It's Time We Had a Policy Framework to Deal with the India-Pakistan Roller Coaster

Stopping engagement and resorting to Jingoistic rhetoric do not guarantee an end to Pakistani provocations; instead they give a veto on bilateral relations to terrorists and weaken the opponents of the security state paradigm in Pakistan.


Prime Minister Narendra Modi is greeted at the residence of his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz at Raiwind in Lahore on December 25, 2015. Credit: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is greeted at the residence of his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif at Raiwind in Lahore on December 25, 2015. Credit: PTI

The announcement of India and Pakistan having agreed to a comprehensive bilateral dialogue was followed close on its heels by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprise stopover in Lahore. Notwithstanding the Pathankot terrorist strike, these were, and remain, bold steps in the right direction. Of course, the Jaish-e-Mohammed’s attack on an Indian air force base is a reminder that the factors underlying the rollercoaster nature of our relationship with Pakistan will not disappear overnight. There will be pitfalls as the process moves forward. What is needed, therefore, is a policy framework that weathers the periodic storms of the relationship, enables us to sustain the peace process and obviates the extreme swings of the past in our responses.

Earlier breakthroughs in our relationship with Pakistan have run aground sooner or later, largely because of (1) the inability of the dysfunctional Pakistani state to deliver on its promises, especially putting an end to terrorism against India, (2) the dominance of the army in the Pakistani polity, and (3) the resulting stranglehold of the security state paradigm – that regards India as an enemy – over policymaking in Pakistan. The complexity of the relationship is accentuated by the understandable anger in India against Pakistan’s misdemeanors over the years, the resulting strong public reaction to Pakistani provocations, even inconsequential ones, our tendency to see Pakistan as a monolith in the image of its army, the impulse not to engage with Pakistan till it behaves like a responsible state and the competitive nationalism in terms of a hard-line approach towards Pakistan that characterises sections of our media and political discourse.

The Hurriyat and Kashmir cards

Let’s look first at the annoying Pakistani actions that invite the ire of our public without, however, advancing Pakistan’s Kashmir agenda by a millimetre. The interaction of the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi and visiting Pakistani functionaries with the Hurriyat leaders and Pakistan’s periodic rants on Kashmir fall in this category. It would be naive to assume that such highly visible meetings are the only way Pakistan keeps in touch with the Hurriyat. So what are these all about? These and periodic tirades on Kashmir are essentially misplaced attempts by Pakistan to infuse some content into its hollow Kashmir agenda. You ignore them, they die a natural death. You take note of them, you will see more of them.

The dialogue format instituted in June 1997 (known as the ‘composite dialogue’ and used, for want of a better alternative, for each subsequent resumption of structured dialogue) comprised bilateral meetings at secretary level on eight outstanding issues, examined below. All these subjects remain part of the comprehensive bilateral dialogue, with the welcome addition of humanitarian Issues as a separate subject and religious tourism mentioned specifically alongside people to people exchanges. ‘Terrorism’ has been renamed as ‘counter terrorism’, and ‘drug trafficking’ takes the name ‘narcotics control’.

Pakistan’s description of Jammu and Kashmir as the core issue is not justified by the priorities of its people. The core issues for them, as evidenced by the election campaigns in 2008 and 2013, are good governance, better economic opportunities and security against terrorism and lawlessness. Kashmir and India-baiting are no longer big vote getters in Pakistan. Jammu and Kashmir is the core issue for proponents of the security state paradigm, who have no hope of changing the territorial status quo, but exploit it to sustain the India bogey.

The Pakistani policy of keeping the pot boiling in J&K through terror and violence – albeit in a controlled manner so as not to provoke a major crisis – has managed to tie down a large number of Indian troops in the state. By clinging to outdated UN resolutions, Pakistan betrays the desire of the security state proponents to sustain and exploit this issue rather than looking for a pragmatic and forward looking solution. With both sides holding diametrically opposed positions, finding such a solution is an uphill task. However, dialogue during the period 2004-08 resulted in the adoption of cross-LoC confidence building measures in the form of trade and travel across two routes: Srinagar-Muzaffarabad and Poonch-Rawalakot. These are among the few positives in the otherwise sombre situation along the line dividing Kashmir. Improving and expanding the existing facilities could contribute to lessening tensions in the area.

Problems to tackle

Cross border terrorism has been on top of our agenda. In marked contrast to the seriousness shown by the Pakistanis of late to tackle anti-Pakistan terror groups, anti-India groups have continued their activities from Pakistani soil; worse still, they enjoy the patronage of the security establishment. This situation has resulted in failure of discussions on the issue in various formats over the years. Nonetheless, dialogue is not futile; at the very least, it gives us an opportunity to put across our concerns in stark terms.

Army personnel during their operation against the militants near the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot. Credit: PTI

Army personnel during their operation against the militants near the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot. Credit: PTI

A related problem is tension along the Line of Control and the International Boundary in the J&K sector. The 2003 ceasefire has increasingly come under strain since the beginning of 2013, though relative calm has prevailed over the last few months.

