by Dwarika Prasad Sharma

The Pakistani army has floated the idea of joining its civilian leadership in any process of talks with India. This approach, should it assume a practical shape, would mark a high-value paradigm shift in the now-on-now-off relationship between the two countries.

The idea has not yet been broached with any Indian diplomat or official, and if Pakistan should take the initiative, it would probably use the back channel. It was floated recently by Inter-Services Public Relations Director-General Asif Ghafoor to visiting Indian media persons.

Two of these journalists, who have been colleagues of this writer, when contacted, expressed the conviction that the general, who is a close confidante of his chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, was not talking through his beret. They said that their interaction with him had been a business session and not a tea-and-biscuits interlude.

At various forums, Gen Bajwa has been calling for resolution of all issues with this country, including Jammu and Kashmir, through talks, “in order to unfetter the energies of both countries” for promoting their development.

India’s Army Chief Gen Bipin Rawat and this country’s political leadership, however, see a serious contradiction in Pakistani generals’ talk of peace and the continual violations of ceasefire on the borders, the pushing across of terrorists trained and armed by the Pakistani army, that country’s free run to terror masters on its soil, the continued stoking of the fire of terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir, and also aiding and abetting terror strikes in this country.

Home Minister Rajnath Singh, like Gen Rawat, while welcoming any peace initiative from Pakistan, have taken serious note of its grossly dichotomous approach, in posing to be running with the hare, while overtly an covertly hunting with the hounds.

Coming back to the Pakistani army’s proposal on the structure of peace talks between the two countries, various Indian governments in the past have sought the help of the US to influence the Pakistani army to support an ongoing or proposed process and not to directly or indirectly snafu it. The plea has been that the Indian Government did not have any direct links with the Pakistani army, though it realised its all-powerful position in making or breaking any give-and-take between civilian Governments.

On December 19, Gen Bajwa, briefing a joint session of the two houses of his country’s parliament on national security affairs, had said that he would support any initiative of the civilian government for talks with India. In a statement that sounded very modest coming from a Pakistani army chief, he said: “You will devise all policies, including defence and foreign affairs, and we will abide by them.”

Gen Bajwa was accompanied by top generals, including ISI chief Lt-Gen Naveed Mukhtar, military operations chief Maj-Gen Sahir Jamshad Mirza, and Maj-Gen Ghafoor, who briefed the lawmakers on the anti-terror operation Radd-ul-Fasaad (roughly, junking of conflict, or crushing of terrorism), started in February last year. The US, under Donald Trump, has, however, been haranguing Pakistan that its boast of a crackdown on terrorism is an eyewash, and warning it that the US tap of funds would be turned off if it did not deliver. Critics in India and elsewhere have also pointed out that Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad, like earlier such operations by the Pakistani army, is against anti-Pakistan terrorists and not the ones whom it nurtures as its strategic assets.

The US and some other western countries have often expressed the view, and followed it up on the ground, that doing business with Pakistani generals is more fruitful than dealing with that country’s whimsical civilian leadership. The strategic community in India has also from time to time opined that the Pakistani generals would be a better bet, if this country’s policy was not firm on engaging only civilian governments or governments where generals were rulers.

Maj-Gen Ghafoor’s proposal, which obviously has his chief’s backing, would obviate the need to engage the army over the head of the civilian authority, as both would be at the table, if so desired. Such an arrangement would also have the advantage of carrying the on-spot stamp of approval of the Pakistani army. There is little probability, however, of such an approach being followed, least of all institutionalised, any time soon, though the idea is potentially path-breaking. The positions on either side are so deeply entrenched that, in the final analysis, neither would easily leave its comfort zone.

Besides, the treacherous polity of Pakistan, where the army has been in the seat of political power through most of its history, or otherwise has been breathing down the neck of civilian governments, any continuity of an arrangement cannot be reasonably expected. Though Gen Bajwa has been quietly projecting the army’s subordinate role vis-a-vis the civilian government, any perceived concessions to India in any talks are fraught with the danger of a reaction in Pakistan, most likely from the lower pecking order of the army. This has happened several times in the past, when it was let on that the two countries had made a breakthrough or were on the threshold.

Take the example of the Pakistani army ruler Gen Zia-ul-Haq, who had developed a level of bonhomie (uneasy, it was often said) with then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. They had reportedly come to an agreement behind the scenes on demarcating the Actual Ground Position Line on Siachen and, most importantly, declaring the LoC a permanent border. The maps and other papers had been drawn and were awaiting formalisation. There was no doubt that the deal would come through, as the general was considered unassailable in the Pakistani power structure, and whose stature had also grown with western countries, especially the US, as a figure who, in his own words, “ended the cold war for the world”.

The “concessions” to India got the goat of somebody in the Pakistani army, probably the general-in-waiting for the chief’s post, whom Zia had been cautious not to promote, and that general’s buddies. In one speculation on the cause of his death in an unexplained air crash in August 1988, it was said that only army personnel had access to the well-guarded hangar at the Bahawalpur air base from where Zia’s plane had taken off. This version said that the airconditioning ducts of his chamber had been injected with poison gas and, to make a thorough job of it, a bomb planted on the plane.

It was suggested that the generals down the line had panicked at the prospect of a detente with India, which would kill the very basis of the Pakistani army’s sway over the country’s polity, i.e., the Indian bugaboo, a handy tool to sway the emotions of the populace as well.

After Zia’s death, the civilian Government in Pakistan denied knowledge of any such deal and rubbished the maps presented by the Indians. This was one case of being so near yet so far. Gen Pervez Musharraf’s regime had also lined up a “breakthrough”, which it whispered was awaiting signing up with then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Government.

Several analysts have said that the posture of the Pakistani army under Gen Bajwa is conducive to putting a dialogue on an even keel. They argue that the Kashmiri jihadists and the jihadists operating from Pakistan would be reined in once the proposed talks were on course, and that the ceasefire violations would then also subside.