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Waiting for dawn

Print edition : Aug 14, 2009 T+T-
REUTERS

REUTERS

THE renowned Indian Urdu poet Ali Sardar Jafri, who was dedicated to India-Pakistan peace, wrote: Guftagu band na ho baat se baat chale (Continue talking, one word will lead to another). This is the crux of the message from Sharm-el-Sheikh where the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan met on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Movement Summit, on July 16.

In the joint statement issued after their talks, Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan committed themselves to fighting terrorism and cooperating in that fight, including by sharing real time, credible and actionable information on any future terrorist threats. Both of them considered development and the elimination of poverty as the real challenge before them and affirmed their intention to promote regional cooperation.

Two issues that stood out in the joint statement were: (i) the delinking of action on terrorism and the composite dialogue process and (ii) the inclusion of threats in Balochistan and other areas in the bilateral talks. On both these issues, India has accommodated the Pakistani position. Following the terrorist attack on Mumbai in November 2008, India decided to stop the composite dialogue process until Pakistan took visible and credible action to bring the perpetrators of that act to book and ensured that Pakistani territory was not used to launch terrorist attacks against India. The delinking of action on terrorism from the composite dialogue was a reversal of the Indian position in this respect.

Similarly, Pakistan, for quite some time, has been blaming India for supporting militancy in its western province of Balochistan and also in the north-western region, including the Swat valley where the Taliban had consolidated itself. Inclusion of threats in Balochistan and other areas in the agenda for India-Pakistan talks at the behest of Pakistan Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, by implication, underlined that India was answerable to Pakistan with regard to these threats.

While in Pakistan the joint statement has been received as a diplomatic victory and Gilani has been hailed as a hero, in India Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been blamed for capitulating to Pakistan and has received widespread criticism for the compromises. He has come under flak for deviating from Indias stated position on terrorism and composite dialogue since Pakistan has not taken any credible and visible action against the perpetrators of the 26/11 Mumbai attack.

Pakistani courts have let off the chief of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Mohammed Hafiz Saeed, for want of sufficient evidence. The government in Pakistans Punjab province and the federal authorities have withdrawn the case filed against him.

L.K. Advani, the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, described Manmohan Singhs position in the joint statement as a big retreat by the government on its own stated position. He added that he saw intense disquiet and concern among all thinking Indians, including a section of the Congress party itself. Other political parties, including both supporters and opponents of the ruling alliance, have disapproved of the Prime Ministers stand at Sharm-el-Sheikh. Even the Congress party has indirectly expressed its unease with the joint statement. Indias security agencies and defence establishments are particularly upset about the inclusion of Balochistan in the statement since it gives Pakistan scope to counter India on the charge of Pakistan-sponsored cross-border terrorism and also rubbish the Baloch nationalist movement simply as foreign-inspired terrorism.

For a proper assessment of the Joint Statement, the issues involved have to be looked at in a balanced perspective. To begin with, India has not given a diplomatic blank cheque to Pakistan either on the delinking issue or on the inclusion of Balochistan. Pakistan has already submitted a dossier on actiontaken-so-far, howsoever inadequate and half-hearted, against the terrorists involved in the Mumbai attack. The use of Pakistani territory and the involvement of Pakistan nationals have been admitted; the role of the Lashkar-e-Taiba has been acknowledged; five Lashkar operatives have been arrested and would be charge-sheeted, including the commander of the Mumbai attack, Zakiur Rahman Lakhvi. The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief has been in consultation with Indian High Commission officials in Islamabad on the action being taken in relation to the Mumbai case. To proceed further, Pakistan is seeking more information from India.

Delinking in no way means that the composite dialogue would continue irrespective of Pakistan not doing anything regarding the Mumbai case or allowing a similar attack on India again. The joint statement is a political document and not a legally binding, unconditional international commitment.

Manmohan Singh told reporters in Sharm-el-Sheikh that while Gilani had been keen to resume the composite dialogue here and now, I said that the dialogue cannot begin unless and until the terrorist acts in Mumbai are fully accounted for and the perpetrators are brought to book. Unless this happened, he stressed, I cannot agree, and our public opinion will not agree. The Prime Minister later elaborated this aspect at length in his statement in Parliament; he said that even when the Foreign Secretaries of the two countries continued to talk, no substantive dialogue could take place unless there was concrete action from Pakistans part. The idea of delink was incorporated to avoid stalemate, prepare the ground to engage Pakistan and deny Pakistan any excuse for not doing anything on the front of cross-border terrorism.

In the latest twist to the interpretation of delink, Indias Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon asserted that Pakistan had to continue its action on the terrorism front without waiting for the composite dialogue to start. He, however, accepted that the statement might have left this aspect vague.

The inclusion of Balochistan in the agenda for bilateral talks certainly gives Pakistan a diplomatic advantage but, at the same time, it enables India to raise the question of suppression of human rights and freedom of the Baloch people by the Pakistan Army, just as Pakistan has been doing in the case of Kashmir. It is ridiculous to assume that India can cut its own nose to spite its face by supporting the Taliban- and Al Qaeda-led insurgency in Balochistan and other areas such as the Swat valley. Not only India but also keen international observers have denied repeatedly that India has any role in Balochistan. It, therefore, remains to be seen what credible evidence Pakistan can produce regarding Indian involvement in Balochistan and the frontier region.

