There is no prospect of India and Pakistan coming to terms and settling their border differences in the foreseeable future, certainly not in the lifetime of the two countries’ present governments and probably not for much longer. Efforts to improve the relationship in other ways will also be precarious and uncertain.
That has been clear for years, but it became even more obvious at the end of last week when planned talks between the two countries’ national security advisers (NSAs) on cross-border terrorism were scuttled in a flood of accusations and counter-accusations.
There are two reasons for the lack of hope.
One is that there can be no deal while Pakistan’s army chief and the ISI intelligence agency are the country’s final authority, not the democratically elected prime minister – and there is no prospect of that ending. Both the army and ISI have for decades seen aggression against India as central to their existence and ambitions. Behind them of course there is China, which likes India being preoccupied with Pakistan.
As a democratically elected government, India would not deign to engage formally with General Raheel Sharif, Pakistan’s army chief, or the intelligence chiefs. So, officials say, they have to take the country’s democratically elected leaders such as prime minister Nawaz Sharif (no relation) at face value, which can obviously be misleading to put it mildly. (The army chief does meet other country’s leaders – including David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister, in London last January where the government gave him a ceremonial guard-honour welcome – below.)
The second reason is that India is implacably opposed to any third party becoming involved as an intermediary, so the chances for incremental improvements in the relationship become mired in antagonistic confrontations.
Countries like the US and, to a lesser extent these days, the UK, can advocate peace talks and military restraint, but they have learned to their cost not to offend India by trying to mediate. The most recent major exception to this was in 2001-02, when India accepted both those countries mediating to defuse a potential border war after a terrorist attack on the parliament in Delhi, and there were earlier examples.
Consequently, there was no chance last week of a desperately needed third party being able to try to bridge the gulf over debilitating quibbles – mainly about the agenda for the talks and who the Pakistan NSA could meet in India aside from the formal events.
Viewed from abroad (I was in Bhutan reading Twitter and other news sound-bites), the events looked like a cross between a French farce, with characters rushing nosily across the stage banging doors, and a Chinese opera with actors belting out scripts to impress the audience without quite looking at each other.
This was a setback for Narendra Modi, who has wanted to draw Pakistan into a circle of improved sub-continental relationships that would lead to the sort of connectivity and interchanges that are routine between most neighbouring countries elsewhere in the world. In South Asia, such a development has been stymied by decades of Pakistan-India antagonism. It has also been complicated in recent years by a growing Chinese presence.
Modi has however succeeded, to varying degrees, in showing how India can be friendly and useful – with Bangladesh where there has been a cross-border land swap deal and other talks, with Nepal on immediate earthquake relief and other initiatives, with Sri Lanka since the defeat of a pro-China president (who has lost two elections this year), and with Bhutan which is a long term land-locked ally.
The talks appeared to be unusually constructive. Sharif and his officials seemed to want to improve relations and join Modi’s circle of co-operation. With Pakistan’s security forces preoccupied with terrorism at home and a worsening situation in Afghanistan, Indian officials hoped that the country’s all-powerful army chief would support Nawaz Sharif acceptance of India’s request for talks between the two countries’ NSAs on “all issues connected to terrorism”.
Hopes rose when it was agreed that the foreign secretaries, Pakistan’s Aziz Chowdhury and India’s S. Jaishankar, would jointly draft and read out a statement (below) after the meeting – a rare if not unique event. Constructive agreed points included meetings between border security forces, and Modi attending a South Asia regional (SAARC) summit in Islamabad next year.
As soon a Nawaz Sharif returned to Islamabad however, there were negative noises from Pakistan. The main complaint was that the statement agreed to discuss “all outstanding issues” but did not specify the usually-included issue of the disputed territory of Kashmir.
Firing quickly increased across the Line of Control that divides the two countries in Kashmir, and there was a 12-hour terrorist attack and gun battle on July 27 at an Indian police station at Gurdaspur in Punjab near the border that killed seven people including four Indian police guards. On August 5, there was an attack on an Indian border security forces’ bus in Kashmir.
The NSA talks were planned for last weekend, August 22-23, to discuss terrorism, which India thought would provide it with an opportunity to pinpoint incidents of cross-border infiltration, and attacks such as the one at Gurdaspur.
But Pakistan began to insist that Kashmir should be specifically included in the agenda, which India said was against the Ufa agreement. Pakistan also said that its high commissioner (ambassador) in Delhi would be inviting leaders of separatists based in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian Kashmir, who want varying degrees of independence or autonomy from Delhi, to a reception before the talks.
That was a direct challenge to the Indian government because Modi had unexpectedly cancelled talks between the two countries’ foreign secretaries in August a year ago after the high commissioner similarly invited the separatists for talks. India has tolerated these meetings for years, but Modi wanted to demonstrate that the separatists and their Hurriyat umbrella organisation were not a party to India-Pakistan relations.
In Delhi, Ajit Doval, 70, the NSA and one of Modi’s closest advisors, who earlier headed India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB), was playing a leading role. This inevitably changed the rhythm and tactics of the interchanges from the usual diplomacy.
Both sides announced that they had prepared detailed dossiers of each other’s terrorist attacks, Pakistan claiming that India responds to attacks in Kashmir with disruption in the province of Baluchistan and elsewhere. Maybe they were eventually content for the talks to be abandoned, which happened when Pakistan eventually withdrew last Saturday night. They then did not have to respond to the dossiers, which would inevitably have been leaked to the media.
Losing the plot
Rakesh Sood, a former senior Indian diplomat, has commented in an article in The Hindu, that “a diplomatic engagement was converted into an ‘us versus them’ battleground”. Somewhere along the way from Ufa, “it was clear that the plot was lost sight of and the management of the process was reduced to a rhetorical tit for tat.” Other commentators have referred to what they regard as a lack of focussed diplomatic preparation and groundwork before and after the Ufa meeting.
The story entered the realm of unreality when Indian officials indicated that they would not mind too much if Sartaj Aziz, 86, Pakistan’s NSA and a former foreign and finance minister, met the separatists’ leaders after, not before, his formal talks. That was after India put some of the leaders under house arrest for an hour or two in Srinagar, then released them, and then arrested others when they arrived at Delhi airport to stop them reaching the high commissioners’ reception.
That is surely where an intermediary could have stepped in and found a compromise, as could have happened on whether Kashmir could be just mentioned in the talks. But such an idea is heresy in Delhi!
India’s foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, said last weekend that there are “no full stops in diplomacy”, which shows that she knows the dance between the two sides will continue. There was nearly a trade deal in 2012 (which maybe could be resurrected), and earlier in the 2000s there was an almost-soft-borders’ deal, but they remained almost-deals.
Talking is however essential. Both countries have nuclear weapons. They have fought three (or four depending on how you count them) border wars since independence, and there is frequent firing across the disputed frontier. Not to talk would be worse than what has happened in the past few weeks.