Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s four-point agenda aired at the UN General Assembly as a way forward to build peace in the subcontinent was dismissed by India in no time. Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj did not even acknowledge for a moment that the key points aired by the prime minister were not something that came out exclusively from a Pakistani brain. Indeed, these points were the result of a long-drawn thought process which had involved the best Indian brains as well as Pakistani ones. They were the end product of a series of negotiations and deliberations held over the years during formal parleys, as well as during track two diplomacy efforts between the two countries.
India’s insistence on a one-point agenda for talks — terrorism — has never been questioned by Pakistan; however, realising the complexity of the Indo-Pak tangle, causative factors related to Pakistan are as relevant as symptomatic undercurrents. This had been fairly clear to India in the past, but driven by the internal agenda set by RSS ideologues, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government continues to give a whole new spin to the entire framework through rigid and at times coercive posturing, hoping to exhaust Pakistan’s patience. As luck would have it, India still has not been able to meet with any success in this regard.
Pakistan feels that talks on terrorism between the two countries cannot be meaningful on a stand-alone basis. The issue of terrorism needs to be disaggregated by classifying its sources. It is time now to distinguish between a home-spun militant and the one with cross-border footprints. Such homework should be a prelude to any sustainable framework. One is also keen to know how alleged cross-border ingress takes place when there is prohibitive fencing on the Indian side. In case of violations, how many disciplinary cases and court martials are conducted against Indian border security personnel for their failure to prevent their occurrence?
Another question that arises is that why does Pakistan keep imploring for talks. The urge for engagement has to be a mutual one. With the Modi government at the helm, it is interesting to note the condescendence with which it has been treating all its neighbours. Recent developments in Nepal, for instance, provide some food for thought. Nepal has come up with a constitutional framework ending a protracted civil war. The new dispensation provides for different distinct regions with de-centralised governance. Much to the chagrin of the Nepalese leadership, India has been trying to exert its influence and pressurise the country to follow its diktat when it comes to implementing the new arrangement, even suggesting the way different regions should be carved out. An emissary was especially flown to Kathmandu in this regard. There was a sit-in staged recently by ethnic Madhesis and Tharus against the new Nepalese constitutional framework, alleging that they were not favourably accommodated in it. It is interesting to note that these two ethnic groups are of Indian origin and live in the Terai region along the Indian border. Their sit-in coincided with the worst blockade that Nepal has ever faced as the movement of petroleum products was completely stopped, bringing life in the country to a standstill.
Bangladesh, despite the very India-friendly disposition of the Awami League government, has also had its anxious moments. Prime Minister Modi, during his last visit to the country, agreed to the implementation of the exchange of landlocked enclaves between the two countries. The much-touted accord was, in fact, a delayed implementation of an agreement already made some 40 years ago. However, a much more critical issue which is affecting Bangladesh’s lifeline, namely, river water distribution, continues to sour relations. The ‘rice bowl’ of the country in the north is not getting equitable supply as the upper riparian neighbour has unilaterally constructed a barrage upstream on the Teesta River. Around 20 million people in the Teesta basin are affected because of the depleted and irregular flow of the river water. Bangladesh hoped for a breakthrough during the Modi visit, but the issue continues to simmer.
Sri Lanka had been in the spotlight recently for the cryptic role of Indian intelligence agencies in clubbing together the Sri Lankan opposition in the last presidential elections, which the all-powerful president Mahinda Rajapaksa lost. At the same time, India took umbrage at the docking of two Chinese naval vessels at the Colombo port in September last year. Sri Lanka had to come up with an explanation, saying that this was a routine call by the two vessels while they were on their way to the Gulf of Aden. Even Myanmar felt the heat a few months ago when Indian forces reportedly chased Naga militants into Myanmar territory, without informing the government. Next in line is Maldives. The government in Male, during Sushma Swaraj’s visit to the country, expressed serious reservations about interference in its internal affairs.
Pakistan, indeed, is a different ball game and the Indian leadership realises its limitations. One may foresee difficult times for Modi if his government continues to adopt a cavalier attitude, both at home and abroad. Corporate India can have no truck with RSS ideologues for too long. The gruesome lynching of an elderly Muslim by a frenzied mob for allegedly eating beef is an expose of a narrative which the ruling party and its ideologues have so assiduously cultivated. Prime Minister Modi, instead of condemning the dastardly act, maintained silence for over a week and then opened up by exhorting Hindus and Muslims to fight against poverty rather than fighting each other. This is callousness at its height.
Engaging with Pakistan does not seem to be the BJP’s priority and the subcontinent continues to miss the kind of vision that was brought to the fore by leaders of the ilk of Atal Behari Vajpayee. What should Pakistan do in such a situation? We should try to manage the stalemate, interspersed with fiery exchanges, with a sense of proportion. As a corollary of Operation Zarb-e-Azb, there should be greater circumspection on Pakistan’s part, with zero tolerance when it comes to allowing its soil for cross-border forays. Any provocation from the other side along the Line of Control should be swiftly retaliated with proportion. Pakistan also needs to improve its narrative and the four-point agenda should be reiterated at every international forum as part of this narrative. A sustained diplomatic effort is needed for this. Pakistan should keep all channels active with key global players keenly interested in fostering peace and tranquility in the region. This requires a major out-of-the-box diplomatic revamping.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 20th, 2015.