Mani-Talk: We Need to Talk With Pakistan. Urgently.

Published: December 01, 2014 11:11 IST
(Mani Shankar Aiyar is a Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha.)

Apart from the Hurriyat, there are at least four fundamental issues that, from the Indian point of view, need to be overcome, if progress in Indo-Pak relations is to be sincere and genuine.

First, resolving Kashmir. Both governments appear to be in denial about what was achieved between the two governments in the three years that followed the Islamabad Declaration when Vajpayee visited Islamabad in January 2004 and the Satinder Lambah-Tariq Aziz back-channel was opened by the two governments later that year. The record shows that the negotiators were able to agree that "the final settlement of issues related to Jammu & Kashmir" must eschew exchange of territories and people, and concentrate on facilitating the movement of friends and family across the Line of Control (LoC), as well as trade and cultural contacts between the two halves of Kashmir, along with the "joint management" of the region to render the LoC irrelevant to the lives of those living on either side of it.

True, the back-channel agreement was never brought to either government for ratification, but as the negotiators were negotiating at the behest of their respective governments, at least it could be said that dialogue could show the way to some form of resolution.

Second, firing across the LoC (and even sometimes the international border), accompanied on occasion by barbarity, leading to the death of not only combat troops but also civilians, besides the destruction of property and the displacement of peoples. Such deplorable incidents cause general outrage on both sides of the border, and the outrage is aggravated by the media. The factual position is that there is an inverse relationship between dialogue and border incidents. There was a palpable reduction in cross-border firing and killings between 2004 and 2008 when the dialogue process was on; the number and gravity of such incidents has been inexorably rising ever since the dialogue process was effectively ended by 26/11. Thus, if the aim is to end the needless loss of life, destruction of property and cruel displacement involved in cross-border firing, it needs to be recognized that a resumption of contacts leads to a diminution of tension which, in turn, reduces and all but eliminates such regrettable incidents. If we do not talk, the cost in life and limb will be considerable.

Third, there is the question of action to be taken by and in Pakistan to fulfill their Islamabad Declaration (2004) commitment to prevent cross-border terrorism and bring to justice those who perpetrate such heinous acts. Putting Pakistan in the dock does not appear a very fruitful way of proceeding - although undoubtedly they have much to account for. But India can hold them to their word only through a process of dialogue. Should the ending of terrorism based on Pakistani soil be the pre-condition for initiating talks - or the object of the dialogue? Moreover, given the problems of ending terrorism directed by Indians against Indian nationals in several parts of India, should India be more sympathetic to the fact of Pakistan itself being the most terrorist-affected state in the word, with some 40,000 Pakistani lives lost to terrorism and the US-Pak war on terrorism in Pakistan, especially in the far north-west of the country? Should not India take note of several key establishments having been the object of terrorist attacks, among them the ISI HQ in Lahore, the Army GHQ in Rawalpindi, and the Mehran naval establishment on the outskirts of Karachi? Would not India-Pakistan cooperation, both bilaterally and within the SAARC framework, offer a more productive approach to carrying forward a common front against all forms of terrorism?

Fourth, the vexed question of whom to deal with in Pakistan. It has been an oft-repeated argument in Indian circles that as democracy is a fragile plant in Pakistan, it is not, in fact, the civilian government but the armed forces, the intelligence community, powerful clerics, and gun-toting 'jihadis' who control the levers of decision-making. Whom then is one to talk to? And what is the point of talking to those who are not really in charge? Apart from recognizing that Pakistan is a sovereign nation and, therefore, there is no alternative to talking to the government, the fact is that India has been negotiating - often with a measure of success - through the usual government channels.

To bring in the other entities might constitute recognition of ground realities, but cannot be the basis for denying any role to the elected civilian government in negotiating with India. Would, for example, the Indian government be ready to permit Pakistani negotiators to talk directly to our Army chief given that India's armed forces are the ones most reluctant to give in on Siachen? The civil government in Pakistan will, of course, have to take all domestic players into account - as, indeed, will India - but to portray the democratically-elected government as a helpless puppet of stronger non-state forces (and their collaborators in the armed forces and intelligence community) is to undermine democracy in Pakistan, which India has always regarded as crucial to the improvement of India-Pakistan relations.

Therefore, all things considered, there appear to be only two alternative ways forward. One would be to neglect Pakistan - benign or malign neglect. There is a school of thought in India (and perhaps also in Pakistan) that despairs of any progress being made on any substantial point and, therefore, thinks it wisest to just ignore Pakistan and get on with other dimensions of foreign policy. Superficially feasible though this line of thinking may appear to be, it assumes that issues with Pakistan can be swept under the carpet. Can India ignore firing across the LoC? Can Pakistan ignore water shortages in the Indus basin? Can India ignore infiltration across the LoC? Can Pakistan shut its eyes to smuggling across its borders? Can India shrug off cross-border terrorists? Can Pakistan wash its hands of Kashmir without "a final settlement"? Is Pakistan going to give up indefinitely its claims on Siachen, Sir Creek, Wullar-Tulbul? Are we? Can we give up transit routes through Pakistan to and from Afghanistan? Can either country forego trade opportunities with the other? Will the world let matters drift? Will the rattling of our nuclear sabres not cause world-wide concern? No, mutual neglect is not an option. It is, at best, a pipe-dream. Whether we want it or not, Pakistan impinges on India, as India does on Pakistan - not just politically but in everyday life, from divided families to a shared love of Bollywood.

Hence, if both mutual neglect and mutual engagement are ruled out, is there then any way out of the impasse? Only one, for the present. That would be for the India-Pak dialogue to be put on the backburner, but 'talks about talks' to be initiated to explore avenues of returning to the negotiating table. Such talks-about-talks could be undertaken quietly through diplomatic channels (or even clandestine back-channels) so that, if and when the heat subsides and face-saving devices for resumption are settled, the dialogue could be resumed, preferably as an "uninterrupted and uninterruptible" process.

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