Then there is the question of Congress-led governments traditional approach towards Pakistan. The Congress regimes in India have generally not favoured breaking the dialogue to punish Pakistan for acts of hostility or terrorism. Both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi knew of Pakistans involvement in the Punjab and Kashmir insurgencies but engagement with Pakistan continued during their rule. So also was the case with P.V. Narasimha Raos regime. Dialogue continued during and even after Pakistan initiated military hostilities.

India took a tough stand during the rule of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government by mounting Operation Parakram and deploying full military strength on the borders with Pakistan. But then what did it yield? Parakram was withdrawn unceremoniously and the credit for initiating the composite dialogue process in early 2004 was claimed by Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee who led the NDA regime.

Before Mumbai, there were several acts of terrorism in India where Pakistans involvement was suspected, but no precipitate action was taken. The post-Mumbai decision to stall the composite dialogue was in a way a deviation from the traditional course of Congress-led regimes. It was driven not only by the horrendous nature of the Mumbai attack, but also by the exigency of the then forthcoming parliamentary elections.

In retrospect, it would have been in the interest of consistency for Manmohan Singh if the first United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime could package its post-Mumbai anger and reaction against Pakistan without staking the composite dialogue. Those who are opposing delinking now may not have any viable alternative to offer when military action against Pakistan is not a real and effective option. Between stalemate and engagement, the latter is certainly a better response. It is clearly possible that this might still not yield any effective or satisfactory results in the long run, but it keeps the hopes open and secures wider international endorsement for Indias position.

Much would depend upon how Pakistan resolves its internal challenges and decides to relate itself to India. There surely exists a sharp and deep strategic divide within Pakistan on the India question. There are civil society groups and political and business constituencies that want to build Pakistans future through a constructive engagement with India. But there are also those in Pakistans security establishments and among extremist forces that do not see India in any other light except as an enemy state. Jehadi outfits have been created and nurtured by vested interests, as confessed recently even by President Asif Ali Zardari.

Indian diplomacy must be geared to strengthening those forces in Pakistan that have stakes in cooperative relations with India and this is what the Sharm-el-Sheikh statement is aimed at. Pakistan has a civilian government and there is no harm in strengthening the civilian Prime Minister in the hope that he would be encouraged to nudge the security establishments towards a positive relationship with India. It is believed that Prime Minister Gilani, as compared to President Zardari, has better rapport and more effective and amicable channels of communication with Pakistans security establishments.

It may be useful to recall that Gilani, in answer to the question of letting off Hafiz Saeed, confided to Manmohan Singh (as disclosed by him) that common consensus within the Pakistani establishment was being evolved for taking action against Saeed (emphasis added).

Manmohan Singh was charged by some political leaders and media analysts in India of conceding undue ground to Pakistan under pressure from the United States. The U.S., including its Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who landed in India the day after the signing of the Joint Statement, has stoutly denied that any pressure was exercised. There is, however, no denying the fact that a constructive engagement between India and Pakistan is critical to the success of the Barack Obama administrations Af-Pak strategy. Recall the remarks made by President Obama in his interview to the Pakistani daily Dawn (of June 21) after the brief talks between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Zardari:

I believe that there are opportunities, may be not starting with Kashmir but starting with other issues, that Pakistan and India can be in a dialogue together and over time to try to reduce tensions and find areas of common interest. And we want to be helpful in that process, but I dont think its appropriate for us to be the mediators in the processwe cant dictate to Pakistan or India how they should resolve their differences, but we know that both countries would prosper if those differences are resolvedI think dialogue is the best way to reduce tensions.

India and Pakistan are more than acutely aware of this U.S. position. There was considerable interest in the U.S. and among all its allies fighting the war in Afghanistan when talks at the prime ministerial level between India and Pakistan yielded positive results. The outcome of the Sharm-el-Sheikh meeting was accordingly welcomed by them.

For its part, India is keen to see the U.S. winning the war on global terror in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Any prospect of a Taliban and Al Qaeda victory in this war would spell disaster for Indias security and stability. By opening the means to re-engagement with Pakistan, India has not only responded to U.S. expectations and concerns, but also created room for further U.S. pressure on Pakistan to deepen its commitment in fighting terrorism. Refusing to restart the composite dialogue process with Pakistan would have put India at odds with the U.S. and marred the process of reinforcing Indo-U.S. strategic partnership under the Obama administration.

On the whole, therefore, the initiative for the resumption of composite dialogue between India and Pakistan bodes well not only for their bilateral relations, but also for overall regional security. India could easily avoid taking the Balochistan issue on board but it will still have the chance to calibrate the tone and temper of this dialogue if Pakistan reverses or even refuses to move forward on the question of punishing the perpetrators of the Mumbai attack and curbing the activities against India of the so-called non-state jehadi forces operating from its territory.

Ali Sardar Jafri had hoped that the talks, even if started in the darkness of night, may eventually lead up to the breakout of a bright and pleasant dawn. At Sharm-el-Sheikh, India and Pakistan have resolved to get into a process that may, hopefully, lead them to the breakout of a dawn of mutual trust and peace in their relationship.

S.D. Muni is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), Singapore.