There is no denying an apparent flip-flop in the manner in which the government has sought to engage with the perennially hostile Pakistan. But, under most conditions, to jaw-jaw is better than to war-war. Not talking can cause further acrimony and bitterness. Therefore, we can only welcome the resumption of the Indo-Pak dialogue. The meeting of the national security advisors of the two countries in a neutral venue in Bangkok on Sunday was clearly decided when the two Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif met on the sidelines of the Climate Conference in Paris a few days earlier. The foreign venue also obviated the need for the Pakistani interlocutors to insist on meeting the Hurriyat leaders if the talks, at whatever level, were to be held in New Delhi.
Of course, given the recent history of public recriminations and embittered domestic opinion New Delhi would not have agreed to talks in Pakistan. But, after so many false starts, the actual meeting in Bangkok of the NSAs and Foreign Secretaries, S. Jaishankhar and Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry, assumes significance. Immediately, it is said to have cleared the decks for External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s short visit to Pakistan. According to reports, Swaraj was scheduled to be in Islamabad for a day this week. Clearly, back channel communications with a little nudging from third party well-wishers seem to have broken the deadlock between the two nuclear powers. It was in Ufa, Russia, in July that Modi and Sharif had mutually decided on a meeting of the NSAs. However, the Pakistani military commanders, who virtually dictate that country’s India policy, had put their foot down against any talks that did not specifically include Kashmir on the agenda.
India had made much of the fact that Kashmir was not mentioned in the joint statement issued in Ufa after the Modi-Sharif meeting. What seemed to have riled the Rawalpindi G.HQ. further was the trumpet-blowing by a section of the Indian media that for the first time Pakistan had agreed to talks without prior insistence on discussing Kashmir. With the SAARC summit scheduled to be held in Islamabad next year, the preparatory meeting of the Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers in Islamabad expected this week too assumes importance. Should all go well, Prime Minister Modi can be expected to attend the SAARC summit in Islamabad. Indeed, if there is any lesson that can be learnt from the resumed dialogue between the estranged neighbours it is that it pays to keep things below the media’s radar. Neither country can insulate itself from the intense public pressures built by the jingoistic sections of the media. After Ufa, the civilian establishment in Pakistan had come under tremendous pressure for omitting a specific reference to Kashmir in the joint statement, thus souring the pre-meeting atmosphere. Of course, a lasting solution to end the long-standing Kashmir dispute cannot be found anytime soon, but a rupture in the dialogue process can only engender bitterness and further acrimony.
Both sides can utilise the opportunity of a meeting at the officials’ level to thrash out such matters as the breach of peace on the Line of Actual Control in Kashmir, the continuing export of jihadis from across the border, etc., while Pakistan can air its complaints about the alleged role of the Indian agencies in fomenting trouble on its soil. Talking hasn’t harmed anyone, yet. Meanwhile, the government will have to answer critics about the seeming U-turn involved in resuming the Pak dialogue. Nothing can be lost if it were to honestly share its concerns and anxieties about the Hurriyat meeting the Pak interlocutors before resuming the dialogue with Pakistan. Indeed, the government could pin the blame on the previous regimes for having accorded undue importance to a group of nobodies from the Valley who have banded together under the Hurriyat banner for no other reason than to constitute Pakistan’s fifth column in this country. The Modi Government is right in seeking to de-fang the Hurriyat opportunists but the sins of the past cannot be wiped out overnight. It must find another way of neutralising these self-styled leaders.