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Why a knee-jerk reaction to LoC attack won't help

Last updated on: August 07, 2013 18:38 IST

India must not succumb to the argument that by moving ahead to normalise relations between India and Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif's hands would be strengthened in dealing with those who don't want peace. This is not to suggest, like the BJP, that our Pakistan policy must be an all or nothing approach, implying that talks with Pakistan must straight away be shelved. The need is for a calibrated approach, says K C Singh.

India Pakistan relations, with a history of lurching from hopeful engagement to bitter break-up, is a cycle determined by political wisdom on the one side and terrorism on the other. The last interruption was engendered by the brutal killing of two Indian soldiers in January, including the beheading of one of them.

The uproar following that in India combined with the impending elections in Pakistan led to the immediate suspension of what was being seen as a desperate throw of the dice by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, hoping to visit Pakistan if some breakthrough could justify it.

The re-emergence of Nawaz Sharif and the victory of his party Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz resulted in his being sworn in as the prime minister on June 5, 14 years after him being deposed by the military. Life had come really full circle, for not only was he now the head of government but his tormentor, General Parvez Musharraf, is now himself a prisoner in Islamabad.

The initial sound bytes by Sharif, perhaps in the heat of the moment, talked of inviting the Indian prime minister for his swearing-in. The morning after, of course, reality began dawning as such a imaginative act of statesmanship would have been hard to sell to the panoply of Punjabi jehadi outfits that had worked for PML-N’s success.

Nawaz would have also been told by Army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani, as he came visiting immediately after the mandate was clear, that India would have to rank lower in his priorities as issues like relations with US, drone attacks, need to strike a deal with the Tehrik-e-Taleban Pakistan -- a rogue militant outfit targeting Pakistani state and army and the economy and crippling power shortage would need immediate attention.

But Nawaz would not be Nawaz if he did not pursue what he thinks is unfinished agenda from 1998-1989, when he was over-thrown by the army, relating to normalisation of relations with India. He thus chose to revive the back-channel links with India to re-establish the terms on which the composite dialogue could be resumed. Although between India and the government of his predecessors the PPP the process itself had simply been renamed to get over the political difficulty of resumption of talks despite little action by Pakistan against the perpetrators of 26/11. Nawaz, however, feels an attachment to the composite dialogue as he was its co-creator with late I K Gujral at Male in 1997.

In the meanwhile time was running out for the Indian interlocutor, whose hands will be tied once the run-up to the Lok Sabha election begins by about beginning of January 2014. With less than five months to go, there was scurrying by PM’s foreign policy handlers. A neat arrangement had been arrived at, after some US objections that they could not receive PM Singh for a Washington visit if he combined it with his United Nations trip in September as that was their policy.

The PM was to address the UNGA at the end of September, have a summit with Nawaz Sharif and also visit US President Barack Obama in Washington. The first warning sign that trouble was brewing in this imagined world of Indo-Pak paradise came on August 3 with an attempted suicide attack on the Indian Consulate General in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, which was thwarted by brave members of Afghan security forces.

If someone in the channels, back and diplomatic, between the PMs of India and Pakistan had bothered to read the larger context he could have realised that some developments were complicating the scenario. Four jailbreaks had been successfully achieved by massed members of Al Qaeda and its associates at Dera Ismail Khan in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Abu Ghareb in Iraq and even one near Benghazi, Libya. US using its NSA assets had picked up chatter, of the kind preceding 9/11, that forced it to shut a dozen and a half embassies in the Islamic countries since the weekend of Aug 3-4.

Militants across the region had regrouped and sending a signal of determination to strike back as the US withdrew. That US reacted by ducking for cover would only embolden them.

The issue thus of the August 6 atrocity at the line of Control and the killing of five Indian soldiers and the wounding of another is broader than simply a one-off operation by the Pakistani jihadis with the active or clandestine support of Pakistani army. It is firstly a lack of alertness in Delhi and down the line amongst the army and the other security and intelligence agencies. How could an operation involving 20 militant/army elements not be detected.

It is equally difficult to imagine that such a large group could mount such an operation, involving reconnaissance, logistics and coordination without the active help of Pakistani army and then retreat without any harm to them, literally in thin air, across a wired fence. The killing of the Indian soldiers is reminiscent of the January slaughter. If so, why are our jawans patrolling in such hostile environment without the aid of night vision glasses, real-time communication with back-up teams etc.

This is not rocket science. Defence Minister A K Anthony’s image as an honest minister must be collated with the damage he may have done by his indecision in procuring vital equipment.

The fracas in Parliament is not over any of this, but the defence minister’s statement that was subject to two interpretations, one that those in Pakistani army uniform may have been jihadis masquerading as soldiers. This got high-lighted as the initial statement from the army was naming the Pakistani army. Who then softened it? What should be the Indian reaction is the real question.

External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid told television channels that the talks with Pakistan would not be interrupted, explaining that you cannot “start today and stop tomorrow.” What did the UPA do, the minister needs to be asked, after the 2006 Mumbai train bombing, the 26/11 Mumbai slaughter or now after the beheading of the soldier? But then was it not him whose metaphor for Chinese incursion in Daulat Beg Oldi was “acne”.

The fundamental issue is not the need to quickly encash the possible good-will that Sharif may have for India. It is Sharif demonstrating that he has restored some balance to the power equations between the civilian authority and the twin rival centres of great influence and power – the army and the jihadis.

India must not succumb to the argument that by moving ahead to normalise relations between India and Pakistan the hands of Sharif would be strengthened in dealing with those spoilers. This is not to suggest, like the BJP, that Pakistan policy must be an all or nothing approach, implying that talks with Pakistan must straight away be shelved. The need is for a calibrated approach.

The eight baskets of issues in the composite dialogue are a mix of confidence building measures and dispute resolution. This itself is illogical as disputes can only be resolved if first confidence is built. It seemed that Asif Ali Zardari government had accepted this argument and agreed to move on whatever was “doable”.

If polled the people of both India and Pakistan would agree that normalisation of trade and travel between the two countries was not only desirable but perhaps a condition precedent to better understanding. A Sir Creek solution is achievable and would eliminate the daily crisis over arrest of each other’s fishermen once the maritime boundary gets delineated, possible only after the boundary in the creek is accepted.

On August 6 the leaderships in the two nations were tested. The Indian prime minister simply thrust his less than articulate defence minister forward to give a poor response. Pakistan chose its foreign office spokesman to deny it all. A more imaginative handling would have been for Dr Singh to have spoken to his Pakistani counter-part and extracted at least a commitment that Kayani would order an inquiry to find out what exactly happened.

This would have sent a signal that negligent or aberrant behaviour between the armies of nuclear neighbours was undesirable. Some commentators on television justified this as games that both armies play. These games, if at all, have to stop.

The Pakistan foreign office said on August 3 that Pakistan had not received any response to their seeking dates for the meeting of the two committees dealing with Sir Creek and Wullar Barrage. These now need to be postponed till after the two PMs meet in New York, when the air needs to be cleared face-to-face. To cussedly say, like Salman Khurshid, that talks must go on is to ignore reality and public opinion in India.

K C Singh