Intractable Positions

The failure of the latest attempt at resuming talks between India and Pakistan reflects the inability of both governments to make an extremely difficult political decision. Pakistan’s leaders remain reluctant to admit that their desire for the intractable Kashmir dispute to be resolved will not be fulfilled any time soon. Meanwhile, India finds it difficult to recognize that it might have to forego its demand for justice in past terror cases as the price for a future commitment to normal, good neighborly relations.

Recent elections in Pakistan reignited discussion of how the country’s new prime minister, former cricketer Imran Khan, would ignore his own past political rhetoric to make a new beginning in relations with India and Afghanistan, as well as the United States. But Khan’s promises of a ‘Naya’ Pakistan are an easier buy for Pakistanis than the rest of the world. Nations tend to proceed cautiously when it comes to countries that have acted in an antagonistic manner or failed to keep promises in the past.

India and Pakistan know that good relations would benefit them both but there are reasons why that knowledge has not translated into a workable strategy for positive engagement. Those reasons have not disappeared just because one of the two countries now has a new prime minister, one with no governance experience and a tendency to over-promise amidst incredible faith in himself.

In his first speech after being elected, Khan spoke about improving relations with India even though he had denigrated similar efforts by his rival, Nawaz Sharif, whom he dubbed as “Modi ka yaar’’ (Modi’s friend) during his election campaign. Elections in Pakistan might be won more easily by painting your opponent as too friendly to India but the burden of office turns all hawks into doves.

Narendra Modi, who has already transformed into a moderate toward Pakistan after four years as India’s prime minister, acknowledged the need to improve relations in his letter of congratulations to Khan. But since Modi has to face the Indian electorate next year, it was important for him to point out that, for India, Pakistan’s support for terrorism remains the critical issue.

Khan then wrote to Modi once again, requesting the two countries resume talks with a meeting of foreign ministers on the sidelines of the annual United Nations General Assembly session. Khan indicated that Pakistan would be willing to discuss terrorism but he asserted the need to make life easier for the people of Jammu and Kashmir.

This was a major concession from the Pakistani side even if it fell short of India’s demand. For once, an ostensibly hawkish Pakistani leader was asking for improvement in the lives of Kashmiris without demanding resolution of the age-old Kashmir dispute.

The contents of Khan’s letter, however, were not released by Islamabad, making Indian officials wonder whether Pakistan’s desire was just to create an illusion of a peace process to break out of international isolation. For India, it is important that negotiations with Pakistan’s leaders be conducted transparently.

Going back to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s ‘unofficial’ promises during the 1972 Simla Summit, Pakistan has a long track record of backing out of informal commitments on grounds that its public opinion does not support them. India now wants Pakistani leaders to build public opinion for a deal simultaneous to negotiating the agreement; A private letter does not serve that purpose.

From the Modi government’s perspective, it did not turn down an offer of talks. It initially accepted what it referred to as ‘talk not dialogue’ on the sidelines of the UNGA, seeing it as an opportunity to at least hear what Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi might have to offer. India only backed off after the inhumane killing of an Indian Border Security Force (BSF) jawan and the kidnapping and killing of Jammu & Kashmir police by Hizbul Mujahideen terrorists allegedly linked to Islamabad.

Although both sides are currently raising the temperature for their respective domestic constituencies, it is important to remember the context of India-Pakistan peacemaking as well as periodic jingoism.

Since Partition in 1947, Pakistan’s identity and foreign policy have been framed around India. A religion-based national identity was constructed for Pakistan based on the view of ‘Hindu’ India as the ‘other’ for an ‘Islamic’ Pakistan. This feeling of mistrust toward India and the insecurity about India’s larger size, led Pakistan’s leaders and strategists to argue that India never accepted the creation of Pakistan and seeks to undo Partition.

Pakistan’s foreign and security policy is, thus, driven by a fervent desire to check ‘hegemonic’ India from achieving its nefarious aims in South Asia and beyond. Although there is no evidence that India seeks to reincorporate Pakistan, the fear of India undoing Partition has informed Pakistani decision-making for over seven decades.

In 1971, during the war in East Pakistan that resulted in the formation of Bangladesh, India supported the Bengalis but withdrew its forces as soon as the war ended. Every Indian Prime Minister, from Jawaharlal Nehru to Narendra Modi, has sought to improve relations with Pakistan based on the belief that it will lead to a peaceful neighborhood.

There is consensus in India that a politically stable and economically integrated South Asia is in India’s national interest. Only in recent years has a strong anti-Pakistan sentiment emerged in India, particularly in the aftermath of the 1999 Kargil war and the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, both of which are seen as reflective of a tendency on Pakistan’s part to use peace initiatives as an opportunity to launch attacks.

In the last two decades three successive Indian prime ministers—Atal Behari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi—have attempted to restart and rebuild relations with Pakistan. Although Pakistani civilian leaders have reciprocated Indian initiatives, a hard core of Pakistan’s national security apparatus remains wedded to the idea of India being a permanent enemy.

Civilian leaders who have initiated friendship toward India—Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif, and Asif Ali Zardari—have been repeatedly targeted by their domestic opponents as ‘security risks’ or ‘Indian agents.’ They have also visibly lost influence and power soon after the initiation of a peace process with India.

Throughout the various ups and downs, India’s argument has consistently been that the two countries must build people-to-people ties and economic relations before resolving outstanding issues like Kashmir. In recent years the rise in terrorism—including the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks—has made it difficult for Indian governments to consider a dialogue with Pakistan without any discussion of terrorism.

If terrorism is front and center for India in any dialogue, it is still Kashmir for Pakistan.

The Kashmir conflict, a legacy of Partition, has been viewed by Pakistan as the ‘unfinished business of Partition’ and every Pakistani leader, and government, has tried to solve the problem; whether through war or negotiations.

Since the Simla Accord of 1972, India sees Kashmir not as an international dispute but a bilateral issue. For Delhi, the Simla Agreement is the framework within which the two countries should discuss any problem areas, especially Kashmir. Pakistan, however, argues that the Simla Accord was a treaty that was imposed after the devastating loss of East Pakistan in the 1971 war and the creation of Bangladesh.

It is interesting that in 1999, when Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee undertook his ‘bus yatra’ to Lahore, he and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif signed a declaration that reiterated the spirit of the Simla Agreement. But the Kargil war derailed that initiative.

Since then, India and Pakistan have talked intermittently but there has been no consistent peace process. Pakistan refuses to normalize trade relations with India, arguing that normal bilateral ties should only follow progress over Kashmir. As recently as June 2015, Sharif’s Adviser on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz stated that Pakistan would not hold talks with India on “Indian terms” and ruled out any dialogue if the agenda did not include “Kashmir and water issues.”

If Pakistan is really interested in improvement of India-Pakistan relations, it will need to move beyond the ‘Kashmir first’ policy. Pakistan may have to bite the bullet and accept that normalization of relations with India would require that Kashmir is placed on the back burner not just for now but possibly forever.

There are some Pakistanis who understand that reality. Former ambassador Shahid Amin argued in an article that Pakistan need to understand the “Kashmir dispute cannot be solved by military means or through the use of non-state actors.” Ambassador Husain Haqqani has argued in his books and articles for over two decades that improving relations with India is more important for Pakistan than resolving a specific dispute.

But there are no serious takers for such thinking in Pakistan. Things have changed on the Indian side, too, where national pride and anger over terrorism precludes any initiative involving what some refer to as “magnanimity towards Pakistan.”

The December 2015 visit by Prime Minister Modi to Lahore and the images of the two prime ministers walking hand in hand led to hopes of rapprochement in both countries. Unfortunately, the Pathankot terrorist attack in January 2016 followed by the Uri terror attack later that year ensured that there would be no further talks between India and Pakistan.

The two neighbours are currently at an impasse that cannot be broken unless one or both give up on the issue they define as the principal issue holding the relationship back. Moving forward requires that Pakistan back away from demands relating to Kashmir in return for India no longer insisting on terrorism-related conditions being central to peace talks. At the present moment that seems unlikely.

This article is reprinted here with the permission of the author and Newsweek.