Tracking Talks - India Continues to Fumble in its Engagement with Pakistan
Amb Kanwal Sibal

We are constantly reviewing the state of our relations with Pakistan in think tank discussions and in the media even when progress in the relationship is inordinately slow. Many think that as a society we pay exaggerated attention to Pakistan, almost to the point of being obsessed with our neighbour.

Critics would argue that the more we show anxiety about improving relations with Pakistan, the more room we give to it to persist with its negative policies. Many of our other neighbours- who by no means make any special effort to earn our goodwill- do not comprehend the relative neglect with which they feel we treat them compared to our excessive reaching out to Pakistan even when it is the country most hostile to us.

While one could legitimately criticize our handling of Pakistan and the one-sided concessions we are prone to make in the hope that our adversary would eventually be convinced of our good faith and reciprocate our gestures, there are several reasons that compel us to pay seemingly inflated attention to it.

Pakistan’s geographic and demographic size is considerable; geopolitically, it is strategically located; it is a nuclear power. As a country ravaged by Islamic radicalism and terrorism, it is a source of great instability in the region and beyond. Rather than being ostracized for its destabilizing role, it has been cultivated for decades by the U.S. and China, with its hostility towards India being leveraged by them for their own geopolitical ends. Beyond the U.S. and China, Pakistan has been a negative factor in our relations with Europe, other allies of the U.S. and Islamic countries in general, not to mention the role it has played in undercutting us in the UN.

It is for these reasons, which have also included pressure on us on human rights and non-proliferation issues, we have been unable to ignore Pakistan or treat it with benign neglect. We are compelled to attach importance to our highly problematic relationship with it. If the levels of our tolerance and even generosity towards it would appear quite misplaced, our pretending that Pakistan is too small to matter would be denying reality.

It is this broad context that one could make an attempt to assess our dialogue strategy with Pakistan and its results at the official and Track 2 levels, as well as through the back-channel.

As regards our strategy, it is based on some a priori notions. However, translating them into effective policy that produces wanted results is not an assured exercise. We have worked on the assumption that while we can change friends, we cannot change neighbours, meaning that we have no option but to engage Pakistan, whatever the challenges it confronts us with. We also think that as the bigger country we need to be forthcoming and go the extra mile to reassure Pakistan that we are not a threat to its security. There is also the belief that we are the same people with a shared history and culture, and that differences between us can be surmounted if the requisite effort is made in good faith. Even if Pakistan is recalcitrant, common interests, we feel, will at some moment drive it towards resolving problems with India. The hospitality with which individual Pakistanis treat Indians who go their country and their friendly discourse reinforces the proclivity amongst a section of our population to politically and emotionally invest in hopes of peace with Pakistan. All this is accompanied by an unwillingness to look objectively at the hard facts of Pakistan’s policies and actions against us, because acknowledging them squarely will make it difficult for the votaries of friendship with Pakistan to advocate their soft line.

A complicating factor is the notion of “secularism” that inhibits a section of our society from frontally identifying and decrying the element of Islam that plays a noxious role in determining Pakistani thinking and attitudes towards us. This section seems to believe that a robust discourse against Pakistan and, in particular, condemning its use of religion to breed hostility against us, would be construed as being anti-Muslim. At the political level, it is believed that reaching out towards Pakistan and advocating friendship with it would be welcomed by India’s Muslim community and would yield electoral dividends. This is not being speculative as several political leaders, even belonging to the BJP, have expressed such a calculation. In addition, at the domestic level, the perennial problem of handling Kashmiri sentiments and containing unrest there induces us to positively engage with Pakistan.

