This is an old ploy that the Pakistanis have tried ever since 9/11, first with the Bush administration, then with Obama and now with Biden

by Sushant Sareen

February 2021 started off with a somewhat unnecessary, if also short-lived, flutter over the possibility of some forward movement in the bitter and frozen bilateral relationship between India and Pakistan. On 2 February, while addressing an army graduation ceremony, Pakistan Army Chief, Gen Qamar Bajwa, said, “It is time to extend hand of peace in all directions.” In the same speech, he also said, “Pakistan and India must also resolve the longstanding issue of Jammu and Kashmir in a dignified and peaceful manner as per the aspirations of the people of Jammu and Kashmir and bring this human tragedy to its logical conclusion,” and then added the standard warning (repeated ad nauseam over the last seven decades) that Pakistan’s desire for peace shouldn’t be taken as a sign of weakness.

Three days later, Pakistan’s ‘selected’ Prime Minister, Imran Khan, addressed a rally in Kotli in Pakistan-occupied Jammu and Kashmir on the occasion of ‘Kashmir Solidarity Day’. After heaping all sorts of abuse on India and the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, Imran softened his hard line on India—this is the Pakistani interpretation—and asked India to “resolve this issue—Kashmir—through meaningful dialogue because there is no way out other than this…. but before that you will have to restore the pre-Aug 5, 2019 status of the occupied territory.” Almost as if he had vanquished India on the battlefield and India was desperately seeking a face-saving from him, Imran very magnanimously offered a seat on the dialogue table, but with a caveat. He hectored India, “Agree to give the Kashmiris the right that was promised to them by the world community, and we are ready to talk to you”. And quite like his ‘selector’ Bajwa, Imran too added the standard line that his offer should not be misconstrued as Pakistan’s weakness, “It’s not because of any fear that we want friendship with you”.

As is their wont, the media in both India and Pakistan picked a sentence or two from what Bajwa and Imran said and ran with it. In the process, they not only conveniently glossed over everything else that was said in the very same speech/statement, but also ignored the background, context, and, most of all, the ground reality in which the speeches were made. Questions put by Indian journalists to the Ministry of External Affairs spokesman focussed only on ‘hand of peace’, call for ‘coexistence’ and some even saw it as a ‘peace initiative’. Meanwhile, TV programmes and news analyses started speculating on what was behind the ‘hand of peace’ and the proverbial ‘olive branch’ that was extended to India by the Pakistani Army Chief and Prime Minister. If only the media had not been so quick to jump the gun and bite the bait, it would have realised that there was neither anything new nor novel in what Bajwa and his appointee had said, nor was there any seriousness, much less sincerity, in the so-called ‘olive branch’ or ‘hand of peace’ being extended to India. If anything, the olive branch was laced with poison ivy and the hand of peace was more of a sleight of hand.

The statements emanating from Pakistan need to be analysed from four standpoints: Firstly, is there some new ground being broken, or is something being said that hasn’t been said before? Secondly, can a speech or statement be quoted selectively, thereby inadvertently and perhaps unwittingly obfuscating the message, which in turn leads to faulty conclusions? Thirdly, does what is being said have any congruity with actions on ground? And finally, is there a broader context (either domestic or international) in which a statement is made? On all these standpoints, it is clear that the media has misread, misinterpreted, even misrepresented, the latest statements of Bajwa and Imran.

February 2nd wasn’t the first time Gen Bajwa spoke about relations with India. In April 2018, while addressing the passing out parade at the Pakistan Military Academy, Bajwa said, “It is our sincere belief that the route to peaceful resolution of Pak-India disputes—including the core issue of Kashmir—runs through comprehensive and meaningful dialogue”. Having said this, Bajwa sought international intervention to bring peace in the subcontinent. He said that Pakistan remained committed to a dialogue with India, but only on the basis of sovereign equality, dignity, and honour. The context of this speech was in part to push the envelope with the US, which was seeking to get things moving in Afghanistan. At the same time, Bajwa was signalling to Russia that it was ready to reduce tensions with India and in exchange expected the Russians to get over their reluctance to supply weapon systems to Pakistan. On the ground, however, there was nothing to indicate that Pakistan actually was ready to end its inimical behaviour towards India, or crackdown on Pakistan-based, India-focused terrorist groups that were once again becoming very active.

