Shehbaz Sharif, Prime Minister of Pakistan. (AFP)
Recently, the strong suggestion for "sincere and serious" talks by Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif -- although accompanied by the typical Kashmir caveat, possibly for fear of a negative domestic reaction in an election year -- received in India a deprecatory, dismissive, and in some media sections an even supercilious response.
Since a national election is expected in Pakistan this year and our own Lok Sabha poll is due in 2024, talks did not in fact seem practical. An even-tenor reaction by specialists writing in the media might have been appropriate. This alas was not the case. Evidently, the changed circumstances in Pakistan and in our own Union territory of Jammu and Kashmir were not taken into account. Probably this is because these have not been reflected upon adequately.
In the melee of television and newspaper comments, a former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan, T.C.A. Raghavan, stands out for his clear-headed outlook. After taking the complexities of the relationship with Islamabad into consideration, and not minimising Islamabad’s past chicanery, Mr Raghavan notes in an article: "It is possible [then] to take the statement [Mr Sharif’s] for what it perhaps simply is: as an aspiration. Its conditionalities and provisos notwithstanding… it does flag the point that we cannot simply graduate out of the difficulties of our neighbourhood, so hopefully sooner, rather than later we will have to attend to them."
Another former high commissioner of India to Pakistan, Ajay Bisaria, in an opinion piece, commends the fact that the (year-long) ceasefire on the Line of Control has held and recommends the continuing of "quiet, creative diplomacy, with managed expectations, to create conditions for peace breakthroughs in 2024".
Neighbourhood difficulties are a constraining factor and an impediment to India realising its true potential as an economic entity. These retired diplomats can see that India needs to finesse neighbourhood difficulties involving Pakistan in order to pull ahead in the world. Besides, there is also conceivably a chance that China’s leverage vis-à-vis India on account of its strong Pakistan connection may be loosened if Pakistan’s ties with India take on a somewhat different hue, although this process could go through ups and downs, given the history.
Since Pulwama and Balakot in 2019, the Narendra Modi government’s stand as regards Pakistan has been that "terror and talks cannot go together". There is nothing original about this. India has struck this stance before. However -- for instance -- after the attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001, and earlier, after Kargil in summer 1999, then PM Atal Behari Vajpayee had not hesitated to engage Pakistan. Leave alone separatist politicians in the Valley, talks were also held with the most influential Pakistan-created militant group. This had flummoxed Pakistan and it had the key militant interlocutor killed.
It may be useful to consider that talks cannot be a step backward even if they don’t yield results. And, in the last analysis, the appropriate method to engage can be found if there is a sophisticated understanding of our own long-term interests and goals. Overcoming the urge to appear unyielding against Pakistan is best eschewed.
As chair of the organsiation by rotation, India has done well to invite Pakistan PM Shehbaz Sharif and foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) conference to be held in India this year. Even if they are shortsighted and decline the invitation for reasons of domestic politics, and no talks are held in the foreseeable future, India should not hesitate to offer Islamabad aid to get over its current economic strangulation.
Pakistan is in dire straits. To prevent the prospect of starvation, an Indian gesture to deliver foodgrains on an urgent basis can go a long way, just as it did in Afghanistan. This can be done through the World Food Programme, should the Pakistan government be uncomfortable about accepting emergency assistance from India. Timely aid is an instrument of diplomacy. A collapsed state on our doorstep can cause serious difficulties for us.
In the Pakistan context, if our government finds it hard to resile from the position of no talks until terrorism ends, we should remember that Pakistan honouring the ceasefire agreement has helped terror activity ebb in the Valley. Infiltration has all but ceased, creating the space for across-the-board action against the separatists.
The Jamat-e-Islami, whose credo is that Kashmir should be a part of Pakistan, has been muted, its properties have been attached, and its leaders are facing criminal cases. This seems to have brought relief to the people in their everyday lives. Sustained political actions of the Jamaat cadre had brought about disorder and chaos through high-voltage protest actions that were often not warranted. The Jamaat is the only pro-Pakistan element in Kashmir. It is important to understand this in order to avoid serious policy errors.
In the wake of ending J&K’s autonomy in August 2019, the Narendra Modi government had arrested the top leaders of mainstream parties, such as the Abdullahs, Mehbooba Mufti and hundreds of others, not just the separatists. The degrading of senior political leaders, India’s flag-bearers in Kashmir, had left the Kashmiris bewildered, and doubly alienated. It is time this mistake was corrected. This can only be done by the government engaging with mainstream politicians as partners in the peace process and return J&K its statehood. If in Kashmir, the government is seen to be aligned with public perceptions, it will be hard for Pakistan to make trouble. In that sense, policy on Kashmir and Pakistan have a close relationship.
In his recently-published memoir A Life in the Shadows, former RAW chief Amarjit Singh Dulat, a much-lauded Kashmir operations specialist who, upon retirement, was an adviser in the Vajpayee PMO when talks with separatists and militants were held, cites a revealing exchange with the current national security adviser, Ajit Doval, who had been his colleague in the Intelligence Bureau.
"He asked me one day: ‘What is your advice on Kashmir?’
‘You know my advice,’ I replied. ‘It has always been to talk.’
‘No,’ Doval said, "There’s been enough talking. Now, we are no longer going to talk.’"
In contrast with the Kashmir policy under Vajpayee and his successor Manmohan Singh, leaders who saw virtue in engagement and talks, the "Doval Doctrine", by which rubric the Narendra Modi government’s Kashmir policy is known, prioritises "muscularity" and underscores non-accommodation. For how long can people be held down with repressive measures? A wholly new situation has arisen in the Valley with the emasculation of Jamaat-e-Islami. New vistas can be opened if we do not remain ostrich-like.