A striking feature of the Indian government headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which assumed office in New Delhi in May 2014, was its abandonment of the flexible Pakistan policy pursued by previous Prime Ministers Atal Behari Vajpayee (1998-2004) and his successor Manmohan Singh (2004-2014). Modi represents the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which Vajpayee once headed.
Kashmir has been at the heart of the dispute between India and Pakistan over decades and Vajpayee attempted to resolve the issue by initiating dialogue with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and later with President Parvez Musharraf.
Vajpayee’s vision and statesmanship became evident after both countries became nuclear powers in May 1998. He undertook a successful bus trip to Lahore in Pakistan in February 1999 resulting in his ‘Lahore Declaration’ with Nawaz. Despite hurdles ahead, India followed the path of peace with Pakistan under him.
In 2001, Vajpayee invited General Musharraf, who seized power in Pakistan in a military coup in October 1999, to India. The Agra Summit went well but trouble arose over whether “terrorism” or “Kashmir” was to be discussed first. The much expected Agra Declaration failed to materialize.
However, Vajpayee’s peace efforts continued. The 2004 SAARC Summit led to a “four-point formula” on Kashmir:
- Making borders irrelevant and allowing free movement across the Line of Control
- Providing self-government or autonomy, not independence
- Demilitarizing the region
- Setting up a mechanism for joint management.
This was a major shift in policy for the two countries. But Vajpayee lost power in the 2004 parliamentary elections.
Manmohan Singh, India’s next prime minister, and Musharraf conducted ‘backchannel’ discussions but the opportunity for a settlement could not be pursued after August 2008. While Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh worked hard to settle the Kashmir conflict amicably, the incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not pursue the ‘four point-formula’.
Unlike Vajpayee, Modi was rigid and hawkish. According to him, Pakistan is illegally occupying parts of India in Jammu and Kashmir and they should vacate those areas for better relations to prevail between the two countries. For him, Kashmir is an integral and inseparable part of India, not subject to bilateral discussions and “Pak-sponsored terrorism” should dominate bilateral talks. Pakistan, on the other hand, views Kashmir as a disputed territory and insists that its future should dominate bilateral talks.
After becoming prime minister, Modi met with Nawaz Sharif in May 2014. However, the foreign secretary-level talks scheduled for August 2014 was called off after Pakistan High Commissioner to India Abdul Basit met with separatist Hurriyat leaders whom India does not regard as stakeholders in the Kashmir dispute. Unlike Modi, Vajpayee was more accommodative in this regard.
Although Modi and Nawaz met again on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Ufa, Russia, in July 2015, differences persisted over the agenda for discussions leading to the cancellation of NSA-level talks. The two met again in Paris in November, 2015 followed by talks between the national security advisers of the two countries in Bangkok and Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Islamabad.
In December 2015, Modi made a surprise visit to Nawaz’s home in Lahore, the first visit to Pakistan by an Indian premier in more than 10 years. The visit coincided with Vajpayee’s 91st birthday. Separatists in Jammu and Kashmir welcomed Modi’s gesture.
But the hopes raised by Modi’s visit were dashed when terrorists attacked Indian Air Force’s Pathankot base in Punjab on January 2, 2016. India said Pakistan was not serious about investigating the attack while Islamabad denied any role in the raid.
Peace efforts suffered another blow when Pakistani terrorists again targeted Indian security forces – this time in Uri, Jammu and Kashmir, in September killing 18 soldiers in a pre-dawn strike. India retaliated with a “surgical attack” on terror launch pads across the line of control killing many terrorists on September 29.
As the cycle of retaliatory strikes is bound to continue, India as the major South Asian power needs to display statesmanship of a high order to ensure successful conduct of relations between the two countries and not allow them to be derailed.
Kashmir is by no means in “undisputed” possession of India as claimed by the present Indian rulers. Nor is “terrorism” an issue unrelated to the Kashmir conflict. Further, the All Parties Hurriyat Conference has been a part of the Indo-Pak confabulations over Kashmir since the Vajpayee-Musharraf days. It seems Indian diplomats and security officials as well as the Indian foreign minister were unnecessarily rude to their Pakistani counterparts leading to the Pakistani delegation’s decision to walk out of post-Ufa talks.
Sartaj Aziz, the Pakistani National Security Advisor, explained his country’s position on Kashmir in a TV program. India’s national security adviser, however, chose to remain silent. In the meantime, both sides of the Line of Control are witnessing a surge in violence leading to deaths and destruction crops and property in border villages.
Modi is the product of the conservative, Hindu-centric Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS), the political formation behind the ruling BJP. His lack of appreciation for Pakistan is politically driven. His performance as prime minister since May 2014 has clearly exposed his failure to rise above the party. This has led the rulers of Pakistan to revive talks of forgotten UN resolutions, something which the four-point formula did not address.
The prospects for peace in Kashmir seem irredeemably lost. Modi’s rejection of the role of the All Parties’ Hurriyat Conference, his opposition to talks with Pakistan without preconditions and his overt actions aimed at communalization of the polity are steadily eroding his credibility as prime minister of a complex, multi-religious country.
An informed journalist reports that radical separatism in Kashmir is merging with radical Islam of the Salafi kind. Kashmiri syncretism has disappeared. A volatile mix prevails, which Pakistan takes advantage of. Increasing Salafi violence could drag India and Pakistan into a war. The Pakistani army is deployed mainly in its Western border, which increases the chances of a nuclear clash.
Ajit Kumar Doval, former director of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and current National Security Advisor to Modi, lacks diplomatic experience and the quality of his advice is harming Modi’s reputation.
P. Chidambaram, former Home Minister of India wrote in Indian Express that Modi’s use of belligerent language against Pakistan during his 2014 election campaign shaped public emotions to the extent of demanding military retribution against Pakistan after the Uri terrorist attack. Perhaps this was implied in the advice given to Modi by Doval.
Chidambaram listed some points for an optimal Pakistan foreign policy for India which should recognize that:
- Pakistan is a state which has not one government but many. It has structures within the state such as the Army and the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI). Some non-state actors exercise quasi-state powers with or without the blessings of the government
- Internal security in Pakistan is brittle with unrest in many provinces
- The economy is fragile with poor support from the state, which seeks diversionary options
- The country’s ruling elite has a narrow social base at the political, bureaucratic and defense services level. The ruling political elite work together with the bureaucracy and the defense forces.
- Islamist forces are growing in strength.
Chidambaram noted that the rule by the previous Congress government was relatively successful in Jammu and Kashmir in that there had been no war with Pakistan since 1999, no freeze in relations, no terrorist attacks between 2009 and 2014 and a dramatic improvement in tourism between 2010 and 2014.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi must note these points and revise his Pakistan policy linked to Kashmir. Together with his advisors, he needs to restore optimal relations with Pakistan besides reviving the peace process in the Kashmir Valley.
The writer is former policy advisor in the Union Home Ministry in India. He is the author of ‘Political Violence and the Police in India’, Sage 2007 and ‘State, Policy and Conflicts in Northeast India’, Routledge, 2016 among others)