Talking to the enemy

Pakistan’s focus on relations with neighbours that are more advantageous rather than expending efforts with India

Zamir Akram June 17, 2024
The writer is a former Ambassador of Pakistan. The views expressed here are his own


Dialogue among hostile nations is the only civilised means to resolve differences and avoid conflict. But this requires mutual commitment. Any unilateral desire for talks is bound to fail. Even worse, it is seen by the enemy as a sign of weakness. This is the current reality between Pakistan and India.

Even so, there is new optimism among some in Pakistan that a post-election weakened Modi government would be chastened to pursue more conciliatory polices, towards Indian Muslims and Pakistan. This is flawed thinking. A weaker Modi will be even more reliant on the Hindutva agenda and to manipulate the Pakistan bogey, especially in times of domestic political crises. The reasons are obvious.

Since the age of eight, Modi has been a RSS ‘Kar Sevak’ or voluntary worker steeped in supremacist Hindu ideology which he has incessantly promoted. As Chief Minister of Gujarat, he was responsible for the massacre of Muslims following the Godhra incident in 2002. As Prime Minister since 2014, he has promoted a fascist Hindu ideology, giving free rein to Hindu fanatics to target Indian Muslims as “infiltrators”; passed laws to discriminate against them; build a Ram Mandir on the site of the destroyed Babri Masjid; and changed the status of the so-called only Muslim-majority state of (occupied) Kashmir. Externally, Modi and his minions have relentlessly demonised Pakistan as a sponsor of terrorism, a failed state and an arch-enemy that occupies Indian territory which must be snatched by force. Such Pakistan bashing is central to Modi’s Hindutva creed since Pakistan represents the break-up of ‘Akand Bharat’ that exists in RSS mythology. Dialogue with Pakistan is, therefore, anathema to Modi. Any change in this policy will come at a huge political cost, especially now.

Dialogue enthusiasts in Pakistan also need to reckon with the historical record which demonstrates that India only talks under pressure or to gain advantage, but not resolve disputes. After the 1948 Kashmir war, India accepted the UN Security Council resolutions but reneged when the pressure dissipated. Following the 1962 debacle in the war with China, India engaged in the Bhutto-Swaran Singh talks but broke off the dialogue once the pressure abated. Similarly, the 1965 war compelled India to engage at the intersession of the USSR. The Simla Accord after the 1971 war was meant to entrench Indian regional domination but failed due to Bhutto’s skill-full diplomacy. The Kashmir uprising in 1990 again forced India to talk but not to resolve the dispute – a tactic also used repeatedly regarding the Siachin issue. The 1998 nuclear tests once again forced India into a dialogue under American pressure but without any substantive outcomes, barring some confidence-building measures in the Lahore agreement. The Musharraf-Vajpayee talks, touted by some as a near breakthrough, in reality envisaged a solution to Kashmir on Indian terms, accepting the LoC as a soft border. But even this was rejected by subsequent Indian governments. The last understanding on the “strict observance” of the ceasefire on the LoC in 2021 actually enabled the Indians to redeploy their troops against China in Laddakh with no follow-up on “addressing each other’s concerns”. Since at present there is neither pressure nor any interest, the Indians feel no compulsion to talk to Pakistan.

Moreover, the post-9/11 American War on Terror and the growing US-China confrontation have been leveraged by India to demonise Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism and benefit from American largesse as Washington’s “Net Security Provider” against China. India now behaves as a regional hegemon and a global power, to which its smaller neighbours must pay obeisance. The only factor that saves Pakistan from such a fate is its nuclear deterrence.

Therefore, this deterrence must remain effective and credible against the Indian military build-up with American assistance. This has enabled India to increase its conventional and nuclear arsenal, develop short, medium and long range air, land and sea based missiles and an anti-satellite capability; while the Russians have supplied the S-400 ballistic missile defence systems.

Bilateral trade and regional connectivity are the only two areas in which the Indians may show any interest. But there are pitfalls for Pakistan which must be recognised. Through the use of non-tariff barriers India has consistently ensured that trade has been in its favour. Besides, India provides subsidies to its farmers making Indian agricultural products cheaper as compared to Pakistan. Therefore, while Pakistani traders support resuming trade, our manufacturers and farmers are strongly opposed as they will face unfair competition and Pakistan’s industrial and agriculture sectors would suffer. Equally problematic would be regional connectivity since India’s larger economy would overwhelm Pakistan’s trade with Afghanistan and Central Asia, apart from the fact that India refuses to grant Pakistan reciprocal connectivity through India to other states in South Asia such as Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan or Myanmar.

Given all these considerations, the reality is that there are no chances of reviving any engagement with India for the foreseeable future, at least for as long as Modi’s BJP is in power. The exchange of messages by some Pakistani leaders with Modi do not constitute a thaw, let alone a breakthrough. Pakistan, therefore, needs to exercise strategic patience until such time as conditions in India change for the better. In the interim period, Pakistan needs to focus on strengthening linkages with its northern and western neighbours, Afghanistan, Iran and China; as well as the land-locked countries of Central Asia, using its pivotal strategic location to enhance trade and regional connectivity. China’s BRI, in which CPEC is a key part, already provides the opportunity to do so.

In the political and diplomatic domains as well, Pakistan’s focus must be on relations with neighbours with whom there are far more advantageous opportunities rather than expending its efforts on a dead-end with India. We must talk to our friends rather than wasting time and effort on trying to talk to the enemy.


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