An Indian border guard stands near Indian and Pakistani flags during a fair at Chamliyal in Jammu and Kashmir. Photo: Reuters
An Indian border guard stands near Indian and Pakistani flags during a fair at Chamliyal in Jammu and Kashmir. Photo: Reuters

India and Pakistan, amazingly, have nothing but the barest relationship at present. India is more concerned about China’s activities along its border and China’s plans for the Brahmaputra River, disregarding India’s rights as a lower riparian nation.

Meanwhile Pakistan is busy assuring US President Donald Trump that it is at the forefront of combating terrorism; it is also busy ensuring that any initiative in Afghanistan happens only with Rawalpindi’s (the Pakistan Army’s General Headquarters) consent or only with a role for Islamabad.

India and Pakistan are not doing business with each other; they are not talking to each other; they don’t even look at one another. Only each country’s media take note of the other nation: as a bogeyman.

Such distrust was manifest recently when this columnist was on the sidelines of a Track II meeting of retired officials from the two nations. Track II is a non-official talking-shop, held in a third country, where both parties open up without fear of prejudicing their nation’s official positions. Meetings are off the record and are not referred to publicly, except in this general manner. However, the atmosphere at this Track II meeting bears a mention as an indication of the nadir to which relations between the two nuclear-armed neighbors has fallen.

The most recent official interaction was last week’s reaction by the Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs to India’s appointment of former Intelligence Bureau head Dineshwar Sharma as New Delhi’s interlocutor to individuals and organizations in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), the Indian border state that Pakistan has claimed since 1947, and which has been conflict-torn since 1990. Pakistan dismissed the appointment as insincere and unrealistic.

“For any dialogue process to be meaningful and result-oriented, it has to include the three main parties: India, Pakistan, and the Kashmiris. In that context, without the participation of the Hurriyat leadership, no interaction or dialogue would carry any weight or meaning,” a spokesman for the Pakistani Foreign Office told reporters.

It was a bleak and negative reaction. Sharma is an old Kashmir hand whose appointment was welcomed by renowned experts on the region such as former Indian spy chief A S Dulat, who said he could not imagine Sharma not talking to the Hurriyat leadership.

The All Party Hurriyat Conference is a conglomerate of separatist Kashmiri organizations, and its moderate faction is headed by Srinagar’s chief priest, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq. Despite pinpricks by hardliners in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which runs the governments both in New Delhi and in J&K (albeit in a coalition), Sharma has de-emphasized the technical aspects of any political differences by highlighting his “emotional attachment” to Kashmir.

In any case, forward movement is not expected for another three to four months.

Discussions made it clear that the Pakistanis do not think much of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. They were dismissive of his diplomacy toward Pakistan

Immediately after the Pakistani Foreign Office statement, the Track II meeting (which had long ago been scheduled) happened. The atmosphere was frosty and filled with bitterness.

The Pakistanis lectured on the bilateral relationship and one retired official insisted on terming the Kashmir issue as a “dispute.” This is a meaningless term designed only to needle, much like the hoary old phrase that Indian officials needlessly resort to: “talking to Kashmiris within the constitution of India” (as if any Indian can talk “outside” the constitution).

The Pakistanis were skeptical that Sharma’s appointment would serve any purpose, and they were suspicious about India’s motives in appointing an interlocutor, insisting it was to appease US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who arrived in India a day after Sharma’s appointment.

Discussions made it clear that the Pakistanis do not think much of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. They were dismissive of his diplomacy toward Pakistan: like his high-currency demonetization a year back, Modi’s gestures toward Pakistan comprised spur-of-the-moment theatrics that ignored any hard preparation or calculation of consequences.

The Pakistanis are still skeptical about Modi’s order of so-called surgical strikes on terrorist camps on their side of the Line of Control in September 2016: They say Modi’s claims on its success are overblown.

No one smiled.

The irony is that the Pakistanis also believe that Modi is the only Indian leader they can do business with. For them, with Modi what you see is what you get – there is no pretense that other (read Congress) governments have shown while stubbornly resisting any substantial give-and-take in bilateral relations.

That is probably why Pakistani officials believe Modi will return to power in 2019, when India’s parliamentary polls are due. Any mention of a potential non-Modi prime minister in 2019 drew cries of “No, we don’t want that” from the Pakistani delegation.

Pakistan has possibly resigned itself to the very thing that hawks in India have argued for – putting bilateral relations in deep freeze. It is a shame considering that US-Canada or even US-Mexico relations are more mutually beneficial than those between North and South Korea, which is increasingly what India-Pakistan relations appear to mirror. That won’t help when a crisis hits.

Aditya Sinha

Aditya Sinha is a writer and journalist based on the outskirts of Delhi. He tweets at @autumnshade.

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