A PIROUETTE ON PAKISTAN

    In February this year, shortly after the attack in Pampore, Jammu and Kashmir, a diplomat belonging to a ‘friendly’ country delicately asked an unusual question. His Foreign Ministry headquarters were asking if they should send a message condemning the terrorist attack in which three Army men, two Central Reserve Police Force personnel and a civilian had been killed in a siege which bore resemblance to the Pathankot attack a month before. The problem, he explained, was that the Indian government itself was making no statements on the incident, and he wasn’t sure if statements of support were welcome or not. A few days after the Pampore incident on February 20, the Ministry of External Affairs had sought to play it down, saying only that the matter was “still being investigated”. Eventually, the Pampore incident, despite the obvious strains of evidence linking it to Pakistan-based groups that officials on the ground pointed to, was buried. At the time, the Indian and Pakistani National Security Advisers (NSAs) were still talking to each other “regularly”, said the government, and a Pakistani investigation team was coming to Pathankot airbase to survey evidence.

    It is only now, after the Uri tragedy of September 18, that India has brought up the number of attacks and attempted infiltrations across the Line of Control (LoC) this year. “Seventeen such attempts have been interdicted at or around the LoC, resulting in the elimination of 31 terrorists and preventing their intended acts of terrorism,” Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar told Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit when he summoned him on Wednesday. In fact, there have also been more than 20 attacks on security force installations in Jammu and Kashmir in the past two years, including the Pampore attack; another 15 were foiled.

    The incident with the diplomat only serves as a small indicator of how confusing the government’s moves on Pakistan have been, even to close watchers and friendly governments. In fact, India’s moves on Pakistan in the past few years have been a series of such missteps, misperceptions and a complete misunderstanding of the Pakistani responses to them.

    Missing the signs

    To begin with, the on-again, off-again dialogue process that began with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s grand gesture of inviting his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif to his swearing-in ceremony is perplexing. When the government called off talks between the Foreign Secretaries over the Pakistan High Commissioner’s talks a few months later with the Hurriyat leadership, it played the move as the drawing of a “redline”. But in a turnaround in March this year, that redline was erased, and the government posed no objection to the High Commissioner meeting the Hurriyat a few days before the Foreign Secretary-level talks in Delhi. What the government failed to notice between those two dates in 2014 and 2016 was a hardening of the Pakistani military’s position on the India policy. Another missed sign was the clear targeting of NSA Ajit Doval, India’s main interlocutor with Pakistan, by the military establishment’s propaganda wing, as the mastermind of terror attacks in Pakistan.

    As a result, when Mr. Modi met Mr. Sharif in Paris and suggested restarting talks beginning with NSA Doval and the newly appointed Pakistani NSA Gen. Nasser Khan Janjua, it was far from a match made in heaven. For his part, Mr. Doval was viewed with deep suspicion by Pakistan. Indian government officials drew false comfort as they viewed Gen. Janjua as a “military man” with the ear of Pakistan Army Chief Gen. Raheel Sharif. But they should have asked more closely about Gen. Janjua’s nebulous role in the Pakistani power structure, as he seemed to only be deputed for relations with India: when Prime Minister Sharif went to Saudi Arabia, Gen. Sharif to Afghanistan, and Foreign Affairs Adviser Sartaj Aziz to the U.S., Gen. Janjua was nowhere in the picture.

    Neither war-war nor jaw-jaw

    Yet the government pressed on with the initiative with Pakistan, and both External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Mr. Modi have paid visits to Pakistan. They both gave the same message: this time they would not allow terrorism to derail talks between the two countries. “We want to ensure we are not provoked by saboteurs who want to stop the dialogue process,” Ms. Swaraj told Parliament about the government’s new plans with Pakistan. Yet provoked they were, and the government took another turn, calling off the Foreign Secretary-level dialogue process shortly after the Pathankot attack in January. NSA talks, however, persisted and led to the curious precedent that saw Pakistani intelligence operatives get access to look at the very base India accused their groups of attacking. Through every attack from Pakistan, the government has flipped and flopped, explaining itself unconvincingly to even its well-wishers.

    There is enough evidence to show that Ms. Swaraj’s instincts were correct. Nothing upsets the elements of the Pakistani establishment that carry out terror attacks against India more than a consistent dialogue process, and in the past too, it is when India and Pakistan have come closest to a breakthrough that their attack is the hardest. The last few years, however, have seen neither what Winston Churchill famously called jaw-jaw (talks), nor has there been an outright war-war, and it’s that situation of disorder that empowers those destructive elements the most.

    Not setting the agenda

    Equally confusing are the steps the government has taken on the international stage. At the G20, ASEAN and East Asian summits, and every possible international forum, Prime Minister Modi has made statements about Pakistan’s link to the violence in Kashmir. Yet the government rejoiced this week when UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon omitted any references to Kashmir, saying this reaffirms India’s traditional position that it is a bilateral, not international, issue. The damage is twofold: not only does this allow Pakistan to set the agenda for India at international fora as Mr. Sharif’s speech calling Kashmir an “intifada” did, it also gives rise to ambiguities on the status of Kashmir that other countries draw upon.

    Meeting Mr. Sharif this week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, for example, expressed “strong concern with recent violence in Kashmir – particularly the Army base attack”, and then added the “need for all sides to reduce tensions”, as if there was some equivalent responsibility for both India and Pakistan. Similarly, France issued a statement condemning the Uri attack, but also called for a resolution of the Kashmir dispute, drawing a link between the two that India would like to avoid.

    Finally, there is an inconsistency between the government’s rhetoric and the actions it is prepared to take in the wake of an attack. Initial indications after the Uri attack suggest the government and the armed forces are not in favor of a “knee-jerk” air strike or cross-border raids at this point. It is counterproductive to issue statements on “befitting punishment” to Pakistan or exchanging a tooth for a full set of dentures if the plan is to exhaust diplomatic options first.

    The truth is, the world understands India is the victim, and Pakistan the perpetrator of terror. While the government keeps producing evidence of each attack it traces to the Jaish-e-Mohammed and the Lashkar-e-Taiba, as it has done post-Uri as well, the obvious evidence should be the original case against them: that JeM leader Masood Azhar was exchanged for hostages during the IC-814 hijack in 1999, and Hafiz Saeed has been identified by at least three people involved in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks of 2008 as its mastermind, and is wanted not just by India but the UN as well. If that’s not enough for Pakistan, nothing will ever be, and the fact that both terrorists roam freely and run flourishing empires within the country should be enough to show Pakistan’s complicity. But until India builds a coherence in its own strategy, and unity in focus and purpose, it will continue to face such challenges from across the border, as well as comforting but empty words of solidarity from the rest of the world.

     

    (The author is a columnist and can be reached at suhasini.h@thehindu.co.in)

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