Point, Counter-Point: A Four Part Series
Bilateral ties between India and Pakistan are once again heading towards a downward spiral with the cancellation of Foreign Secretary level talks, which were to be held in Islamabad on August 25th.
Only three months ago, PM Narendra Modi invited his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, to New Delhi for his swearing in and the following one-to-one meeting had raised hopes that both premiers with convincing mandates would be able to give some gravitas to bilateral ties. While it is believed that Modi spoke about the lack of progress with regard to the 26/11 trials, the overall discussion was positive and cordial. The meeting seemed a step towards making earnest efforts to build an atmosphere of peace, while also hoping that India would exhibit willingness to discuss outstanding issues – specifically Kashmir. During their meeting, Sharif and Modi had also decided that Foreign Secretaries of both countries would meet to work out a possible road map for future engagement, and flesh out areas where both countries can engage seriously.
The meeting between Pakistan’s High Commissioner and Kashmiri separatists was cited as the reason for cancellation of the Foreign Secretary talks. Indian Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh had reportedly called the Pakistani High Commissioner to India, Abdul Basit and told him in no uncertain terms that he had the option to either talk to Kashmiri separatists, or the Indian Government.
It would be pertinent to point out that Nawaz Sharif did not meet the Kashmiri separatists during his Delhi visit.
Many in India believe that as a consequence of the domestic turmoil in Pakistan, the Pakistani PM has tried to bring Kashmir back on the agenda and the Pakistan High Commissioner thus went ahead with his meeting with Kashmiri separatists. Similarly, Modi too was under pressure to some degree, especially after continuous skirmishes across the Line of Control (LoC).
During the election campaign, Modi had accused the then-PM of being soft on Pakistan and of indulging in ‘Biryani Diplomacy’ while Indian soldiers were being beheaded. He thus was under pressure to distinguish himself from the earlier UPA government.
Those who support Modi believe that this was the right step and is a clear message not just to Pakistan, but also to the rest of the world, that Kashmir is an internal issue and that the earlier practice of turning a blind eye to meetings between Pakistani government officials and Kashmiri separatists will not carry on.
Some also argue that unlike earlier Indian regimes, the Modi regime will not buckle under pressure from Washington DC, even though the US has been urging the government to resume talks.
The key question which arises here is whether the US has a role to play in the India-Pakistan relationship. There are a number of points against US intervention in the India-Pakistan conflict. The first is the fact that even though the US and India share a strong relationship post-Mumbai attacks, public opinion is in favor of taking a stronger stand. Some in India also argue that not only has India’s global clout increased since the 1990’s but public opinion with regard to India’s Pakistan policy has also witnessed a dramatic shift in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks. Each attack has made it tougher not just for New Delhi to engage with Islamabad, but in fact even to exercise restraint.
Yet while it is true that every elected Indian government has to give paramount importance to national interest and cannot overlook public opinion, it would be incorrect to assume that the US role in South Asia can be totally ignored.
First, over the past decade the dynamics of India-US relations have witnessed some significant changes with increased strategic and economic cooperation. The Indo-US Nuclear deal initiated by former PM Dr. Manmohan Singh and former US President, George W. Bush was of course the highlight of this engagement. Even on the issue of terrorism, the US has taken up India’s concerns with Pakistan and General Pervez Musharraf’s 2002 speech where he categorically stated that he will not permit any outfit or group to use Pakistani soil for terrorist activity against India and the banning of groups like Jaish-E-Mohammaed was due to pressure from the US – here, a firm message from then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage to Pervez Musharraf where he warned of dire consequences is often cited. It would be pertinent to mention that even in the Kargil crisis, the US played a critical role in ensuring that Pakistani troops withdrew.
Over the past few years of course, relations between both countries have not been as cordial for a number of reasons. The arrest of Indian diplomat, Devyani Khobragade last year proved to be the tipping point. Yet there are a number of issues where both countries’ interests converge, with Afghanistan being one of them. The increasing assertiveness of China and its support to Pakistan is also a propelling factor for close Indo-US strategic ties.
In conclusion, India’s own interests are paramount, but if Washington can play a positive role in tightening the screws on certain elements in GHQ who are inimical to peace, India will not be a loser.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs.