In the recent past, the national and internal electronic and print media was buzzed about the news of Indian Prime Minister visiting Pakistan while on way back from Moscow and Kabul visits. It will be difficult to fathom what actually transpired behind the scene but apparently it was a combination of impulse and strategy that led to materialization of this unusual and unconventional diplomatic rendezvous between the heads of two states sharing a bitter history and bilateral relations.
The news was that on departure from the inaugural function of the new Afghan Parliament, the Indian Prime Minister dialled Pakistani premier to wish him on his birthday. The latter apparently was warm to extend an invitation that was impromptu accepted by the former putting the diplomatic and security agencies on both sides with initial jittery and shock but prompt action to gear up to meet challenges to overcome in a short time. Needless to mention, despite his occupation with the granddaughter’s marriage and own birthday, the Pakistani premier was graceful enough to not only personally receive his guest at Lahore airport but also came to see him off Pakistan soil after a grand hospitality during the brief stay at his personal estate at Raising, Lahore.
The history of the relationship of the two neighbours in South Asia has been that of a ‘blow hot blow cold’ ever since independence. They fought three bitter wars and numerous conflicts and skirmishes including a prolonged engagement during the Kargil occupation by the Pakistani intruders backed by their army. Many strategists categorize it as the fourth war fought between two neighbours. The state of Jammu & Kashmir (particularly Muslim dominated Kashmir Valley) has been the bone of contention and root cause of conflict all along. The war of 1971 led to a humiliating defeat and dismembermentof the erstwhile Pakistan which further added fuel to fire. After failing to forcefully occupy it through wars in 1948, 1965 and 1971, Pakistan resorted to overtly and covertly supporting the Kashmiri militant groups and separatist elements through Army and ISI in eighties of the previous century, and further complicating the situation by introducing the foreign mercenaries in the region in the name of jihad.
Of course both sides have their own reasons and justifications for their stand on the subject and the same is not the subject of analysis in this article. Because the two countries have not been able to live in peace, way back this mutual distrust has triggered arms race in the subcontinent at the cost of the progress and development of the two countries. Consequently, apart from the perennial danger of low intensity border conflictsand subversive acts of terrorism by jihadi groups actively backed by Pakistan Army and ISI in Kashmir and other parts of the nation, the subcontinent has to also live in the constant fear of a nuclear war and its aftermath. Periodical overtures from China, another hostile neighbour and its active political and military support to Pakistan has further added compulsions to India’s available options.
Recent Initiatives and Developments
Let us briefly consider initiatives and developments in the bilateral relation between India and Pakistan ever since the present National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi came in power in May, 2014:
During the swearing-in ceremony of Mr Modi led NDA government on 26th May 2014, he invited Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif alongwith other heads in the South Asian region. While there was some initial uncertainty and conjectures, the invite was accepted by Mr Sharif. This brief rendezvous led to positive vibes and personal bonhomie between two heads creating a favourable prospects for future bilateral dialogue.
Optimism thus created was short-lived as India called off foreign secretary level talks on 18th August 2014 scheduled later during the month in retaliation of the Pakistan envoy calling Kashmiri separatist Hurriyat leaders in a meeting in Delhi for consultation before the proposed meet. India insisted for a bilateral dialogue with no role of a third party while Pakistan reiterated need for associating Hurriyat leaders for a dialogue on Kashmir. The relationship soured and series of allegations and counter-allegations that followed vitiated peace and bonhomie leading to frequent skirmishes and tensions across the border.
