Just as India-Pakistan relations seemed to be looking up, things are on the down-swing again. A major terrorist attack on the Indian Air Force base at Pathankot on January 1 has thrown into some uncertainty foreign secretary-level talks that are scheduled to take place in Islamabad on January 15-16.
India has said that the fate of the Foreign Secretary talks will depend on Pakistan taking “prompt” action on “actionable evidence” it has handed over to the Pakistani government of the Jaish-e-Mohammed’s involvement in the Pathankot attack. A Pakistani-based terrorist group, the Jaish is believed to have close ties with the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s intelligence agency.
India has provided Pakistan with mobile number and voice data of the Pakistani handlers of those who carried out the attack on the Pathankot airbase.
“The ball is now in Pakistan’s court,” an official of India’s Ministry of External Affairs said, indicating that the Nawaz Sharif government would have to act now if the foreign secretary talks are to proceed. The National Security Advisors (NSAs) of the two countries are to meet in a month.
Bilateral relations have swung between extremes in the 18 months since Narendra Modi took charge as India’s Prime Minister. Initial interaction between Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif triggered considerable optimism as the pro-business leanings of the two leaders was expected to provide them a strong motivation to step up co-operation.
However, the hugs and handshakes were quickly replaced by the usual rancor and rhetoric that marks engagement between the two neighbors. The ceasefire came under immense pressure with firing across the Line of Control (LoC) escalating.
India called off foreign secretary level talks twice when Pakistani officials met with leaders of the Hurriyat, an umbrella organization of Kashmir separatists, in Delhi.
An attempt at kick-starting bilateral talks when Sharif and Modi met on the sidelines of the Shanghai Co-operation Organization (SCO) in end-May ran aground even before it could start. Then in end November-December, there was a flurry of high-profile meetings.
A “pull aside meeting” at the Paris Climate Change Summit saw Modi and Sharif shake hands and chat “for a few minutes” without officials and aides by their side. This was followed by the NSAs of the two countries meeting in Bangkok, which in turn paved the way for Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj to attend the ‘Heart of Asia’ meeting in Islamabad.
Then on Christmas Day, Modi dropped in at Sharif’s home in Lahore on the latter’s birthday. The visit indicated that the two prime ministers were investing heavily in the peace process; they seemed willing to attempt unconventional diplomacy and even risk criticism from hardliners at home. Eight days later, the IAF base at Pathankot was under attack.
A major attack, so soon after the display of bilateral bonhomie is not surprising. Attempts to restart talks in the past have been frequently sabotaged by attacks.
In 1999, even as the then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Sharif were shaking hands on the Lahore Declaration, the Pakistan military was readying its plan to occupy Indian territory at Kargil in Kashmir. A near-war followed, which derailed the peace process.
The recent attacks on the Pathankot airbase, the abortive attempt by militants to storm the Indian Consulate at Mazar-e-Sharif and the bomb blast near the Indian Consulate at Jalalabad are not random attacks. They must be seen as the most recent in a string of attacks by militants to sabotage India-Pakistan attempts at normalizing relations.
The Modi and Sharif governments were aware that attempts would be made to derail the peace process and it was with this in mind that they are reported to have discussed the need to insulate the process from spoilers.
During their meeting in Bangkok, the two NSAs are reported to have agreed to keep the dialogue going in the event of disruption. Since the Pathankot attack, the two NSAs are reported to have spoken to each other several times.
In the past, Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have often accused the United Progressive Alliance government (UPA) (2004-14) of being soft on terror.
In 2009, for instance, when India’s then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani agreed at a meeting at Sharm-el-Sheikh in Egypt to delink action on terrorist attacks from the composite dialogue process, the BJP, then in opposition, tore into the government accusing it of “selling out” to Pakistan.
“All the waters of seven seas will not wash the shame at Sharm-el-Sheikh,” a prominent BJP leader and former minister said in parliament.
“You can’t talk amid the sound of guns and bombs,” Modi thundered repeatedly during the 2014 general election campaign when he was the BJP’s prime minister-candidate.
Now as Prime Minister, Modi appears to have changed his mind. His government is said to be keen to continue with the talks despite the “sound of guns and bombs.”
Over the past 18 months, the Modi government’s approach to Pakistan has been marked by U-turns, prompting critics to accuse the government of not having a clear Pakistan policy. This absence of policy resulted in its lurching between extreme postures. Silence and sulking marked its approach to Pakistan through much of last year.
Following the Pathankot attack, Modi is under pressure from hard-liners – many of them, incidentally are allies or fraternal organizations of his party – to pull out from talks with Pakistan yet again.
However, not engaging in dialogue with Pakistan is not smart diplomacy. For one, it deprives Delhi contacts and leverage within the Pakistani government. Besides, talks are the only way for Delhi to raise its concerns over terrorism.
Options such as “hot pursuit” of terrorists or “teaching Pakistan a lesson,” which Modi and the BJP called for in the past or “killing the enemy at his home,” which hawks are calling for now, are hardly sensible options for India to pursue against a nuclear-armed and unstable neighbor.
Calling off the talks will amount to ceding victory to hawks in both countries, anti-India terrorist groups in Pakistan and the Pakistani military, which is opposed to normalization of India-Pakistan relations.
Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be reached at email@example.com