have not been clearly laid down and Pakistan could not be trusted to not to renege.
In the case of Sir Creek, the key breakthrough had come at the end of 2006 when Pakistan and India agreed to do a joint survey of the creek to come up with a single data set relating to the flow of the creek. Pakistan had also agreed to the internationally agreed practice of using the equidistance method of determining the maritime boundary. But while India was ready to give up the 160-odd square kms that Pakistan was set to gain with the new alignment of the creek, it wanted Islamabad to concede to its version of the Baseline Point, the last point in the land boundary uncovered during low tide. It is from this point that the maritime boundary begins and the difference between Pakistan’s baseline point and the one suggested by India would involve the loss of thousands of square kilometres of maritime territory.
As a result the India-Pakistan maritime boundary remains undemarcated leading to the arrest of hundreds of fishermen of either side every year, besides preventing either country from investing in oil exploration.
In this context we need to recall that in December 2012, the then Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh saying that the UPA government should not “give away” Sir Creek to Pakistan. Coming as it did a day before the elections to the state assembly, this could be taken as rhetoric, but it does commit Prime Minister Modi to a position.
The real reason why the old formula of building confidence by solving small problems will not work is the Mumbai attack of 2008. This watershed event finally persuaded India that unless the issue of terrorism originating from Pakistan was resolved, there was little chance of a sustaining an engagement with Islamabad through the process of the Composite Dialogue. New Delhi understood, though, that a corollary of this was the need to resolve the Jammu & Kashmir issue on whose name Pakistan gets the support of the average Pakistani for its covert war against India.
India and Pakistan have been down many of the roads that have been outlined in the Sushma-Sartaj joint statement. They have tried to cooperate on the issue of terrorism several times. Memories are short, so people have forgotten, that the two countries had actually established a joint anti-terror mechanism in terrorism in 2006 which vary obviously crashed in November 2008. At various times, joint patrols have been mooted, as have been efforts to tackle narcotic smuggling. On the eve of the Mumbai attacks efforts were made to promote military-to-military dialogue as well.
Those who expect that Pakistan can change overnight do not understand how the real world works. Changing societies requires patience and continuous effort. There are indications that the process of change is underway in Pakistan now. One manifestation of this is the war against domestic terrorism in Waziristan and the criminal gangs of Karachi.
Of course, getting Pakistan to act against the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba or the Haqqani network is the gold standard, but it is not something that will happen overnight, though it is not an entirely hopeless cause.
In the joint statement issued following Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Washington in October, Pakistan, perhaps for the first time, resolved “to take effective action against United Nations-designated terrorist individuals and entities, including Lashkar-e-Tayyiba and its affiliates. ” In November, Pakistan’s media regulatory body banned media coverage of proscribed groups like the Lashkar’s parent body, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa and the Falah-e-Insaniat foundation associated with the group. These may be baby steps, but they do signal a beginning.
Read the Sushma-Sartaj joint statement and it is clear that Pakistan has begun to understand just how important it is to address the issue of terrorism. The best way to persuade a person to do something is to show it as an act of self-interest. Having reached the brink, Pakistan is being persuaded by its friends like China and the US that an unambigious fight against terrorism is in its own interest.
In 2004, the SAARC summit which was also in Islamabad, enabled Vajpayee and Musharraf to launch the India-Pakistan peace process which achieved a great deal but was derailed by the Mumbai attack in 2008. On the eve of the summit Pakistan declared a ceasefire along the LoC, something which still holds, despite instances of firing across the international border in Jammu. India and Pakistan also came closer than ever to working out a modus vivendi over Jammu & Kashmir. As for violence, where civilian deaths used to range between 500 and over 1000 in the 1990-2004 period, it came below 100 by 2008. The death of security personnel peaked in 2000 at 638, but after 2008, it has been below 100, dipping to a low of 17 in 2012. In other words, diplomacy can work, if it is allowed to do so.
Deeper economic and political engagement with Pakistan will be facilitated if it is embedded in the SAARC process where we are all committed to creating a South Asian Free Trade Area which could transform the future of the region. This process should, of course, also include Afghanistan and it is important as Ms Swaraj said for Pakistan to permit two-way trade between India and Afghanistan, as much as it is important for Islamabad to open up to India.
A window of opportunity has now reopened between India and Pakistan. In the first stage it will assist in India hosting the Heart of Asia conference to help Afghanistan to return to normalcy in 2016. This has important implications for the Indo-Pak process since Pakistan’s Afghanistan ambitions have coincided and facilitated its covert assault on India. More important, it will lead to the 2016 SAARC summit in Islamabad which is expected to be attended by Prime Minister Modi. There is enough time between then and now to work to make the visit as memorable and fruitful as that of Prime Minister Vajpayee in January 2004.
*The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi