SPEAKING FREELY Delhi takes a lonely road on Pakistan
By Ramesh Ramachandran
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met with his Pakistan counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, on the sidelines of the 68th United Nations General Assembly in New York on September 29, defying public sentiment and in spite of an overwhelming body of evidence of Pakistan's complicity in allowing its territory to be used for mounting terrorist attacks against India and Indian interests.
The discourse leading up to the meeting was dominated by whether the talks should be held at all, given the immediate backdrop of twin terror attacks in the Indian state of Jammu and
Kashmir - attacks in which Indian soldiers, police personnel and civilians were killed.
The Kashmir attacks were not isolated incidents: In January an Indian soldier was beheaded at the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan; in August five more Indian soldiers were killed; and, in between, several more such killings and infiltrations were reported.
After the meeting it emerged that the Indian Army was repulsing an attempt from Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) to push infiltrators across the Line of Control even as the two premiers were shaking hands and posing for the cameras. It took the army a fortnight to successfully conclude the anti-infiltration operation.
Although the government has dithered on calling Pakistan's bluff, India's army chief has made it eminently clear to anyone who cares listen that it is impossible for terrorists to carry out any activity along the LoC without the knowledge of the Pakistani Army.
By the Indian government's own admission, expectations from the New York talks had to be toned down. There was not much to show by way of outcomes except for the two sides deciding to task their respective directors-general of Military Operations (DGMOs) with meeting to discuss means to restore a ceasefire.
The two DGMOs last met in 1999, although they speak fairly regularly. The New York meeting could at best be described as a "photo-op". If anything, it once again reaffirmed Singh's, and by extension his government's, adamantly consistent but questionable position on talks with Pakistan.
After the November 26, 2008 Mumbai attacks, too, he had similarly disregarded public opinion to first meet with the then president of Pakistan at Yekaterinburg in Russia on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit, and later with the then prime minister of Pakistan at the Red Sea resort of Sharm-el-Sheikh in Egypt on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit.
It was at Sharm-el-Sheikh that Singh and his team agreed to a joint statement with Pakistan that said: "Action on terrorism should not be linked to the Composite Dialogue Process and these should not be bracketed." Also, in another first, Balochistan was allowed to creep into the text of an India-Pakistan joint statement. Pakistan has since conveniently used the bogey of Indian involvement in stirring up trouble in Balochistan as a stock response to India's assertions of a Pakistani hand in fomenting unrest in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.
All of which begs the question: Talks to what end, and at what cost? Is the life of an Indian - be it a soldier or a civilian - so cheap that talks with Pakistan should continue at any cost and in spite of a spate of terrorist attacks, as evidenced most recently in the twin terror attacks in the Samba and Kathua sectors of Jammu and Kashmir?
How many more brave Indian soldiers should be killed in cowardly terrorist attacks before the decision-making apparatus proactively seek out the military's views? How many more families should lose their loved ones at the hands of the terrorists and their masters outside our borders before the government of the day begins to pay heed to the sentiments of the common man whom it claims to represent?
Instead, what we are witnessing today is a government that is playing with fire.
External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid has clarified that while the two prime ministers met in New York, there is no timeline on resuming the dialogue. And with a post-2014 Afghanistan looming large on the horizon, it is anyone's guess as to how much time and effort Pakistan, given its proclivities, will be willing to invest in preserving the incremental peace dividends and insulating the bilateral relationship from external influences.
What the discerning stakeholders in India today need be understand is that this government's blind faith in dialogue with Pakistan has not disproved those who have little or no faith in talks under the present circumstances. The history of India - Pakistan bilateral engagement over the past decade and more is replete with an unending series of terrorist attacks interspersed with peace talks, an overwhelming majority of which were held in third countries on the margins of multilateral summits.
The New York meeting was but one in a long list of bilateral engagements starting with the 2006 NAM summit at Havana in Cuba, the 2008 Asia - Europe Meeting (ASEM) at Beijing in China, the 2008 United Nations General Assembly session in New York, the 2009 SCO summit at Yekaterinburg in Russia, the 2009 NAM summit at Sharm-el-Sheikh and the 2010 SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) summit at Thimphu in Bhutan.
Add to it former Pakistan president General Pervez Musharraf's visit to New Delhi in 2005 and former Pakistan prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani's visit to Mohali in 2011 for watching cricket, or the private visits by Pakistani heads of stat to Ajmer, and you have a veritably uninterrupted dialogue that can be traced further back to Lahore, 1999; Agra, 2001; and Islamabad, 2004.
Importantly, these bilateral engagements have survived multiple terrorist attacks and conflicts dating back to Kargil and Kandahar in 1999, Parliament in 2001, Mumbai train bombings of 2006 and the 26/11 terrorist attacks again in Mumbai, in 2008.
But what has come of the talks so far? Are we any closer to a breakthrough than we were before? Have terrorist attacks diminished appreciably? Unfortunately, after every terrorist attack the government of the day mouths platitudes and employs boilerplate language such as "it cannot be business as usual" or "patience is not inexhaustible'" only to go back on them at the first available opportunity.
This government has tied itself in knots over its Pakistan policy but it has only itself to blame for it. Its inability to think out of the box has exposed its bankruptcy of ideas on how to deal with an increasingly intransigent neighbor. And Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's personal quest for a lasting legacy insofar as Pakistan is concerned has only further compounded an already intractable conundrum.
The government needs to remove its blinkers and begin to appreciate that terrorism and talks cannot go hand in hand. It is imperative that the government shows zero tolerance to terrorism, takes strong steps to prevent terror attacks and imposes costs on the perpetrators of terrorism.
Most importantly, the government must heed public opinion. The time has come for the government to start calling Pakistan's bluff, to act firmly and decisively and if that involves putting a moratorium on future talks with Pakistan at the highest level, "so be it".
Singh has used this specific language before, albeit to a domestic audience in the run up to the India-United States nuclear cooperation agreement in his first term in office when the Left parties parted ways with the UPA; there is no reason why in the instant context Pakistan cannot be told "So be it"; that India will be free to pursue its course of action if Pakistan does not intend to reciprocate peace overtures, and that consequences will follow if it does not give satisfaction to India on what India considers to be its core interests.
Saying no to talks now is not the same as saying no to talks ever and it certainly need not necessarily mean or come to represent an escalation of tensions. A range of other equally effective options is available to the government on its Pakistan policy and these must be explored. Above all, the government must forge a broadest possible national consensus on the way forward for detente with Pakistan.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Ramesh Ramachandran is a journalist with over 18 years of experience of writing about foreign affairs and politics for print, television and online media in India and abroad.