Posted on 1-August-2009
In around mid-2000, when Government of India was in one of its periodic we-shall-not-talk-to Pakistan-until-they-stop-acts-of-terrorism-against-India-originating-on-their-soil sulks, I asked a government minister visiting the place I was located in how long such a posture could be sustained. He agreed with me and said not very long. Quite soon afterwards, a resumption of dialogue with Pakistan was announced. Neither I nor the minister could have influenced that decision. The reason lay elsewhere. Following the terrorist attack on the Indian parliament building, this cycle was repeated in 2001-2002. Once again, after the multi-point terrorist attacks in Mumbai in November 2008, the Indian government said it would not talk to Pakistan until those in Pakistan who had planned and organised the attacks in Mumbai had been tried and punished. Once again, long before Pakistan has taken any concrete action against those India accuses, India and Pakistan have started talking: the President of Pakistan and the Indian Prime Minister met at Yekaterinburg on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit and the Prime Ministers of Pakistan and India met again--this time more formally in the sense that the meeting ended with the issuance of a formal document, a joint statement--at Sharm-es-Sheikh on the sidelines of the summit of non-aligned nations. The two prime ministers, it was said in the joint statement issued after their meeting, agreed that the foreign secretaries of the two countries--the bureaucratic heads of their ministries of foreign affairs-- would meet soon. But, the Indian prime minister said in a separate meeting with the press later that India stuck to its stand that there would be no talks with Pakistan until those there who had been responsible for the terror strikes in Mumbai had, as the cliché beloved of English-knowing Indians goes, been brought to book. The Sharm-es-Sheikh meeting and the joint statement have provoked noisy protests in India.
Crises between India and Pakistan including verbal threats of war, mobilisation of troops, crude swashbuckling to impress people at home and abroad and campaigns in the chancelleries of the world have been frequent. Yet it should be clear to a moderately informed newspaper reader, let alone diplomats and other foreign and strategic affairs "experts" in India, that at least since 1990, the USA has striven hard to stop any possibility of armed conflict between India and Pakistan. The US interest in forestalling armed conflict between the two countries became sharper after they became declared nuclear-weapons powers in 1998. When a brief war did break out in 1999, the USA intervened energetically to bring that conflict to a rapid end. Ever since the USA sent its troops into Afghanistan and re-recruited Pakistan as an ally in its "war on terror", its interest in ensuring that there is no distraction by way of an Indo-Pak conflict has redoubled. In pursuit of that policy, the USA has advised "moderation" on the two countries almost from the morrow of the terrorist strikes on Mumbai in November last year. That a time would come sooner or later when the Prime Minister of India would choose to listen to the US advice--call it pressure if you will-- and start talking to Pakistan should have been plain to anyone with a modicum of common sense and minimal knowledge of these matters.
But there are other more important reasons than listening to Americans why refusing to talk to Pakistan does not make sense. Aside from some irrational soldiers and irresponsible jingoes, no one in India--or anywhere else--should lightly talk about or threaten war, even with Pakistan. In most of the last sixty years Pakistan's attitude and behaviour towards India has been hostile at its worst or exasperating at its best. This is unlikely to change as long as Pakistan Army keeps running that country, as it has done since its creation, except for the first few years of its existence and for the brief interregnum when Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was in power. Yet the most sensible long term Indian policy objective on Pakistan should be detente and rapprochement with it, for without such a rapprochement there can be no stable and settled South Asia which has the world's largest numbers of indigent, illiterate, malnourished, blind, leprosy-malaria-polio-TB-and-other-disease ridden population. And if detente and rapprochement were the goals, there would be advantage in keeping on talking. The mere act of talking to another country does not mean giving up one's positions or surrendering one's interests. In talks between two countries, nothing stops the parties from reiterating their positions, nor from insisting on reciprocity nor from withholding advantages. Nor is it necessary that all international discussions should end with the issuance of a statement or with the signature of an agreement. And when two sides are bargaining--anyone in India where haggling in the smallest of commercial transactions is such an ingrained habit, should understand this--willingness to break off discussions can be a potent weapon. It is necessary that proponents of no talks with Pakistan line should understand that refusal to talk to Pakistan until Pakistan did this or that has, barring a few exceptional moments, not acted as a major pressure point on that country directly or indirectly. On the contrary, beside creating public relations disadvantages, such refusals almost invariably invite interventions from third parties usually advising India to relent.