Later during the year, 18th SAARC Summit held in Kathmandu, Nepal was attended among others by the premiers of India and Pakistan on 26-27 November 2014 with apparent tension without melting any ice. No interaction took place between the heads of two neighbours except momentary exchange of courtesies on the concluding day although some journalists claimed a supposedly hour long meeting on the sidelines. For about next eight months, there was no dialogue or any apparent initiative for the bilateral engagement. Provocative statements by politicians, diplomats and separatist leaders with upsurge of terrorist activities in Jammu & Kashmir prevailed further deteriorating bilateral relations. Later Indian Prime Minister took initiative to meet his Pakistani counterpart in Ufa, Russia on the sidelines of theShanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit on 10th July 2015. In a joint statement, they condemned terror in all forms and announced a five-pronged statement of progress in their discussions which inter aliaincluded further dialogue between the National Security Advisors and expediting Mumbai 26/11 terror attack trial.
While terrorist attacks are quite common in Jammu & Kashmir ever since late eighties, three gunmen in army uniform shouting religious slogans attacked a bus and later on a police station in Gurdaspur district in Punjab on 27th July 2015 killing three civilians and four policemen injuring many others. This unfortunate and ugly event provoked a widespread condemnation and sharp criticism of the hostile neighbour as such terrorist attacks have been rare in Punjab since the end of Punjab insurgency in mid-1990s over the demand of Khalistan.
Later NSA level talk between the two neighbours was called off in August 2015 with Pakistan’s insistence of involving separatist Hurriyat leaders against India’s stand to the contrary. The Pak NSA Sartaj Aziz announced cancellation of his visit on 22nd August making a provocative statement on Pakistan’s nuclear capability and its ability to use it for self-defence, once again putting the entire peace process in the jeopardy. Later in October 2015, Pakistan appointed Lt Gen Nasser Khan Janjua, a close confidant of the current Army Chief, as NSA – an indication of limiting the civilian control over the national security.
After Ufa, the two heads of states again had an opportunity to see face to face on the sidelines of the Climate Change Conference in Paris on 30th November 2015. In a kind of ‘pull-aside meeting’, they were seen shaking hands and talking animatedly while sharing a sofa for a few moments. It is believed they stressed and agreed to resume Indo-Pak dialogue process. Of course, the official line as taken by India’s MEA spokesperson was that this was a brief exchange of courtesies in the Leaders Lounge and Prime Minister met many Heads of State/Government. However, seriousness of Paris dialogue was obvious when six days later the national security advisors (NSA) of India and Pakistan were engaged a meeting in Bangkok on 6 December 2015 breaking the logjam in diplomatic relations. While a joint statement issued after Ufa meeting found no mention of Kashmir, apparently it was agreed during NSAs meeting to include Kashmir too in any futuristic comprehensive dialogue between two countries.
This meeting at NSA level had certain distinct features. As it was held outside the Indian sub-continent, the ticklish issue of bringing in separatists Hurriyat leaders in talks was suo moto avoided paving a way for free and frank dialogue. Secondly, the new Pakistani NSA General Janjua is a close associate of Army Chief and thus he enjoys more credibility representing both Sharifs(prime minister and army chief) of Pakistan. Thus India could also derive more comfort about the credibility and seriousness of any dialogue with the traditional adversary. Besides, this meeting also cleared the deck for the visit of the Indian External Minister to Islamabad to attend the Heart of Asia conference on regional cooperation held from 8-10 December. Though nothing really changed on ground but this visit too was considerably helpful in easing out tension between two neighbours. Among other things during the visit, the Minister maintained that it was not possible to give any assurance of an ‘uninterruptible dialogue’ but the government’s intent was not to get provoked by ‘saboteurs’ who wanted to stop bilateral talks.
In the above backdrop, Prime Minister Modi’s decision to hop across to Lahore to meet Pakistani Premier on his way back from Moscow via Kabul will indeed be considered an ‘out of the box diplomacy’ with a duel objective to ease tension in the South Asian region and pave way for engaging the otherwise hostile neighbour in a meaningful dialogue to initiate the peace process. Incidentally, this was also first visit by an Indian Prime Minister to Pakistan since 2004. In a way by doing so, he lived a dream of his predecessor (Mr Manmohan Singh), but of course in a reverse order, who is on record of having expressed a hope in a function in 2007 of improving Indo-Pak relations to such an extent that one could have the breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore and dinner in Kabul.
This apparently impulsive and spontaneous rendezvous took place in Prime Minister Sharif’s palatial residence in Raiwind, near Lahore, in a beautiful ambience and grandeur, the occasion being the twin celebration on account of his birthday and granddaughter’s wedding. The conventional approach of seeking policy based political clearance of Prime Minister level visit, heavily dependent on assessment of the current security, economic and other parameters would have perhaps been a serious constraint in such a meeting. Evidently, despite a keen desire of normalizing bilateral relationship with this unavoidable neighbour, the former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh could never realized his quest in his two full terms due to these considerations.
Reactions on Unusual Rendezvous
The reaction on this rather unusual rendezvous has been of mixed nature in both the countries. In India, while the political parties in ruling National Democratic Alliance including the BJP and its allies have generally welcomed the initiative except its Maharashtra ally Shiv Sena. Some veteransin BJP have also stressed a note of caution while dealing with the traditionally hostile neighbour. The chief opposition party Congress slammed the visit calling it a serious diplomatic about-turn, calling PM Modi’s approach as frivolous, unpredictable and marked by fits, starts and abrupt U-turns. They have even gone to the extent of making an allegation that the visit was brokered by an industrialist having business interests in Pakistan.
On the other hand, in Pakistan even the leaders of main opposition parties have welcomed PM Modi’s visit. For instance, Imran Khan, the erstwhile world fame hero of Pakistan cricket and current chairman of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf party maintained that frequent meetings of the heads of two states would have a positive impact on bilateral relations and a sustainable peace in the region. While welcoming PM Modi in Pakistan, the Head of the main opposition Pakistan Peoples Party, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari stated that the only solution to Pakistan-India issues was constant communication between the two countries. The initiative also received wide acceptance and thumps up internationally with United Nations Secretary General andthe United States welcoming the move hoping that the bilateral dialogue would be maintained and strengthened going forward.
Rationale of the Out of Box Approach
It is now obvious that the meeting between the two prime ministers on the sidelines of Paris Climate Summit led to quiet, or shall we say rather secret, parleys of NSAs of both countries in Bangkok. This in turn facilitated Indian foreign minister’s visit to Pakistan and resumption of the process for a comprehensive dialogue. The surprise visit of PM Modi indicates his sincere intent to normalise India-Pakistan relationship for a sustainable peace and progress of all in the sub-continent. Clearly conventional approaches of diplomatic process have not worked in the past, hence his endeavour to this out of box approach for substantive engagement with the age old adversary away from the limelight.
In a way, it is a well thought of gambit which whether PM Modi win or lose, only time will decide in the near future. To my mind, those who are optimists and desirous of the peace, progress and prosperity of nation, should certainly support the initiative. Although a look at the history and past events do not generate very optimistic outlook, we cannot sit back idle citing futility of any efforts in the normalisation of the bilateral relations. It is a common knowledge how the peace process initiated by PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the late nineties was derailed by Pakistan Army when they tried to snatch strategic Kargil heights. If he managed to survive this betrayal, the credit largely goes to the bravery and sacrifice of the Indian army. This, however, did not deter his resolve for the peace process but just made him extra cautious in not ceding any ground while subsequent dealing with Pakistan under Musharraf both in Agra in 2001 and Islamabad in 2004. People are entitled to have their own opinion but the truth is any gain or goodwill generated during these summits was subsequently squandered by the UPA regime in two terms with flip flop diplomacy and ceding grounds to Pakistan without commensurate gains. Ironically, despite PM Manmohan Singh’s keen desire, even a single visit didn’t materialise for the restoration of the peace process during his tenure.
We are aware that the traditional diplomatic process has neither helped in any constructive engagement of the traditional adversary nor in easing out tension across the border. Therefore, whatever criticism come from the hardliners and opposition parties, we should not doubt the Prime Minister earnest desire for the resumption of the peace talks with the neighbour through substantive engagement away from the limelight. In a way, this approach is seemingly working. The traditional approach might have brought in different interest groups with enormous expectations and pressure on both sides. One should not have doubt that two leaders of the respective governments are keen to take India-Pakistan ties forward and their frequent interaction would certainly have a positive impact on both sides.
There is no reason to be sceptic that enriched with experiences of the past and his own wisdom and insight, PM Modi would make unilateral concessions in the process. He is likely to exercise same boldness and resolve to safeguard India’s ‘bottom line’ as he did to counter provocations across the border ever since taking reigns of the country. Needless to mention the current bottom line would be that the forward movementwould largely depend on what Pakistan does and deliver to stop the jihadi elements and rein in provocations from across the border.
Attempts to Playing Spoilers
History of India-Pakistan relationship is a witness of attempts on improving bilateral relations by the political leadership and its disruption by militants and Pakistani Army. The most important initiatives in the past werethe Shimla Summit, Lahore Declaration and Agra Summit in July 1972, February 1999 and July 2001, respectively. Ironically, whenever any serious attempt was made by the political leadership on either side to pursue the path of peace and progress, terrorist outfits and/or Pakistan army and ISI invariably played spoiler to ensure that the process is effectively sabotaged and derailed. We are all aware how tensions escalated and the relationship between two countries plunged to newer lows on account of the Siachin conflict, intensification of terrorist violence in Kashmir, Parliament attack, 2.6/11 attack in Mumbai in 2008 and Kargil war, leave aside numerous other incidents. The Indian Parliament attack by Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorists on 13 December 2001 almost brought the two nations to the brink of a nuclear war.
Needless to mention, these are only few instances and cross border terrorism as also violations by the Pakistan army across the border have been regular feature playing spoilers of any peace initiative. Relations between the two countries have been frigid particularly since the early 2010s with hardly any constructive engagement. In the above backdrop, it is not surprising that many politicians are criticizing and questioning even the motive of the impromptu dialogue of the two prime ministers and sceptics taking the initiative with a pinch of salt.
As was feared, hardly within a week of Modi-Sharif rendezvous in Lahore, a heavily armed group of six terrorists (supposedly) belonging to Jaish-e-Mohammad attacked Pathankot Air Force Station on the 2nd January 2016. In the ensuing battle between the Indian security forces and terrorists, all the terrorists and several jawans including a commissioned officer were killed or injured. Reportedly, these terrorists were in regular contact with their Pakistani handlers. It is widely believed in the Indian establishment that Maulana Masood Azhar, chief of Jaish-e-Mohammed and his brother Abdul Rauf Asghar, mastermind of ill-fated IC-814 hijack on 14 December 1999 are behind this terrorist violence.
But the good thing this time was that neither Indian side raised rhetoric to outrightly blame Pakistan nor the latter was in total defensive and denial mode. Both sides have acted cautiously and responsibly. While the Indian side has shared intelligence and evidence collected during the operation against the terrorists, the Pakistan side has also condemned the attack at the highest level with the assurance to act in tandem with the Indian agencies in an endeavour to identify and bring culprits to the book. It is too early to derive any conclusion but on face it appears that Pakistan has acted with reasonable maturity and promptitude leading to the arrest or detention of several suspects to carry out further investigation.
There are enough indications to reasonably believe that the saboteurs, whether in terror outfits or Pakistan establishment, at least for the time being have not succeeded in derailing the peace process initiated with the ‘out of the box’ or ‘innovative’ diplomacy adopted by Prime Minister Modi which of course has been responded by Prime Minister Sharif with equal magnanimity. But ultimate key to the long lasting peace and prosperity of the two countries in the Sub-continent lies only in accepting the the reality bites that both sides need to put emotive Kashmir issue on the back burner, terrorist outfits are jointly dealt with iron hand without making distinction like ‘good terrorist and bad terrorist’ and two countries focusing more on promoting bilateral economic, sports and cultural relations.