Improving relations with Pakistan is like walking on quicksand

by Amar Bhushan

The more you try, the farther recedes the prospect of peace. Yet, there are incorrigible optimists who 'desperately' long for friendship, ignoring harsh realities on the ground. They include those who cannot get over the demise of pre-Partition bonhomie. Then you have retired diplomats, generals, journalists, academicians and politicians who are obsessed with friendship with Pakistan at 'any cost' and Kashmiri separatists who believe that without Pakistan's generosity, Jammu and Kashmir can never have peace.

Given Islamabad's refusal to accept Kashmir's accession to India as irrevocable and its use of ISI and terrorism as instruments to keep the India pot boiling, peace seems illusory for the time being.

However, peaceniks did not give up. They would regularly hold informal meetings with their Pakistani counterparts alternately at Neemrana, a fort in Rajasthan, and in Islamabad as part of Track II diplomacy. They would deliberate for hours to generate a conducive ecosystem for heads of both governments to meet and settle their differences but invariably ended up, recommending wishlists that neither government would accept.

After 2014, these talk shops were shut down, even though a few self-styled apostles of peace still travelled to Islamabad and invited Pakistani interlocutors to India over dinner, where they would shed tears that peace had no chance so long as Prime Minister Narendra Modi was around.

A perception is being created in India by the likes of Mehbooba Mufti, separatists, Farooq Abdullah, the Congress and Communist leaders is that unless Delhi engages Islamabad in talks, ceasefire violations by the Pakistan Army will not end, residents living along the border will continue to be displaced and violence in Kashmir will not show any let-up. Modi, a pragmatist, sees no merit in this argument although he let go an Indian delegation of former diplomats and officials to Islamabad to meet their counterparts (28 and 29 April) to test the waters about whether Pakistan would be willing to ease border tensions and resolve contentious issues like Siachen and Sir Creek.

Following the visit, a few fisherman, petty criminals and inadvertent walk-overs to the other side of the border were released. However, before the visit could raise misplaced hopes, the government clarified that it firmly stood by its pre-conditions, suggesting that India's core security concerns remained unaddressed. It is inconceivable for Delhi to talk unless Islamabad dismantles camps where it trains terrorists, winds up staging posts, from where it sends jihadis into Jammu and Kashmir, stops abetting and undertaking terror attacks in the Valley, prosecutes Hafiz Saeed for his role in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks and repatriates Dawood Ibrahim to face trial in India.

No dialogue can be held under the spectre of violence nor can Delhi forget the Uri and Pathankot terror attacks, ignore daily deaths of its security personnel in fights against terrorists, look away from the displacement of several thousand civilians in as a result of the Pakistan Army's unprovoked firing across the border and repeated ceasefire violations, just to facilitate people-to-people contacts.

Delhi's other problem is how much it can trust Islamabad to honour its commitments given during Track I and Track II talks. Pakistan is notorious for misusing Delhi's conciliatory overtures to prepare for Kargil-like aggressions and for subverting the loyalty of Kashmiri Muslims. If we had an abnormally high incidence of terrorist attacks in the Valley during 2014-2018, it was because the Pakistan Army had strengthened its terrorist infrastructure in the years before, taking advantage of India's hesitation to take on terrorists firmly. Similarly, there was no compulsion for the Pakistan Army in the UPA era to repeatedly violate ceasefire, since they could manage infiltration via known routes.

It became obvious from 2014 onwards that the number of casualties of soldiers and civilians and border clashes would rise exponentially, because the Indian security forces were given a decisive mandate to fight Pakistan's proxy war to the finish. If Pakistan's army chief is now making some noises about the need for peace with India, it is not because of Track II diplomacy but because he finds it tough to sustain border clashes and terrorism in Kashmir at his desired level.

It is quite tempting to wonder if North and South Korea can talk and agree to eventually merge, why India and Pakistan can't resolve to at least live peacefully. The only person who can make it possible is Modi. He is a gambler who can take risks, regardless of consequences. He also has the added advantage of leading India's largest right-wing party.

If Modi can walk through Nawaz Sharif at 2014 SAARC Summit in Nepal to express his anger over the terrorist attack in Uri, he can also surprise Sharif by visiting him at his Raiwind, Lahore residence to wish him on his birthday.

He will not relent when it comes to punishing Pakistani terrorists and infiltrators, but may equally not hesitate in picking up the phone one day and calling General Qamar Javed Bajwa to bring the ongoing conflict to an end. He may even agree to visit Bajwa at the GCHQ in Rawalpindi, reducing Pakistani politicians to act merely as cheerleaders. Modi knows that India has wasted decades in talking to Pakistani politicians and officials and in return, got three wars and repeated terrorist attacks.

He would rather trust Bajwa to make commitments and stand guarantee to their fulfilment. He may not take the plunge now, but if he wins the 2019 elections, you can trust him to confound everyone including the Pakistani army chief.