During a visit to London in January 2015, Bajwa’s predecessor Raheel Sharif, who enjoyed an unsavoury reputation of being rabidly anti-India, also held out an ‘olive branch’. Speaking at the IISS, Raheel Sharif “stressed the need for regional peace and better ties with India” and urged “negotiations between both the countries on an equal level.” He repeated the standard Pakistani line about how “Kashmir issue has to be resolved for long-term peace, stability in the region, Pakistan wants peace, but with dignity and honour.” Six months later, addressing the National Defence University, Raheel Sharif reiterated Pakistan’s long held position and said that Kashmir was part of the unfinished agenda of Partition and that Pakistan and Kashmir are inseparable. He qualified the terms of peace with India and said, “While we wish peace, stability in region, we want Kashmir’s just resolution in the light of the United Nations resolutions and as per the aspirations of Kashmiris to bring a lasting peace in the region.” In London, Raheel was projecting Pakistan’s reasonable face and took one line, but back in Pakistan he reverted to type.

Go back further, and there is Raheel’s predecessor, Ashfaq Kiyani. Again, a man reputed to have visceral hatred for India. But in April 2012, after an avalanche killed 140 Pakistani soldiers in the Siachen sector, an emotional Kiyani said, “Peaceful coexistence between the two neighbours is very important so that everybody can concentrate on the well-being of the people,” and then repeated what all his successors have regurgitated ever so often: Pakistan’s desire for peace “should not be misread as weakness.” Kayani also spoke in favour of resolving India-Pakistan issues through negotiations, and added the factor of environmental damage being caused by troop deployments in the Siachen sector as an urgent issue. Incidentally, the slain Pakistani journalist, Syed Saleem Shahzad, had revealed in his article in Asia Times that the plan for the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai was originally hatched by the ISI under Kiyani’s watch as Army Chief. Later, Shahzad claimed, the plot was ‘hijacked’ by Al-Qaeda and executed by Lashkar-e-Taiba. Even so, given the short memories of the media, Kiyani’s remarks created some stir. But in the end, it didn’t amount to anything because on the ground nothing had changed.

Before Kiyani, both Gen Jehangir Karamat and Pervez Musharraf as army chiefs made similar statements. Musharraf and Kiyani even said that the internal threat was more serious than any threat Pakistan faced from India. But both of them pussyfooted around the internal threat from terrorism and focused on what was often called the strategic threat from India. Some tactical changes and adjustments were, however, made in relation to India. As President, Musharraf even tried some out-of-the-box thinking to resolve the Kashmir issue—the four point formula—but it was at best a temporary solution. After Musharraf’s exit, his plan on Kashmir was thrown in the rubbish bin by his successor, Kiyani. The bottom line is that Pakistan’s security calculus has always remained India-centric. And that hasn’t changed even now.

The thing is that, every ‘peace offer’ from Pakistan follows a pattern. For one, it is either made to tide over some domestic crisis, or to exploit, or at times evade, some international pressure. For another, it is never unconditional. If anything, the conditions are invariably maximalist, and therefore, a non-starter. It is almost as if Pakistan thinks India is so desperate that she will clutch at whatever straw Pakistan throws towards her. The Pakistanis also never fail to emphasise that there will be no peace in South Asia unless Kashmir is resolved. The assumptions underlying this message are a) peace is something India needs more than Pakistan, and the latter will be doing India a favour through a peace deal; and b) any resolution of Kashmir has to be as per Pakistan’s terms. Clearly, both are fallacious.

As far as India is concerned, what should matter are not Pakistan’s words but its actions. In recent years, while there isn’t a single action of Pakistan that would indicate its genuine desire for peace, even the language being used by Imran Khan, his cronies and his ‘selectors’ against the Indian Prime Minister, government and people is utterly vile and vituperative. Clearly, under these circumstances, it is nothing short of a flight of fancy to take a sentence or two uttered by either Imran Khan or Bajwa and imagine that it is indicative of a softening of stand or even a thaw in the bilateral relationship.

What is more likely is that Pakistan’s ‘peace and dialogue offer’ to India was aimed more at the new US administration. Imran Khan and Bajwa were trying to project themselves as reasonable people who were ready to talk peace with India, and then use this to portray India as being obdurate. The Pakistani game plan is to exploit the negative coverage of India in the Western press and public opinion in the hope of bringing US pressure on India to make some concessions to Pakistan. In return, the Pakistanis will offer some assurances to the Biden administration on Afghanistan and Taliban. This is an old ploy that the Pakistanis have tried ever since 9/11, first with the Bush administration, then with Obama and now with Biden. They even tried it with Trump, but got very little traction.

India needs to stick to the red lines she has drawn and not only reject Pakistan’s self-serving ‘hand of peace’, but also resist any gratuitous advice to hold talks with Pakistan. At the same time, India must lay out clear metrics that Pakistan must meet before clasping its ‘hand of peace’. And even after India does this, she must keep counting her fingers, because with Pakistan one can never be sure.