National Security Advisers of Pakistan and India would be meeting in Delhi to listen to each other’s terrorism concerns and see if they could address them. But, much like other Pakistan-India meetings – most of which are preceded by low expectations – it is feared that the upcoming engagement that is taking place at a time when ties are at a low ebb could be a disappointment.
It may sound a little too pessimistic, but in view of the level of bilateral mistrust and intensity of acrimony, which forms the backdrop of the meeting, both sides could just end up trading accusations without any making any progress.
The Pakistan-India relationship has never been on an even keel, but it has been particularly in a bad shape since Narendra Modi came into office last year.
Mr Modi, who rode anti-Pakistan sentiments to Panchavati (Indian Prime Minister’s Residence) not only kept up the rhetoric against Pakistan, but the skirmishes along the Line of Control and the Working Boundary also worsened under his watch. Indian forces are accused of violating the ceasefire for about 150 times just over the past few months in which about 18 people have been killed. Last year was the worst as far as LoC/Working Boundary incidents are concerned since the 2003 ceasefire.
With Modi seemingly slipping deeper into his anti-Pakistan mindset, the ongoing stalemate could potentially enter a more dangerous phase.
Ajit Doval is not the right interlocutor
Though he and PM Sharif agreed to a meeting between National Security and Foreign Affairs Adviser Mr Sartaj Aziz and his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval, when the two met in Ufa last month on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit, there has been practically no change in his attitude. On his visit to UAE earlier this week, he hurled accusations against Pakistan again – something he had earlier done on his trips to the US, Canada, France, and Bangladesh.
Modi’s icy rhetoric against Pakistan has only added to tensions between the two countries.
“Given the troubled history of India-Pakistan relations and complexity of their issues involved, there is no room for euphoric expectations or unrealistic optimism,” cautions former foreign secretary, Ambassador Shamshad Ahmed Khan.
“The environment is not congenial at all. Modi’s arrival on the scene has only further compounded the already complex India-Pakistan situation. Ajit Doval is not the right interlocutor to discuss the real India-Pakistan issues,” he says.
Doval, it should be recalled, is a former spy master, who authored Indian strategy for destabilizing Pakistan by exploiting its vulnerabilities including the Taliban militancy and insurgency in Balochistan.– a strategy, he calls defensive offense.
And that’s what former foreign secretary and ex-high commissioner to India Amb Salman Bashir thinks about the Delhi meeting. “No great hope or expectations from the NSAs meeting,” he remarks.
In Amb Salman’s opinion: “The LoC flare up and strong rhetoric against Pakistan by the Indian government and media indicates that they have no intention to relent from exerting pressure on Pakistan.”
Furthermore, dialogue on terrorism related issues is not new. The two sides, since 2006, had a joint anti-terrorism mechanism, which met in 2007 and 2008 till the Mumbai attacks, when peace dialogue between the two countries was disrupted. Following the resumption of the dialogue at Thimphu in 2011, these issues were discussed at the interior secretaries meeting. But importantly, no progress was made in these meetings. There are, however, two points to be noted.
In the earlier instances, the dialogue on terrorism was accompanied by talks on other outstanding issues, this time that is not the case. However, this dialogue on terrorism is being held at a higher level as compared to the past.
Beyond the history, rhetoric and not so encouraging atmospherics, there are other issues with this terrorism specific format of the dialogue. There is an impression in Islamabad that Pakistan is at a disadvantage discussing terrorism, while the core issues in the relationship like Kashmir, Siachen, and Sir Creek are put on the back burner and the regular dialogue process remains on hold.
Pakistan too has been complaining about Indian role in fomenting terrorism in its territory, but it is equally important for it to talk about the other issues marring the ties. That is why when PM Sharif agreed to the NSAs meeting on terrorism, there was a feeling in Islamabad that the prime minister had conceded too much.
“Looking at the current scenario, while India’s strategic vision is rooted in Kautilya’s cold-blooded realpolitik, our rulers are guided not by our own interests but by the wishes of other powers that want us to be at peace with India at its own terms. What they must understand is that the peace they are seeking will not come by surrendering on our principled causes and supreme national interests,” Amb Shamshad emphasizes.
“What is stopping India from starting Foreign Secretary level talks?” asks Amb Masood Khan, director general of the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad. The full spectrum dialogue process should be resumed, he says, with a firm time table and an agreed comprehensive agenda.
“In the forthcoming Delhi meeting of national security advisors, India will not discuss any issues other than the question of terrorism. It will keep the coming talks focused only on this issue and the Mumbai dossier. It will be a déjà vu exercise with both sides reiterating their known narratives,” Amb Shamshad expects.
Explaining the issues that both sides are expected to take up at the meeting, Amb Masood said: “There are three issues related to terrorism. One is the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack. Pakistan is ready to listen to India’s grievances but at the same time it seeks from India to furnish crucial evidence to accelerate the pace of the Mumbai case trial.”
The second, he says, is that an Indian court has released the alleged mastermind of the terrorist attack on Samjhota Express baffling all those people who were hoping justice for the families of the victims.
Thirdly, the ISSI chief says, mounting evidence has been collated by Pakistan of Indian intelligence agency RAW’s involvement in acts of terrorism in Baluchistan, sponsoring, abetting and financing terrorists in all parts of Pakistan, and backing anti-Pakistan elements operating from the Afghan soil.
“These elements should form the bulk of the agenda on terrorism,” he says.
Despite all this negativity, the meeting has some positive aspects also. Almost everyone agrees that it is important for both countries to talk to each other.
“Any engagement between the two nuclear neighbours is a positive development. Dialogue and constructive engagement is the only way to address these issues,” Amb Shamshad says.
A good meeting could further help the two countries move beyond the blame game in the media and engage directly and more meaningfully through an institutional framework.
“Or at the most the meeting could lead to a tentative understanding of scheduling a summit level encounter or shake hands at the margins of some international event,” Amb Salman says alluding to the expected meeting on the margins of UNGA in September.
Additionally, the two sides may continue with the remaining elements of Ufa agreement, which included a DGMOs meeting and a meeting of Indian BSF and Pakistan Rangers chiefs to lower tensions on the LoC and Working Boundary.
Executive Director of Indian think tank Center for Dialogue and Reconciliation Ms Sushobha Barve looks at the meeting differently. She thinks that the very fact that the meeting was taking place is a good indication.
“Despite renewed Violence on the LoC the fact that the talks are going ahead shows the determination by both sides to stay the dialogue course. In the recent past such incidents of LoC violence has prompted the Indian government to cancel talks under intense domestic criticism. Hence the very fact of talks taking place on Aug 23-24 is a very welcome step. It is desirable that through this track, we do find appreciation for each other’s concerns,” Barve says.
The writer is a freelance journalist
based in Islamabad