In India's Pakistan Conundrum, Sharat Sabharwal shows how the Pakistani establishment seeks the fig leaf of dialogue on Kashmir to keep the issue alive

Being immediate neighbours, India and Pakistan cannot wish each other away. When they have not been talking across the table, they have often done so through guns. Each time guns have become too loud, it has brought intervention of influential countries to defuse the situation. Since the Shimla Agreement, India has remained firmly committed to bilateralism to resolve the issues with Pakistan and yet has often done messaging through the Americans and other countries in moments of crisis. There is nothing unusual about such messaging. It happens all the time between other estranged countries. However, it needs to be acknowledged that when not talking directly with Pakistan, we have often done so through third countries.

Since the institution of structured dialogue in June 1997, it has broken down recurrently. It broke down only to be resumed in late 1998 and break down again following the Kargil incursion. With the exception of the failed Agra summit in July 2001, dialogue was resumed again in 2004 and paused by India after the Mumbai terror attack in November 2008. It was resumed yet again in February 2011, but fizzled out after two rounds following an incident on the LoC in January 2013, which marked the beginning of the ongoing phase of absence of structured dialogue. The bilateral relationship had stabilised somewhat by the end of 2012.

Terror violence in J&K claimed the lives of 19 civilians and 18 security personnel in 2012, the lowest in years and loss of life in ceasefire violations on the LoC/IB was four civilians and five security personnel. The process of trade liberalisation was moving forward in spite of opposition by some sectors of the Pakistani economy. However, a section of opinion in India advocated a muscular approach towards Pakistan, which essentially comprised two elements: no dialogue in the presence of terror and visible retribution against Pakistani provocations. On January 8, 2013, two Indian soldiers fell to the bullets of Pakistani assailants, who had crossed over to the Indian side of the LoC and mutilated their bodies. The then army chief General Bikram Singh stated that India reserved the right to respond at a time and place of its choosing and I have no doubt that his army would have made good on his assurance. However, the incident became a rallying point for supporters of the “muscular” approach and clamour for it grew. Facing a tough election a year later, the then government yielded ground by suspending structured dialogue. The new government that came to power in May 2014 did attempt, albeit in fits and starts, stabilisation of the relationship. However, faced with an unsatisfactory and indeed provocative response from the dysfunctional Pakistani state, India’s policy shifted decisively to the muscular mode, particularly after the Pathankot terror attack in January 2016. The ceasefire of 2003 collapsed and the number of ceasefire violations remained high year after year, until the Directors General of Military Operations decided to restore the ceasefire in February 2021, reportedly following back channel contacts between the two countries. Denied dialogue on Kashmir, Pakistan reverted to its default position of stirring up trouble in the valley and casualties in terror attacks mounted. The slogan “terror and talks cannot go together” that gained currency in the run up to the 2014 election has become a key element of India’s Pakistan policy, which has remained a prominent electoral issue in the recent years. This stance is now politically well entrenched to the detriment of the government’s margin for manoeuvre. In September 2018, India cancelled a meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the two countries on the margins of the UN General Assembly a day after accepting Pakistan’s proposal for it. India’s national debate on the Pakistan policy has remained centred around the “dialogue vs. no dialogue” binary, which does not address the complexity of the situation facing India in Pakistan or serve India’s interest.

Pakistan is not a monolith when it comes to relations with India. The Pakistan army, its terror proxies and the politicians hanging on to its coattails regard India as an eternal enemy and sabotage all peace moves. As stated earlier, confrontation with India and sustaining the India bogey serve the institutional interest of the army.

However, as mentioned in the previous chapter, a large body of opinion in Pakistan favours a stable relationship with India. The focus of the people at large, like people everywhere else, is on their daily needs and economic opportunities. In an article titled “Does Kashmir really matter to most Pakistanis?”, Rustam Shah Mohmand, former Chief Secretary of NWFP and former Ambassador of Pakistan to Afghanistan, wrote in The Express Tribune on September 2, 2015: “….. should Pakistan allow the (Kashmir) dispute to hold its relations with a neighbouring country of 1.3 billion people hostage, especially since the disputed territory has never expressed any explicit determination to be a part of Pakistan — not to speak of India’s firm and unambiguous resolve not to allow any adjustment in the border. More importantly, there have been no studies or surveys to show whether the people of Pakistan have any deep attachment to the cause of Kashmiris and whether the dispute has any resonance for the broad majority of the country. What is not realised or is overlooked is that amidst the teeming millions of Pakistan, in Sindh, rural Punjab, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan, there is no urgent wish to see Kashmir become integrated with Pakistan. The people in all regions of Pakistan are more fixated on issues like poverty, education, jobs, health care, electricity, police excesses, water supply, irrigation, roads, sanitation, corruption in government departments and social injustice. Never in the last many decades have people — the rank and file Pakistanis — ever agitated over the issue of denial of rights to Kashmiris. Never in Pakistan have the peasants, artisans, traders, students, nationalists and liberals taken to the streets demanding that Pakistan continue to press for the resolution of the Kashmir dispute even if that means suspending all cultural and trading contacts with India”.