The history of government-to-government dialogue between India and Pakistan is long and chequered and need not be recounted. An assessment of the Indo-Pak Composite Dialogue Process, which began in 1997, would be more pertinent for our purpose. This dialogue was interrupted by Pakistan’s incursion into Kargil in 1999 and India’s military mobilization in 2002 following the attack on the Indian parliament by Pakistani terrorists. It was resumed in 2004, but was interrupted again after the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai by Pakistani based terrorists with clear official connivance. It resumed again in March 2011 and has continued since, though our side has been reluctant to call it “composite” anymore, preferring to characterize it as “comprehensive” instead, in order to signal on our part a reconfiguration of our priorities with emphasis on trust-building, step-by-step progress and terrorism. It is instructive that the cause of the periodic disruption of the dialogue has been either Pakistan’s direct attacks against us as in Kargil or indirect ones through its terrorist proxies. This reveals the rather shallow commitment of Pakistan to the dialogue process, which it sees as a tactical option to pressure India to yield to its demands rather than a genuine desire to resolve India-Pakistan issues by abandoning the idea of territorial or sovereignty gains.

The official dialogue process has as agenda items Peace and Security, including CBMs, Jammu and Kashmir, Siachen, Wullar Barrage project/Tulbul Navigation Project, Terrorism and Drug Trafficking, Economic and Commercial Cooperation and Promotion of Friendly Exchanges in various fields. As regards Peace and Security, the cease-fire declared between the two countries in November 2003 is holding, though with periodic violations by Pakistan. The cease-fire has certainly helped to reduce tensions on the Line of Control (LOC) and between the two countries in general. The Pakistani side would argue that with this cease-fire a major Indian complaint that Pakistan was sending in infiltrators under cover of fire has been addressed. Without the cease-fire some CBMs at people-to-people level in the two parts of Kashmir would not have been possible, such as trade and bus services across the LOC. It is difficult to say to what extent this has contributed to softening negative sentiments in the Valley towards the rest of the nation, as movement of goods and people is limited and will remain so short of full normalization of India-Pakistan relations, because there is little organic ethnic connection between J&K and POK and no trade barriers between the Valley and the rest of India that results in production surpluses in the Valley not finding adequate markets.

If these steps are intended to appease the anti-Indian and pro-Pakistan elements in the Valley, then they will be seen as concessions extracted from India as a first step towards greater integration between the two parts of Kashmir that will, in their minds as well as in Pakistani calculations, inevitably lead to dilution of India’s full sovereignty over J&K. If, as official sources suggest, India is more keen on such exchanges and Pakistan more reticent, then the logic of India’s steps is not clear because we do not have the upper hand in the Kashmir problem. Our discourse that we want to make the border in J&K “soft”, when there is only a cease-fire line there at present and Pakistan has not given up its territorial claim, and the sense of alienation prevailing in the Valley expressed in slogans of “azadi” makes our own control of the state difficult, seems somewhat disconnected from reality.

The first nuclear CBM on Non-Attack on Nuclear Installations and Facilities was signed by India and Pakistan in December 1988, much before the framework of the “composite dialogue” was established. We continue to exchange up-dated documents of these sites. As an addendum to the 1999 Lahore Declaration it was agreed that the two countries will consult bilaterally on security concepts and nuclear doctrines to develop CBMs in the nuclear and conventional fields, besides notifying each other in advance of ballistic missile tests. In the technical talks that followed, it was agreed, inter alia, to set up a hotline between the two Foreign Secretaries, with each side also affirming its unilateral moratorium on nuclear test explosions unless extraordinary events jeopardizing the supreme interests of the two intervened.

These limited gains aside, Pakistan persists in its nuclear and missile competition with India. It has objected to the India-US nuclear deal, deliberately distorting its implications for India’s nuclear capability and gratuitously making it appear that it constitutes a threat to its own security by changing the strategic balance in the region- a point made in the joint resolution passed unanimously by the Pakistani parliament in April this year. Pakistan has sought a similar deal for itself, failing which it has held up FMCT discussions at Geneva on the ground that it needs to stock adequate fissile material to counter India’s ability to increase its stocks because of the NSG exception it has obtained. In the meantime, it has obtained two additional nuclear power plants from China in a joint response of the two countries to the India-US nuclear deal. According to international reports Pakistan is rapidly increasing its nuclear weapon holdings, including developmental work on a nuclear capable cruise missile. It is taking steps to introduce tactical nuclear weapons in the region as a response to India’s Cold Start doctrine, which it has hyped up to serve this purpose. Pakistan refuses to adhere to a no-first-use (NFU) declaration, which would an important nuclear CBM, on the ground of being weaker conventionally. It has, through a variety of statements, set out redlines which, if crossed, would trigger a nuclear response. India’s objective in nuclear CBMs would be to nudge Pakistan to adhere to a NFU declaration in order to raise its low threshold of nuclear weapon use. This is unlikely to happen, more so as Pakistan refuses to take into account India’s larger nuclear-related needs to counter China.

On Jammu and Kashmir, while levels of infiltration from Pakistan have gone down and terrorism has receded, it is as yet unclear whether this is essentially a tactical response because Pakistan is now facing a terrorist challenge from within, its armed forces are preoccupied with the situation on the western frontier, the end-game in Afghanistan is drawing nearer, tensions in US-Pakistan relations are rising and the depredations of the Pakistani Taliban continue. In this situation when the hands of the Pakistani military are already full, it would not make sense for them to activate the border with India, more so when they would not be able to count on US benevolence as before. A strategic turning of the page on J&K and the use of terrorism to advance political goals does not seem to have occurred as Pakistani authorities have not put the requisite curbs on jihadi groups, training camps in POK have not been wound up and some attempts at infiltration continue as stated by our Home Minister lately.

After some tactical adjustment of its position on J&K during President Musharraf’s time when he agreed to explore a solution to the issue outside the UN resolutions and self-determination- which in any case are politically defunct at the international level- Pakistan has reverted to its traditional position of seeking a resolution in accordance with UN resolutions, as reiterated by President Zardari in the UNGA in September this year. This provoked a sharp response from India and a counter reply from Pakistan, replaying the contentiousness of the past. These polemics have occurred inspite of the dialogue process. Earlier in April, Pakistan parliament’s joint resolution on Pakistan-US ties called, in a throwback to the past, for resolving the Kashmir issue in accordance with UN resolutions. The Pakistani leadership regurgitates time and again the worn out formula that Pakistan will continue to give moral, material and diplomatic support to the Kashmiris in their fight for freedom. Pakistan’s attachment to outdated resolutions is hardly in conformity with any new thinking on how to narrow outstanding differences.

Despite 13 rounds of talks between India and Pakistan, both before and after the establishment of the composite dialogue process, no progress on resolving the Siachen issue has been registered. Pakistan claims that the basis of an agreement was reached in 1989, which India denies. In any case, Pakistan embarked on the Kargil adventure to avenge Siachen, as admitted by General Musharraf. Following that Pakistan stepped up its terrorist onslaught against India, culminating in the unspeakable attack on Mumbai. Other factors have intervened such as China’s stepped-up presence in POK, not to mention China’s questioning of India’s sovereignty over J&K. All this should make India doubly chary about yielding its sovereignty over Siachen in any way in order to appease Pakistan. The 1949 ceasefire line, supplanted by the LOC in 1972, ends at Point NJ9842 on the map, after which it supposed to move north to the glaciers. This is not the place to discuss the details of the issue, except to say that by virtue of the accession to India of entire state of J&K, any part of J&K that was not in control of Pakistan in 1949 or 1972 remained Indian whether India occupied it physically or not. It is Pakistan that tried after 1984 to extend itself into Siachen. It was helped in its physical aggrandizement by the cartographic aggression against India in the 1960s and early 70s by the U.S. Defense Mapping Agency which arbitrarily extended the ceasefire line from NJ9842 eastwards to the Karakoram Pass, with other cartographers and atlases following suit. One can reasonably suspect some form of US-Pakistan-China complicity for geopolitical reasons in the context of the Cold war depicting the line thus. Unfortunately, the U.S. has made no attempt to rectify the maps.

India’s current position is that Pakistan must first agree to authentication of the Actual Ground Position Line along the Saltoro ridge, then delineation on the map and finally demarcation of the agreed border, before any demilitarization of Siachen by both sides is considered. General Kayani has characterized this as hardening of India’s position on Siachen. The clarification of our position by the Raksha Mantri in parliament would seem to set at rest fears that under pressure to produce some substantive results to enable the Prime Minster to visit Pakistan, India may make some concession on Siachen.

On Sir Creek the technical discussions have been completed. Pakistan is still not agreeing to the mid-channel boundary and insists on the right bank of the creek as the border. Prime Minister believes that an agreement on this dispute is “doable”, but Pakistan may like to link this to Siachen. The Wullar Barrage/Tulbul navigation Project is lying moribund since 1987 when Pakistan objected to it. The composite dialogue has made no progress on the issue. On the contrary, while this dialogue has been pursued to create more trust and understanding, Pakistan has widened differences on water issues by earlier objecting to the Baghlihar project and now to the Kishenganga project on which it has sought international arbitration. Pakistan has whipped up domestic passions on the water issue, raising the bogey that planned run of the river Indian projects on the western rivers permitted by the Indus Waters Treaty are violative of it and will divert waters belonging to Pakistan in a situation of reduced glacier flows and climate change concerns.

On the trade front forward movement has undoubtedly taken place. Whether this is on account of the dire economic situation Pakistan finds itself in or is a product of greater bilateral engagement can be debated. It would seem the Pakistani establishment believes that it can move economically with India because it can show greater gains for itself than in moving on the political front. Even if Pakistan’s readiness to trade more with India is a result of its economic stress, progress on this score is to be welcomed. Pakistan has moved from a positive list to a negative one, and is committed to reducing it progressively till December this year when it is committed to accord India MFN status. In the meantime, a new Integrated Check Post has been set up at Wagah, India has changed its legislation to allow Pakistani investment in India and is contemplating permitting Indian investments in Pakistan. It is addressing Pakistan’s non-tariff barrier concerns. Pakistan is, however, permitting only a limited number of goods to be traded across the land frontier, which means that trading by sea reduces the competitiveness of Indian products. Pakistan is not yet ready to allow transit facilities through its territory for Indian commerce with Afghanistan and Central Asia. It should be borne in mind though that large trade exchanges are no guarantee against political tensions as the case of US-China and China-Japan show. People to people exchanges between India and Pakistan is another area in which progress has occurred, as the latest agreement on liberalizing the visa regime shows, though Pakistan has not yet formalized it.

One has to distinguish the utility of Track 2 discussions in the case of countries that either have no diplomatic relations, and hence no Track 1 contacts, or are unable to engage with each other because of serious tensions and growing danger of conflict, and those where the governments are engaged in a regular dialogue with each other at various political and official levels. In the case of India and Pakistan, despite Kargil and terrorism- even on Mumbai’s scale- official channels of communication between the two governments have remained functional. To that extent the role and utility of Track 2 discussions in our case is limited. Pakistan has, of course, always wanted third parties to get involved in India-Pakistan issues on the assumption that its case would be supported by them, based on the conduct of these parties over decades. The West and its allies have always harboured fears about a conflict between India and Pakistan, more so after the two countries became nuclear. Many western governments have therefore encouraged think-tanks and foundations to bring together Indians and Pakistanis at Track 2 level to discuss their differences and recommend some solutions to vexed issues. The attempt is to influence government thinking and move parties away from established positions. The U.S., UK, Germany, Canada, the European Union, and Singapore are amongst the most active in financing such meetings. Retired senior diplomats, intelligence chiefs, former military chiefs, academicians and journalists are brought together in various capitals for discussions on terrorism, Jammu and Kashmir, Siachen, nuclear stability, economic ties, water -related issues, people to people contacts and Afghanistan etc. The agenda at its core is not very different from the Track 1 agenda, though the Tack 2 format allows a broader discussion on mutual threat perceptions, the internal dynamics in both countries and perspectives for the future etc. The involvement of former military officers is a way to fill the gap that exists in India-Pakistan relations created by the absence of a military to military dialogue at the official level.

