Should India talk to Pakistan when it continues to use terrorism as a weapon to keep us destabilized?
This question has been confronting us for nearly 30 years since Pakistan started supporting Khalistani terrorism in 1981 and extended this support subsequently to terrorist groups in Kashmir and other parts of India.
This question has conceptual and tactical dimensions. The conceptual aspect is: Should we talk at all? Can talks and terrorism go together?
The tactical dimension is if we decide to talk when, how and under what circumstances.
Conceptually, different Prime Ministers have maintained a certain flexibility of approach. The seven hijackings of Indian Airlines aircraft to Pakistan between 1981 and 1984 and the blowing up of the Kanishka aircraft of Air India in June 1985 by Khalistani terrorists did not prevent the so-called cricket diplomacy when Gen.Zia-ul-Haq and Rajiv Gandhi were in power in the two countries. Rajiv Gandhi accepted a proposal from the then Crown Prince of Jordan for secret meetings between the heads of the R&AW and the ISI to discuss Indian complaints against Pakistan.
The fact that nothing came out of this exercise did not inhibit Narasimha Rao from meeting Nawaz Sharif, the then Pakistani Prime Minister, thrice at Davos, Jakarta and Harare in the margins of international conferences to discuss bilateral relations with specific reference to Pakistani involvement in Punjab and Kashmir.
Similarly, Atal Behari Vajpayee did not hesitate to meet Nawaz Sharif in Lahore in February,1999, and Gen.Pervez Musharraf at Agra as our guest in 2001 despite Islamabad’s failure to satisfy our demands for the arrests and handing-over for trial of 20 Khalistani, Kashmiri and other jihadi terrorists, including many hijackers and those involved in the March,1993, serial blasts in Mumbai.
The initiatives taken by Vajpayee in 1999 and again in 2001 despite the Kandahar hijacking and the Kargil conflict were devoid of results just as those of Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao were.
Does that mean they were wrong in having taken those initiatives? The hard-liners will say yes, but those, who advocate a more nuanced approach, will see such initiatives as part of a necessary dual policy---- a firm line to make Pakistan realize that terrorism will damage it more than India tempered by a flexibility to enable Pakistan come out of the jihadi trap which it has created for itself.
The fact that wisdom has not so far prevailed on Pakistan does not mean that one was wrong in trying a mix of powers of persuasion and coercion, with the support of the international community where available.
The tactical dimension involves the timing of our shift from firmness to flexibility. If the timing is not carefully decided, one might create a wrong impression in the minds of the Pakistani leadership that its use of terrorism has paid and that India has blinked.
We rightly took a firm line after the 26/11 terrorist strikes in Mumbai that there will be no more formal composite dialogue with Pakistan till Pakistan gave us satisfaction on the question of terrorism. It has taken some action under US pressure, but not to our complete satisfaction.
While taking note of the action taken by it, we should have kept up the pressure through our own efforts as well as through the US for giving full satisfaction.
Our tactical decision to propose a meeting of the Foreign Secretaries of the two countries on February 25 not for resuming the formal dialogue, but to discuss the progress in the action against terrorism taken by Pakistan was wrongly timed.
There are indications of fresh political instability in Pakistan, with pressure for the exit of President Asif Ali Zardari mounting. Pakistan has also been under increasing pressure from the US to do more against Al Qaeda and the Afghan and Pakistani Talibans. By proposing fresh talks at this stage, we have enabled the Pakistani leaders to divert attention away from their own troubles and re-focus on what they project as their problems with India and their perceived success in making India blink.
This was a serious tactical mistake committed by us. We should have waited at least till Shri P. Chidambaram’s visit to Islamabad for the SAARC Home Ministers’ meeting to see the outcome before considering new initiatives.
Having committed this mistake, we will be compounding it further by giving in to public pressure for the cancellation of the meeting of the Foreign Secretaries because of the Pune terrorist attack of February 13. By doing so, we will be handing over a propaganda victory to the terrorists.
We should go ahead with the meeting of the Foreign Secretaries and use it to reinforce our firm line that there can be no forward movement in Indo-Pakistan relations without effective action by Pakistan against the anti-India terrorists.
This is not the time for rhetoric, which could prove counter-productive. This is the time for an intelligent approach to the problem so that neither our firmness is diluted nor any scope for meaningful flexibility is damaged. ( 16-2-10)
( The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: email@example.com )