The past week witnessed intense and heated debates on Prime Minister Narendra Modi government's decision to call off foreign secretary talks with Pakistan. After weeks of Saree, shawl and letter diplomacy, India called off talks with Pakistan because Pakistan's high commissioner to India Abdul Basit went ahead with his talks with Hurriyat. This despite Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh calling up Basit and urging him to build on the positive environment created when the two prime ministers met in Delhi during PM Modi's swearing in, and not meet Hurriyat leaders.
PM Modi's step has been described as bold by some, fickle & politically confused by some others. Some say PM Modi has set the bar too high.
In my opinion PM Modi has not set the bar high by saying either talk to Govt of India or Hurriyat. This is the least India should expect of Pakistan. Setting the bar high would be seeking action against Pakistan army and ISI officers who were directly involved in 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks (named by Headley in the Chicago court) and closing down the ISI team that operates to inflict a thousand cuts on India before resumption of dialogue.
PM Modi took a step that several prime ministers and governments in the past debated, but none had the guts to take. It had been hurting India to see heads of state and government of Pakistan and officials come to India and remain closeted with the Hurriyat leaders at the Pakistan High Commission. India did fret and fume but was forced to look the other way.
India has made it very clear. If Pakistan is interested in dialogue then it has to be with the Government of India and the government alone. Hurriyat leaders are a bunch of sulking have beens and former terrorists, who many say are paid by both intelligence agencies of India and Pakistan. Nor are they elected representatives of the people of J&K. So why give them legitimacy by letting them talk to Pakistan and become a party to the process.
Lets discuss some of the issues/objections raised by Pakistan and some in India.
1. IT HAS BEEN HAPPENING FOR OVER TWO DECADES: So? just because a wrong has been happening for over two decades does not mean it has to continue happening. It is after all in over three decades that the nation has elected a government with a clear majority and that government and the emboldened diplomatic Corps are well within their rights to set right a wrong precedent.
2. VAJPAYEE AND MANMOHAN SINGH TOO PERMITTED IT: Again just because Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh permitted it does not mean Modi should permit it too. And then Modi is neither Vajpayee nor Manmohan Singh. A senior diplomat told me the era of weak kneed and meek diplomacy was over. There are new rules of the Game. It is not just India's responsibility to create the right environment for talks. Pakistan should be equally keen to talk and create the right environment. And talking to Hurriyat is doing just the opposite.
3. PAKISTAN IS COMMITTED TO KASHMIR CAUSE: The Simla Agreement clearly spoke of J&K being a bilateral issue. There is no question of Hurriyat becoming the third party. India will independently talk to its citizens. Pakistan will restrict itself to talking to government of India for forward movement. Should Pakistan have issues with this, the J&K issue can and should be put in deep freeze.
4. INDIA WILL BE FORCED TO CLIMB DOWN AFTER NEXT TERROR ATTACK: So India must continue to talk to Pakistan because of the terror threat? Does that mean Pakistan holds a gun to India's head? Lets get a couple of things clear here. Pakistan is a state sponsor of terror. Six decades of talking to Pakistan and three and half wars have not stopped terror. There is no guarantee or evidence that talks have prevented terror attacks, including 26/11 Mumbai terror attack. India has to strengthen its internal security apparatus and create/strengthen the capacity to inflict costs on perpetrators of terror. Inflicting costs on perpetrators of terror is an effective counter measure.
5. REGION IS A NUCLEAR FLASH POINT: This is interesting conversation over Red Wine and Kebabs in the track II circuit but there are ample checks and balances and measures of deescalation in place. Look at evidence on ground. Kargil, Parliament attack, Akshardham temple attack, 26/11 Mumbai terror attack, LoC firing and shelling...none of this led to escalation. There are Red Lines. the armies and governments have war gamed it. So not talking to Pakistan at foreign secretary level will not lead to a nuclear flash point and neither will the next terror attack and inflicting cost on perpetrators.
6. INDIA NEEDS PAKISTAN IN AFGHANISTAN: With or without friendly ties with Islamabad, Pakistan has in the past and will continue to target Indian interests in Afghanistan. All the attacks on the Indian embassy in Kabul, Indian medical team and the Indian mission in Herat were directly traced back to Pakistan. Government sources even have names and ranks of ISI officers who master minded the attack. The information has been corroborated both by Afghan and Western intelligence agencies. So all India needs to do is strengthen its defences in Afghanistan and create capacity to inflict cost on Pakistan. When Pakistan realises it is not cost effective to spread terror and that Pakistan will bleed too, it will be compelled to mend its ways.
7. TALKS TO ENCOURAGE TRADE AND PEOPLE TO PEOPLE CONTACT: The responsibility of creating the right environment for talks is not India's alone. Pakistan government should be as keen for peace with India and it is high time that government of Pakistan realises, not talking to Hurriyat is the least Pakistan can do to create the right environment.
8. LoC WILL HOT UP AGAIN: The 10 years of Ramzan ceasefire since 2003 (sought by Pakistan and accepted by India) has been good both for India and Pakistan. All along the 200 kms of international border, 770 kilometres of line of control and 110 kilometres of actual ground position line (AGPL) at Siachen glacier, the Indian army is both numerically and equipment wise superior to Pakistan. While Pakistan has the capacity to inflict some damage on India, if the commanders on ground are given a free hand, India can and has in the past forced Pakistan to sue for peace and seek a ceasefire. So it is in Pakistan's national interest to ensure LoC does not hot up beyond a point.
9. FREEZE ON DIALOGUE WILL HURT: There is no freeze on dialogue. India and Pakistan continue to have High Commissioners in each other's countries. They are regularly in touch with the ministries of external affairs of both countries. The hotline between the director generals of military operations (DGMO) is operational. All channels of communication are open. Only dialogue is not being escalated to the level of the foreign secretaries, then foreign ministers and then the heads of government.
10. INDIA SHOULD STRENGTHEN DEMOCRACY IN PAKISTAN: India should only look after its national interest. Let Pakistan strengthen its democracy. It is neither India's responsibility nor duty to strengthen either Nawaz or Zardari. India will talk to who so ever is in power in Pakistan. And there is no evidence on ground to suggest there was a check in terror or anti India activity in Pakistan with a civilian leadership at the helm of affairs. Kargil and a series of terror attacks with civilians heading government in Pakistan are cases in point.
The way I look at it, its advantage India. New Delhi needs to build on it.