The Pathankot Attack Must Not Be Allowed to Derail the India-Pakistan Dialogue

When India engages with the whole range of bilateral issues, including those dear to Pakistan’s heart, the government in Islamabad can take steps and make gestures that it cannot if these appear to be capitulation to Indian ultimatums.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is greeted by his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif on his arrival in Lahore last month. Credit: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is greeted by his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif on his arrival in Lahore last month. Credit: PTI

After putting relations with Pakistan in a deep freeze, our prime minister has been figure skating on its surface, leaving his countrymen dizzy trying to follow him as he spins frantically round and round. His bhakts are cross-eyed and dumbstruck, the knickerwallahs have their eponyms in a twist. These are consummations devoutly to be wished for, so this manic pirouetting is not without value. But when he has done his last twirl, which way will he head? Towards Pakistan, or away from it? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Like a skater, an Indian prime minister dealing with Pakistan sweeps into a larger circle, apparently moving forward but returning to where he started. A skater on thin ice, like Narendra Modi, could get a cold shock.

The latest spin is the announcement on January 7 that India will wait for Pakistan to take prompt action on the “actionable leads” it has been given on Pathankot before deciding whether the Foreign Secretary will make another yatra to Islamabad. The rengagement our Prime Minister started is now like Schrödinger’s cat, both dead and alive.

The prime minister was absolutely justified in asking his counterpart to walk the talk after Pathankot, and has been promised prompt and decisive action. This is where he must be realistic in his immediate expectations, reining in hotheads who make demands that the Pakistan government cannot meet. It would be self-defeating for the talks between the foreigns secretaries to be put on hold, deferred or scratched if what Pakistan does over the next few days seems token or meagre. Since those who sent the terrorists wanted the re-engagement to be aborted, they would be given exactly what they wanted. (It misses the point entirely to argue that since an operation like Pathankot would have taken months of training and planning, it could not be a riposte to Lahore, or have been meant to derail the talks in Islamabad. Powder is kept dry, to be used when needed.)

Why talks matter

The prime minister’s advisers must have told him that from past experience, any attempt at a rapprochement would run the risk of inviting a terrorist strike; the more serious the attempt the graver the provocation would be. It would be reasonable to expect that he spoke to Nawaz Sharif in Paris, and did his effortless glissando from Kabul into Lahore, with his eyes open, determined to press ahead despite the violent opposition that would inevitably ensue. If he backs off at the first hurdle, however, it would be equally reasonable to believe that his trip to Lahore and the commitment he made there were impulsive, to promote himself rather than any national interest. He would come across as a vain, irresponsible man, without the gravitas or intellectual grip to lead a country like India.

The fact that those who sent their protégés into Pathankot followed up with attacks on our consulates in Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat shows, of course, that these have a strategic purpose, which benefits those in the Pakistan army who fear any developments that might lead to peace. Why then, critics ask, try to talk to those who do not matter?

There are several answers to this. Firstly, our calling off talks after provocations has become a conditioned reflex, which hardliners in the Pakistan army exploit; there is no need to continue to give them these walkovers. Secondly, a sustained engagement, which they will of course try to disrupt, strengthens the political establishment there. The more relations between Pakistan and India move towards the normal, the harder it is for the Pakistan army to justify the special position it claims for itself on the grounds that it is the country’s bulwark against a hostile India. This is a slow process, but the signs were visible in the first half of the last decade.

Though the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Jaish-e-Mohammed were created by the ISI, and are still nurtured by them, they now have an independent standing in the Punjab which frightens the civilian government and constrains the ability of the army to act against them. Jaish, we must remember, tried to assassinate General Musharraf in 2003. Masood Azhar went on the run, but the police and Army could not track him down, even with Musharraf breathing down their necks. In 2007, one of the general’s closest advisers told me that they would get intelligence on his whereabouts, carry out raids and find that the birds had flown: Azhar and his cohorts were being tipped off. And this while he was being hunted, not for any operation against India, but for trying to kill a president of Pakistan who was still Chief of Army Staff. Once Musharraf fell from grace, Azhar was quietly rehabilitated.