The decision to start talking to Pakistan at whatever level, in whichever format and on whatever subjects can thus be justified on its own merits. The Prime Minister of India in his intervention in the Indian parliament a few days ago offered such a justification. Yet for about eleven intervening days between the joint statement at Sharm-es-Sheikh and his statement in parliament, the Prime Minister talked as if he himself was not convinced of the correctness of his decision. Or, if he was terrified of political opposition in India, someone should remind him that leadership requires courage. He almost said that India was at the same time going to talk to Pakistan but that there was no question of India talking to Pakistan--even friends would find it difficult to resolve this contradiction. When the political opposition attacked the joint statement of Sharm-es-Sheikh, both because of the decision to have some talks with Pakistan and because of the inclusion in it of one sentence about Baluchistan, some of his aides talked as if their purpose was to make themselves appear foolish. One of them suggested that the most that could be said about the joint statement was that there were some mistakes of drafting and that even if a drafting error were admitted, the meaning was clear. Another, a brand new minister, went into really asinine blather saying that a joint statement is not a formal document but merely a diplomatic paper meant for the press. Perhaps the minister and the other aide need reminding that precisely because documents such as joint statements issued after diplomatic parleys commit the parties to those talks to positions stated in them, they are negotiated carefully, at times negotiated hard, and for that reason every word becomes important, admitting of no drafting error.
While the decision to resume talks can easily be defended, each time a spokesman of the government has opened his mouth in defence against criticism of the Sharm-es-Sheikh joint statement for the inclusion of a reference to the troubles in Baluchistan for which Pakistan has for some time blamed Indian interference, he has put his foot in it. The statement says that Pakistan expressed some concerns about the situation in Baluchistan. The least the Indian negotiators could have done was to insist that if Pakistan must include a reference to Baluchistan it would have to be something like the following:"Pakistan expressed concerns about the interference of some Indian elements being responsible for the troubles in Baluchistan. India denied the involvement of any Indian agency in Baluchistan or in any internal matter of Pakistan". If Pakistan did not agree to such a formula or alternatively to the dropping of all references to Baluchistan, India should have expressed its readiness to do without a joint statement. In the absence of any official account of the negotiations of the joint statement, it is permissible to speculate. It is possible that, in the sycophantic, durbar atmosphere of Government of India, the negotiators, rather than tell the Prime Minister of the difficulties because of Pakistan's wish to include a reference to Baluchistan, decided to paper things over and have a joint statement at any cost. It is equally possible that the Prime Minister and his immediate advisers anxious for another "diplomatic achievement" of his that an agreed joint statement would have represented, steamrollered the negotiators and told them to stop nitpicking when they pointed at problems caused by the inclusion of a reference to Baluchistan. It is more than likely that the Indian government was strongly advised by the USA to start talking to Pakistan. It is extremely unlikely that the Americans would have interfered in matters such as whether there should be a joint statement and the way it should be worded. But if the Americans interfered at that level of detail and if Indian officials could not tell them where they got off, that is something to worry about. There is of course a simpler explanation for the way the joint statement came out: plain old incompetence. But the Indian prime minister should take heart. All is not lost yet. Governments everywhere tear up the most formal international treaties when they start hurting national interests. What was negotiated at Sharm-es-Sheikh was merely a "diplomatic paper" which can be dumped at will.
The situation in Afghanistan is grave. It may spin out of control in spite of Barack Obama's surge. US forces may be drawn into increasing intrusion inside Pakistan with untold and unforeseeable consequences for the Pakistani army and for Pakistani polity. If people in India who are seriously interested in foreign affairs must discuss Pakistan, they should be discussing such matters. Instead, in this silly season the Indian political class and Indian media have been busy talking about a non-issue,--talking to Pakistan--and a case of an incompetently drafted joint statement. The dog star has not risen yet this year. I wonder what idiocies it will bring when it does rise.