India closing the door to their citizens suits Pakistan

Normalcy in Kashmir, uninterrupted dialogue and building goodwill for India in Pakistan are the way forward

Photo by Nitin Kanotra/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Nitin Kanotra/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Shyam Saran

Over the past year, the Government has been unable to restore relative normality and peace in the Kashmir Valley. It has also been unable to break the impasse in India-Pakistan relations. In fact, the situation on the India-Pakistan Line of Control (LOC) has deteriorated even as political turmoil has spread through the Valley. The Pakistani Army has deliberately escalated tension by the recent reprehensible and inhumane act of beheading two Indian soldiers after killing them on our side of the LOC.

This has coincided with the worst incidence of violence across the Kashmir Valley, reviving memories of a time when militants, both local and from across the border, moved around with impunity, carrying weapons and even Pakistan flags, defying State authority. The two phenomena are closely inter-linked. During periods when there has been relative calm in the Jammu and Kashmir state and political processes have been revived, there has been a perceptible dimunition in cross-border violence. When the Valley has erupted in violence, cross-border activity has also increased.

It is easy to blame the unrest in the Valley on Pakistani machinations. Of course, Pakistan has a vested interest in fomenting disaffection and violence in the state, but then we must acknowledge that the primary responsibility lies on the shoulders of the Indian state.

There is very real sense of alienation, even bitterness, among the Kashmiri people and the source of this negative sentiment is the daily humiliation that they are subjected to, in the name of maintaining security. Indian TV channels feed this resentment by projecting protesting youth and angry demonstrators as Pakistani agents or as anti-national elements.

It has become a classic We versus They syndrome. The clips of a Kashmiri tied to the bonnet of an Army vehicle to prevent demonstrators from pelting stones at the security forces has done more damage to the reputation and credibility of the Indian state than perhaps even the use of pellets to disperse demonstrators.

We are in the middle of an escalatory process over which the authorities have little or no control and this may prove to be dangerous. One, it creates precisely the troubled environment which Pakistan can and will exploit to its advantage. The incidence of cross-border terrorism will grow, tensions between the two countries will increase and, sooner rather than later, international attention will turn to the worsening situation in the Valley and the likelihood of war breaking out between the two countries. The India-Pakistan hyphenation which Indian diplomacy had succeeded in breaking is now lurking round the corner again. We may reject calls for international mediation but our insistence on bilateralism will lack credibility since we have no dialogue at this time with Pakistan.

Two, it was the fallout of 9/11, which put Pakistan on the defensive on the issue of terrorism. It could no longer project its sponsorship of terrorism in Kashmir as support to a genuine “freedom movement” because of the changed international environment. We were able to utilise this changed environment to revive democratic political processes in Jammu and Kashmir but this was not carried through to its logical conclusion.

This political failure has once again created conditions for Pakistan to revive its pre-9/11 strategy on Kashmir. There is no room for complacency based on the perception that we are now a strong and emerging power which no one would like to alienate by raising the Kashmir issue. The Turkish President’s statements during his recent visit to India and the Chinese media’s urging to Beijing to get involved in India-Pakistan relations in view of the stake it now has in the form of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, should be treated as warning signs.

India-Pakistan relations remain locked in a perpetual “dialogue-disruption-dialogue” pattern. We are unable to break away from this pattern of relations because we seek to use dialogue itself as political leverage rather than as a means to exercise leverage. We engage Pakistan in a dialogue process but then call off the talks whenever a serious terrorist incident takes place. We declare that terrorism and talks cannot go hand in hand but then after an interval we resume talks until the next terrorist incident intervenes.

This pattern of behaviour has convinced Pakistan that it has nothing to lose by perpetrating a serious terrorist incident against India since after an interval India will itself come back to the table. India should not seek to use dialogue as political leverage; it is better to remain engaged in dialogue even if there are terrorist incidents traced to Pakistan. Dialogue should be used to bring whatever leverage we can to influence Pakistani behaviour. Refusing to talk suits the Pakistanis fine. It strengthens their argument that international mediation is required because the two countries are unable to engage with each other to manage the problems between them.

Gilgit and Baltistan

We do have points of leverage against Pakistan and Prime Minister Modi has himself spelt them out. These include Gilgit and Baltistan which we claim as our territory to be recovered from Pakistan but are strangely reluctant to press our claim aggressively. Human rights violations in Balochisatn have been raised by India but then this has to be kept in constant focus.

If Pakistan sees our presence in Afghanistan as denying it strategic depth, we should then reinforce our presence there. When there are violations of the LOC and barbaric behaviour by Pakistani forces as we witnessed recently then the Indian Army should be allowed to respond appropriately at a time and place of its own choosing. It should not be hustled into an ill-considered response because of angry clamour on TV channels. Wars cannot be fought in front of TV cameras.

It also suits the Pakistani state fine when we close our doors to ordinary Pakistani citizens, artists and writers, school children and the sick and ailing who seek treatment in our hospitals. Rather than becoming a mirror image of Pakistani hostility, we should be distinguishing ourselves as a different country and a different polity. Building a bank of goodwill for India is also political leverage. Prime Minister Modi got it right when he made a distinction between the Pakistani state and the Pakistani people, asserting that we do not regard them with hostility. This should be translated into policy even by taking non-reciprocal measures.

To sum up, India-Pakistan relations cannot be delinked from the situation in Kashmir. We need to take urgent initiatives to restore peace and normalcy in the Valley and this will diminish the ability of Pakistan to fish in troubled waters.

We should resume dialogue with Pakistan. This should not be regarded as a climb down on our part but rather as a necessary measure to give ourselves some much needed room for manoeuvre and to deflect efforts at international mediation and third party involvement. In resuming dialogue we must break out of the dialogue-disruption-dialogue trap and stop using talking and not taking as political leverage, which they are not. It only reflects that we do not have substantive leverage available or are reluctant to use it. In fact we do have leverage.

While responding to provocations across the border whenever they occur, it should be left to the armed forces to determine when and in what manner this should be done. The aim should be to inflict real cost on the adversary and not to treat every operation as a public relations opportunity.

Engaging with the ordinary people of Pakistan, its civil society groups, its artists, writers and professionals and its business community, this too, provides effective leverage. We should not portray the people of Pakistan as the enemy but target those who wish to convince them that India is their implacable enemy. Every Pakistani child treated in an Indian hospital gives a lie to this. The wider we open our doors the less credible will be the image of India as the perpetual enemy.

Shyam Saran is a former Foreign Secretary. He is currently member of the Governing Board, CPR

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