After Mumbai, under international pressure to act against Hafeez Saeed and the Lashkar, the Pakistani prime minister told EU ambassadors that in the Punjab, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa – as the LeT had rebranded itself – was seen as a charitable organisation, to which the poor, both urban and rural, were indebted. Acting against its founder and against the institution would send the Punjab up in flames, a risk the PPP government could not take, particularly when FATA was restive under the army assault that had begun under US pressure in mid-2008.   This was self-serving, of course, but carried a grain of truth, which Indians need to acknowledge. (We should remember that for years it was impossible for the Indian government to act against the LTTE in Tamil Nadu because of the fear of massive local opposition.)

In 2016, with the army’s operations in FATA continuing under Operation Zarb-e-Azb, which has displaced a million Pusthuns so far, and Karachi restive under the continuing army-led crackdown on the MQM, neither the PML government, with its base in the Punjab, nor the army, which recruits from there, would want trouble in the Punjab. Action against Masood Azhar and his murderous crew might not, therefore, be either prompt or decisive. We have to hold Pakistan’s feet to the fire, but that can only be done through a continued engagement. When India engages with the government there on the whole range of bilateral issues, including those dear to Pakistan’s heart, the government in Islamabad can take steps and make gestures that it cannot if these appear to be capitulation to Indian ultimatums. If we want some satisfaction on terrorism, we must work with Pakistan on all other issues. The talks between the foreign secretaries must therefore be held and the dialogue resumed across the board, without preconditions.

Five bad options and a good one

This is not of course received wisdom. The wise men of Indostan, to learning much inclined, are not as inclined towards Pakistan. There are six broad views on what the prime minister should now do, as there were on what the elephant was:

  • the talks between the foreign secretaries should be called off;
  • the foreign secretaries should meet only after the national security advisers first discuss the attack and the broader problem of terrorism, as envisaged in Ufa;
  • the talks should be postponed until there is proof that, honouring the assurance the prime minister received from Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan has taken and is taking action against Jaish and those who back them;
  • the talks could continue but simultaneously India should shame Pakistan abroad with the evidence of its complicity in this attack and with terrorism generally, backing it into the international doghouse;
  • the talks may continue, but we should also “do what needs to be done”, which means doing to your neighbour what your neighbour does to you, or beating the ISI at its own game.
  • And finally, the forlorn view, dismissed as naïve by the wise, that the talks must continue without preconditions, reservations or retribution.

Those who reject the resumption of talks, or place these conditions or caveats on them, are in the lineage of prophets who understood the language of birds, whisperers who know, as lesser mortals do not, what “the generals” are trying to say. Through the attacks in Pathankot and Mazar-e-Sharif, the generals, according to them, are saying that it’s pointless for India to try to make peace with civilians in Pakistan, or to aspire to a role in Afghanistan, and if the Indian prime minister keeps making overtures to ciphers who don’t matter, the generals will think he’s a wimp, just like his predecessors.

As against that, we should bear in mind that, over the last week, the Pakistan government has issued three statements in which it has condemned the attack in Pathankot, conveyed its condolences to the government and people of India and reiterated that it is working on the leads it has received from India. These are fair words, though they leave our parsnips dry. But we should surely note that on January 8, a meeting which Pakistan’s COAS attended, with the DG (ISI), DGMO and the NSA in tow, issued a statement which included the following sentence:

“The people of Pakistan have evolved a political consensus for action against all terrorists and terrorist organizations without any distinction, and have resolved that no terrorist would be allowed to use Pakistan’s soil for committing terrorism anywhere in the world.”

This, with the apparent concurrence of the military, restates the commitment given by President Musharraf to Prime Minister Vajpayee in January, 2004, “that he will not permit any territory under Pakistan’s control to be used to support terrorism in any manner”. That assurance was followed in the 2004 statement with the line that “President Musharraf emphasised that a sustained and productive dialogue addressing all issues would lead to positive results.” In other words, it would be easier for the President to deliver on his promise if it was part of an ongoing process.

Some might argue that this was a threat, and agreeing to it was succumbing to blackmail, but Vajpayee was neither weak nor an idealist. As a consummate politician, he understood the limits of the possible, even for an adversary. And, as a statesman, understood that to get an adversary to do something he found hard to do, he had to strengthen, not weaken, him. Prime Minister Modi would do well to draw on the wisdom of his predecessor.

Satyabrata Pal is a former Indian diplomat. He served as India’s High Commissioner to Pakistan, and as a member of the National Human Rights Commission