The impact of these Track 2 contacts on official policies is not easy to determine. A priori, it should not be much as no breakthrough has been achieved on any of the core issues under discussion. In any case, in these Track 2 discussions, the Pakistani side tries to underplay the issue of terrorism, replaying the same arguments that the government uses, to the effect that Pakistan itself is a huge victim of terrorism. Hafiz Saeed is dismissed as of little consequence, or equivalence is made with Bal Thackeray. The problem of growing religious radicalism is underplayed, the water issue is raised strongly and appeals are made to the Indian side to resolve Siachen in order to boost the efforts of the peace lobby. Naturally, there is a strong pitch in favour of more people to people contacts and a liberalized visa regime. In sum, the Pakistani agenda is pushed while Indian concerns are side-stepped. The Indian interlocutors are generally more conciliatory and more ready to concede Pakistani viewpoints, partly because the participants chosen are so inclined in the first place, and partly because it is felt that the purpose of Track 2 is lost if they merely followed the official line. We have an obsession with out-of-the-box thinking. Our capacity for self-criticism and assumption of guilt is of course well known. We think our credibility improves if we take positions against the country’s official stance on important issues.

Beyond this, there is the larger question of the influence of Track 2 personalities within their own countries. In Pakistan, given the structure of power there, the grip of the armed forces on core foreign policy issues, the weakness of its democracy and the street power of radical religious groups, the more outspoken Track 2 persons cannot be credited with too much influence. The Indian participants may have good individual standing and access to real policy makers, but here too the culture of interaction between Track 1 and 2 is weak. It can be said that Track 1 in India does not feel that it is dependent on Track 2 for vital inputs for policy making. All in aIl, the contribution of Track 2 to policy making is limited, which does not mean that powerful foreign governments do not try to shape discourse and media projections through Track 2 efforts to advance their own agendas. A case in point is the US State Department supported blueprint for a solution to the Kashmir issue drafted by the New York based Kashmir Study Group led by Farooq Kathwari, which, with General Musharraf’s endorsement became the basis of back-channel talks between India and Pakistan.

This brings us to the contribution of the back-channel to India-Pakistan relations. Such channels might be useful in exchanging highly confidential messages at the topmost political levels with a view to exploring possibilities of new understandings or remove existing misunderstandings. One should make a difference between using back-channels for communicating messages and undertaking negotiations. The latter is a more risky proposition because bureaucratic processing of positions to be taken is not generally involved, which means that the system is kept out of the loop and individual thinking or that involving a very restricted circle gains ascendancy. While back-channels may give extra room for manouevre to politicians, the danger of committing errors also increases. One has also to address the question whether in a democracy it is right to use back-channels for negotiations on sensitive, complex issues affecting the nation.

In the case of India and Pakistan, the back-channel was used in Prime Minister Vajpayee’s time involving individuals of confidence, but outside the system, as it were. Under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh the back-channel involved National Security Adviser J.N.Dixit on our side and President Musharraf’s aide Tariq Aziz. After Mr Dixit’s demise in 2005, Special Envoy Satindar Lambah took over, holding reportedly 15 rounds of discussions with his counterpart between 2005 and 2007 on resolving the Kashmir issue. President Musharraf’s proposals for J&K are known and so is Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s vision of a framework for a solution. Broadly the discussions centred on a division of the state into various regions, demilitarization of sensitive locations, self-governance, and free movement across the LOC and some forms of joint management, if not sovereignty. Former Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri claims that an agreement was virtually reached but because President Musharraf got embroiled in domestic problems, our Prime Minister could not travel to Pakistan and the opportunity to seal a deal was lost. It would appear that a substantive and detailed agreement might indeed have been reached but did not fructify because of political developments in Pakistan. Since then Pakistan’s civilian government has categorically disavowed the progress made in Musharraf’s time, clarifying that proposals then made by Pakistan are no longer on the table. Although the then Prime Minister Gilani had appointed former Foreign Secretary Riaz Mohammed Khan as Tariq Aziz’s successor, the actual back-channel talks remain suspended. Pakistan has officially reverted to its traditional position of seeking a solution on the basis of UN resolutions. The Indian government too has also distanced itself from the backchannel. Just as well because we have eroded our own diplomatic hand in negotiations with Pakistan on key issues in our anxiety to engage Pakistan in a dialogue on the “front-channel”. The public could be legitimately worried at the possibility of India making controversial concessions to Pakistan on the back-channel. Prime Minister’s anxiety to visit Pakistan is not assuring in this regard.

Published Date: 12th November 2012, Photo Courtesy: The Hindu

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