Thursday, February 25, 2021

India and Pakistan Dialogue: A Quick Return to a Stand-off?

Reading Time: 4 minutesThe international hopes of a resumption of dialogue between New Delhi and Islamabad that were raised late last week when the Indian and Pakistani Prime Ministers met on the sidelines of the SCO Conference in Russia appear to have been dashed, with Pakistan now demanding that the issue of Kashmir be placed on the table.
LINDSAY HUGHES, Indian Ocean Research Programme Research Analyst explains


A good deal of hope for a breakthrough in bringing about better relations between historic rivals India and Pakistan was raised when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif held discussions on the sidelines of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) meeting in Ufa, Russia, last week. Initial reports stated that they would discuss the on-going issues of terrorism and Kashmir during their meeting. In the event, Kashmir was left out of their discussions but a joint statement that was released after the meeting stated that Pakistan would give India voice samples of Zakir-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, the alleged mastermind of the November 2008 Mumbai attacks, so that the Indian authorities could compare those with recordings they had made during the attack of a person who issued instructions to the attackers. This, by itself, was a major step between the two states towards normalising their relations.


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As is too often the case, the goodwill engendered by the two leaders appears to have dissipated very soon after their meeting. In fact, it took only three days to undo the cordial tone of the joint statement, which was commonly seen to be an instrument to halt the downward spiral in relations between the two states. Apart from point number five of the statement, which referred to the provision of Lakhvi’s voice samples, it was notable that there was no reference to Kashmir, which was assumed to be a softening of Islamabad’s stance on the issue. At least one report suggested that SCO members (read China and possibly Russia), tried to restart the stalled dialogue between the two countries.
Three days after their meeting, however, Pakistan’s National Security and Foreign Affairs Adviser, Sartaj Aziz, issued a statement in which he announced that no meaningful dialogue could take place between Islamabad and New Delhi unless the Kashmir issue was debated, that New Delhi provided further proof of Lakhvi’s alleged role in the Mumbai attacks and, further, demanded to know the status of the Samjhauta Express train bombing. This last referred to the explosions that occurred on the Samjhauta Express in February 2007, which ran between New Delhi and Lahore, and caused the deaths of nearly seventy people, most of them Pakistanis. Essentially, Pakistan was turning the tables on India, implying that New Delhi could not have things its own way when it (New Delhi), too, could be accused of failing to bring its own terrorists to justice, just as it accused Islamabad of doing with Lakhvi. India had previously complained on several occasions that the Pakistani anti-terrorism court did not appear to be interested in prosecuting Lakhvi, which led to his release.

Implicitly acknowledging that the joint statement did not name Kashmir, Aziz noted that it referred to both sides being prepared to discuss ‘all outstanding issues’ which, he said, included Kashmir. He also claimed that Sharif had highlighted the Samjhauta Express issue and specifically asked about the status of the case in the Indian courts. But if these issues appeared to be a case of tit-for-tat, Aziz then went on the attack, stating, ‘Pakistan has been deeply concerned, not only about hostile statements from Indian ministers, but also about Indian interference in Pakistan, including continuing support for insurgency in Balochistan.’ The hostile statements probably referred to the inappropriate statements made by Indian Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, soon after Indian commandos had crossed the Indian border with Burma to attack separatist rebels there. Rathore reportedly said that the attack also sent a message to Pakistan, implying first that Pakistan hosted rebels who attacked India and, second, that India’s stance on not crossing the border with Pakistan to attack the rebels, in turn, could change. Interestingly, Pakistan has now charged India with supporting separatist groups, the same charges that India uses against Pakistan.
While this reversal of the hopes engendered by the Ufa meeting is disappointing, it must be asked why Aziz waited to return to Pakistan before countering the joint statement when he was present at the meeting of the two leaders in the first place. His insinuation that the evidence that India has provided to Pakistan regarding Lakhvi’s role in the Mumbai attacks is either incomplete or found wanting in some other way could easily stall any further dialogue between the two states. Interestingly, the Pakistani Public Prosecutor in the Lakhvi case sided with Lakhvi’s defence counsel in refusing to provide India with the voice samples. There could be two main reasons for the Pakistani change of heart. First, and as the vociferous Indian media claim, it could be that the Pakistani Army has refused to countenance any appearance of appeasement. It could be, moreover, that the Pakistani Army has been encouraged by China’s recent statement that Pakistan would continue to be a special friend, China’s sale of fighter aircraft and submarines to Pakistan, and the visit of a Chinese Yuan-class submarine to Karachi in May. Second, Sharif could have been advised that any perception of appeasement towards India would translate into an unfavourable result at the next poll. Finally, it could be a fear of both factors that brought about the change.
Be that as it may, it is disheartening that yet another start has been reduced to nothing concrete. Unless Islamabad and New Delhi put aside their fears and historical baggage, their relationship will continue to thwart their economic progress and make them potential pawns in a larger geo-strategic game.

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