Discussions on conventional and nuclear CBMs under the rubric ‘peace and security including CBMs’ have remained sterile in recent years because of Pakistan’s insistence on proposals that seek to tie us down to bilateral arrangements, while ignoring our larger security environment. Dangerous concepts such as lowering the nuclear threshold and the introduction of tactical nuclear weapons have figured increasingly in Pakistan’s strategic vocabulary in an attempt to retain the option of waging sub-conventional warfare against India under a nuclear umbrella. In the past, Pakistan has resisted proposals to introduce even simple linkages – such as interaction between the respective National Defence institutions and bilateral sports events – between the armed forces of the two countries. However, there is scope to develop at the very least a better understanding of each other’s thinking in these areas.

Finding a solution to Siachen has become increasingly complex because of Pakistan’s perfidy in Kargil, the vast trust deficit and the increasing involvement of China in ‘Gilgit-Baltistan’. Solution of this issue, which remains high on the agenda of the Pakistani army, is often described by the Pakistani politicians, erroneously though, as a way of enlisting the support of their army for rapprochement with India.

Sir Creek could be resolved with some compromise from both sides.

While discussions by the two water secretaries on the Tulbul Navigation Project or the Wullar Barrage, as the Pakistanis call it, have remained stalemated, the so called water issue has increasingly figured in the public discourse in Pakistan. Pakistani propaganda falsely accuses India of depriving Pakistan of its share of water under the Indus Waters Treaty, ignoring the gross mismanagement of water resources within Pakistan. Discerning Pakistanis are conscious of the value of the treaty for their country as the lower riparian and do not wish to see it unravel. However, those playing up the ‘water issue’ appear to seek ‘Indus Waters Treaty plus’. The ‘plus’ ­– discernable from a confused and propagandistic debate – includes provision of additional water by India for the eastern rivers (Ravi, Sutlej and Beas), which were allotted exclusively to us under the treaty, and joint management of the watershed of the western rivers (Indus, Jhelum and Chenab), lying in Jammu and Kashmir. The emotive water issue has become another weapon in the armoury of the security state proponents to attack India. There is no scope for discussion on this issue outside the framework of the Indus Waters Treaty. Cooperation by way of joint hydroelectric projects etc. can be considered, but only after much greater trust is built between the two countries.

The promise of trade

There is scope for significant progress in developing mutually advantageous linkages in the remaining two areas: trade and economic relations, and people to people exchanges. Pakistan has been following a discriminatory trade regime vis-à-vis India, in spite of India granting most favoured nation (MFN) status to it in 1996. However, progress was registered in the years 2011-12 as a result of the policy of the then PPP government to liberalise trade, which had the support of Nawaz Sharif, who was in the opposition at the time. The policy was underpinned by many studies conducted in Pakistan, including one by its Planning Commission, that recognized the advantages that would accrue to the Pakistani economy as a result of open trade with India. The nod given by the Pakistani army leadership under advice from top businessmen also helped. In February 2012, Pakistan moved from the positive list of imports from India – which covered around 2,000 items (import of the remaining items was banned) – to an India specific negative list of around 1200 items, which would remain banned for import. The situation, however, remained unsatisfactory because many items of export interest to India were kept in the negative list.

In a meeting in September 2012, the two commerce secretaries drew up a roadmap for trade normalisation, which required Pakistan to grant MFN status (described as nondiscriminatory market access) to India by the end of the year, in return for significant trade concessions by India under the South Asian Free Trade Area agreement (SAFTA). Pakistan failed to meet the deadline because of opposition from three sectors: pharmaceuticals, automobiles and the farm sector. The opposition of the first two stemmed from their desire to retain the fat profit margins they enjoy in the absence of imports from India. India has been exporting only the agricultural commodities needed by Pakistan, such as vegetables in periods of shortages, cotton and soya meal for Pakistan’s textile and poultry industries respectively. Therefore, the opposition of the farm sector was inexplicable and possibly inspired by the shadow of political issues.

Having given its nod initially, the security establishment was by this time linking further progress on trade to concessions by India in other areas. There were murmurs calling for a flexible attitude by India on Siachen in return for trade concessions by Pakistan! The efforts of the Zardari government to put through the trade agenda came to a halt when the brutal beheading of an Indian soldier on the LoC in early January 2013 derailed bilateral engagement.

The promise of trade normalisation following Nawaz Sharif’s election as prime minister has remained unfulfilled. Nevertheless, the 2011-12 phase was witness to the widespread interest in the Pakistani business community, including the all-powerful textile sector, in normalising trade with India. The prime instrument in our hand to build a more cohesive and integrated South Asia is the allurement of profitable linkages with the much larger Indian economy for our smaller neighbours. Therefore, we should keep open the offer of significant trade concessions to Pakistan in return for its moving away from a discriminatory trade regime.

