It is time to review the process of engagement with India which became public via the joint statement by Directors-General Military Operations on both sides last February.
The reason for such a review needs to be stated upfront: India, which wanted a reprieve for several reasons, has begun to shape the narrative to its own advantage and is back to using its old playbook. Consider.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrote a letter to Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan on Pakistan Day. The letter, which is a customary courtesy, while expressing India’s desire to have “cordial relations with the people of Pakistan,” makes it contingent upon “an environment of trust, devoid of terror and hostility.”
Letters on such occasions generally eschew reference to disputes or areas of divergence. But even discounting that, it should be clear that for India the idea of a conducive environment is necessarily wedded to its ‘terror’ mantra which it has been selling to the world since Occupied (and now illegally annexed) Kashmir erupted in the 90s.
As if on cue, Indian media began referring to the letter specifically pointing to the issue of terror and argued that the ball is now in Pakistan’s court. The Indian government has also been feeding stories to the Indian media on the sly, creating an impression that the process is moving apace.
Inadvertently or otherwise, Pakistan seems to have helped fuel these speculations. At the Islamabad Security Dialogue, from the prime minister to the foreign minister and the army chief, everyone talked about peace and geo-economics. While at one level it signalled that the current policy has broad support within the government, certain comments caused much consternation among Kashmiris in IOK.
The army chief’s remark that the two sides could first go for the low-hanging fruit should have been avoided. Similarly, “burying the past” is a poor choice of words, even though General Bajwa did not mean it in the way it has been interpreted. Language is serious business; it becomes crucial when one is also signalling.
The other important point about signalling is to know where and when to stop saying things. Unfortunately, too many important functionaries of the state have been making too many references to peace within the region. That has not worked to Pakistan’s advantage. It looks less like an initial expression of intent and more as desperation. The first is important and can be defended. The second is disastrous. Furthermore, any talk of low-hanging fruit does not square with a demand for the prior reversal of India’s illegal and unilateral actions in IOK.
Combine the desire to speak more often about peace than required while staying quiet on the workings of the backchannel has allowed the Indian government to feed stories to its media about who met whom and where. The ploy is simple, tried and tested. Feed the story through unnamed sources and then make no comment with reference to those stories. It works just fine for the media: to any query about the veracity of events as described, the media can cite government’s silence as evidence that the story is correct.
But the problem on the Pakistan side of speaking too much about peace and keeping silent on where matters stand gives India the space to shape the narrative. That may not be what Islamabad wants. But that’s exactly what’s happening.
Additionally, there’s an international dimension to India’s strategy. World powers are always concerned — as they should be — about hostility between Pakistan and India, both nuclear powers. So any thaw is always welcomed. It was no surprise that the United States called the ceasefire a positive development. It works perfectly for Modi, who would like nothing better than to make other state actors think that India is serious about normalising with Pakistan while delaying walking the talk.
The problem with looking at Pakistan-India relations in a crisis prevention framework is that it pushes the central dispute — IOK and Kashmiris — to the back burner, spotlighting instead crisis prevention as the desirable requirement. It also helps India defy its international obligations with reference to IOK. This is why the low-hanging fruit talk takes us further away from what is and should remain fundamental to any normalisation: i.e., Kashmir and Kashmiris. (It’s quite another thing that even Siachen and Sir Creek are not low-hanging fruit.)
Kashmiris are still being killed, their houses burnt and properties destroyed. There is no let up in that. The argument that realpolitik is still shielding India and will continue to shield it takes us out of the fight anyway. It’s simple: if IOK and Kashmiris’ right to self-determination remains central to Pakistan’s India policy, then we are helming this process wrongly; if, on the other hand, we want to normalise at any cost, then building up hope in Kashmir is the worst thing we can do to the Kashmiris.
I understand that processes are more complex than my deliberate simplification above. But the point I am trying to make is that we need to control the narrative more astutely. In fact, as I have noted in this space before, while movement is important, we need to be very cautious. We are dealing with a person whose political fortunes are squarely grounded in his Hindutva ideology that is both anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan. Even if we were to leave IOK and Kashmiris aside for a moment, it would be instructive to ask whether Modi and his cohorts can survive without hostility to Pakistan.
Whichever way one slices or dices this, with or without Kashmiris, Pakistan needs to be very careful. One way to cut through the confusion and also to put the brakes on what’s appearing in the Indian media is for the top functionaries to (a) stop talking about peace beyond this point and (b) to clarify that there is no change in Pakistan’s position with reference to what it means by India creating a conducive environment.
As for talking about terror, India should be told that Pakistan is open to discussing India’s terrorist activities. And if India wants to discuss what it calls terrorism, Pakistan should insist on either joint investigations into those incidents or, even better, call for third-party investigations.
The writer is a former News Editor of The Friday Times. He tweets @ejazhaider