As for people to people exchanges, the revised visa agreement, signed in September 2012, significantly liberalised the visa regime for the business community, senior citizens and some other categories. The agreement is yet to be implemented fully. It has a provision for group tourism that can cover religious tourism. Each co-operative strand added to the relationship, including by way of enhanced trade and people to people exchanges, is a step by Pakistan away from the security state paradigm. Therefore, even incremental gains in such areas are in the interest of both the countries and worth pursuing.

Evolving a policy framework

Taking into account the above ground realities, our policy should aim firstly at making Pakistan put a stop to acts of terror and violence from its territory against India and the linkages of its state structures with anti-India terror groups. To the extent that this cannot be achieved through dialogue and international pressure, counter-terrorism and deterrence would remain important policy tools. Instant visible response to Pakistani provocations, though popular and necessary at times, carries the risk of escalation by bringing public pressure on the other side to retaliate. In general, it is desirable to respond to such provocations in a discreet manner at a time a place of our choosing to send a message to the offending state structures and groups in Pakistan, without needlessly raising the temperature of the bilateral relationship.

Secondly, we have not and should not shy away from discussing all the outstanding issues that have been part of the structured dialogue so far. Therefore, inclusion of these issues in the comprehensive bilateral dialogue is a positive step. The aim of the dialogue over the medium- to long-term should be to look for pragmatic and forward looking solutions to the more intractable issues, if necessary through back-channel discussions supplementing visible dialogue, as in the past. The aim in the short-run should be, first and foremost, to manage the relationship so as to prevent the fault lines between the two countries from causing any major tremors, to improve and expand trade and travel facilities in the J&K sector, to put in place better bilateral arrangements to deal with tensions on the LoC and international boundary, to dissuade Pakistan from adopting adventurous doctrines, such as the use of tactical nuclear weapons, by making them aware of the grave consequences, to shift Pakistan to a nondiscriminatory trade regime vis a vis India, to enhance people to people exchanges and put in place transit arrangements, if not bilaterally, then through the SAARC framework. The period between now and the SAARC summit in Pakistan offers a good opportunity to register progress in at least some of these areas.

The security state paradigm has been injurious to the Pakistani state in more ways than one. The state has remained focused on military buildup at the cost of development. The Pakistani army has continued to enjoy a prime place in the polity, resulting in the perennial civil-military imbalance and long spells of military rule. Sustenance of an adversarial relationship with a much larger neighbour has required Pakistan to enlist the support of external benefactors and play to their tune, often at the cost of its long term interests. Its role as a frontline state during the ‘Afghan jihad’ against the former Soviet Union is an example. The nurturing of India-centric terror groups has contributed in no small measure to the radicalization of the Pakistani society. This paradigm has also prevented Pakistan from developing fruitful trade and economic linkages with India.

Why engagement matters

Pakistan has all along had voices opposing the security state paradigm. Because of freer flow of information and the terrible blowback of terrorism suffered by the Pakistani people, the number of such voices has grown significantly and is much larger today than we tend to believe. The stranglehold of the security state paradigm on Pakistan’s policies must end if Pakistan is to become a normal state for its own good, and the good of the region. External factors can play only a limited role in promoting this end. In the foreseeable future, Pakistan is unlikely to be devoid of external patrons, keen to exploit its strategic location and/or use its India obsession to contain India. Therefore, the impulse for change must come from within Pakistan. Those opposing the security state paradigm are not ‘Indian agents’ that they are made out to be by its supporters. They are patriotic Pakistanis with a strong sense of their Pakistani identity. They may not agree with us on everything, but realize the need to build a stable relationship between their country and India in their own interest. Our policy must be cognizant of their existence and aspirations. The Prime Minister’s stopover in Lahore sent a very positive message to this constituency.

The dilemma faced by every Indian government of whether engagement with Pakistan should continue in the face of Pakistani provocations is once again playing out in the aftermath of the recent terrorist strike on the Pathankot air force base (and the attack on the Indian consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan). A horrendous event like the 26/11 terror attack cannot but cause a serious setback to dialogue. But should every provocation lead to suspension of engagement? Should engagement with Pakistan remain suspended till all such provocations end? The absence of engagement does not guarantee an end to Pakistani provocations. It gives a virtual veto on bilateral relations to Pak-based terror groups and their mentors in the state structures. Jingoistic rhetoric and threatening language in India pushes the opponents of the security state paradigm into the arms of its proponents. A posture of sulk ill behooves us as the stronger country.

In the light of the foregoing, the policy framework that commends itself comprises the simultaneous pursuit of two tracks: “Counter and contain those threatening us; and engage the constructive.” Dialogue does not rule out the first track. Its absence makes it difficult to pursue the second. Granted that things can get messy in periods of increased provocations from Pakistan. But then such difficult relationships do not lend themselves to neat arrangements.

Finally, let’s be clear that neither a starry eyed emphasis on our shared past nor anger and competitive nationalism can underpin a rational policy for a relationship as complex as ours with Pakistan.

Sharat Sabharwal was India’s high commissioner to Pakistan, April 2009 to June 2013. The views expressed are personal.