Pakistan: To talk or not to talk?

New Delhi, Aug. 20 : The meeting in Ufa between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif and the announcement of NSA-level talks have been immediately followed by the tensions along the Indo-Pak borders and the usual sabre rattling by the hawks on both sides of the border.

Actually the script has followed such predictable course that no analyst worth his or her salt would be surprised at the developments. But is this state of affairs inevitable? What are the basic issues that bedevil the relations between India and Pakistan to such an extent that these seem to be intractable to all but a diehard optimist? Are these relations such that they are beyond repair and we need to learn to live with this reality or is it possible to have a mature relationship which does not follow a yo-yo pattern. There are many on both sides of the border who believe that there are too many historical baggages for India and Pakistan to live in harmony. Is that the case? Or is there a way forward.

For a proper appreciation of all issues, we need to shed our blinkered views and try to see both sides of the narratives as dispassionately as possible. This is easier said than done in the charged atmosphere in the two countries that has been created by the developments during the period since partition.

The partition of India in 1947 was a traumatic event and that the repercussions of the same would be felt for some time to come was inevitable. But it is the perceptual differences between the two sides that have exacerbated the problem. In Pakistan, there was and continues to be a very strong feeling that India has not “accepted” the partition and was working towards undoing it. The formation of Bangladesh in 1971 gave further fillip to this view.

As a result, the Pakistani society and polity developed a strong anti-Indian sentiment. Political developments within Pakistan which resulted in the ascendancy of the armed forces exacerbated the situation. For any military takeover, a strong perceived enemy is needed so that the military can justify its takeover. It was thus natural for the Pakistani Army to project India as the existential threat to Pakistan. Army rule was necessary to protect Pakistan from India.

Zia-ul-Haq introduced the mullah element to this equation to further give this conflict the religious twist. Strong pro-Islamic groups were created and existing ones patronized basically to support the military regime. Publicly, these groups began both as the vanguard to support the military regime and to lead the anti-India chorus within Pakistan. Thus, huge parts of Pakistani population was radicalized deliberately by the army both to get their support domestically and to project a strong anti-Indian view point externally.

This steady radicalization of Pakistani society has by now, however, reached a stage where it has grown out of control of the Pakistani establishment and has resulted in formation and growth of myriad Islamic groups, many of them challenging the military itself. All these steps were taken by the Pakistani Army to serve their own interests. But as a result of continuous propagation of anti-India views, a significant portion of Pakistani population came to believe that India was out to destabilize Pakistan and could not be trusted.

In India, there was on the other hand general acceptance of the fact of partition. Unlike what the Pakistanis felt, there was no strong feeling among the Indian public or leadership to undo the past. Some fringe Hindu fundamentalist elements may have continued to have this view but their numbers were miniuscle and their influence among Indian policy makers was even less. However, the perception in India was that of Pakistan which had not accepted the reality of India being a secular and stronger country and try to foment trouble within India by supporting separatists in Kashmir, North East India and later in Punjab. Subsequently after the formation and more or less open patronage of terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad by the Pakistani Army, a view grew among the Indian intelligentia and population at large that Pakistan just could not be trusted.

It is this mutual lack of trust that is the fundamental issue bedeviling the Indo-Pak relations. Looking at it from an Indian perspective, the issue for this Indian Government and for that matter any other recent Indian Governments have been to what extent it could trust the Pakistani Government of the day. The Indian experience so far has not been encouraging. In recent past, the Kargil misadventure of Pervez Musharraf affected this trust factor badly. 2008 Mumbai attacks finished any trust which was there in India over the role of Pakistan. Indeed if only “non-state actors” were involved in the Mumbai attacks, this could have been used by the Pakistani establishment to take strong and salutary actions against the perpetrators to give signal to India that terrorism against India by the Pakistan based groups was unacceptable and created a positive atmosphere for the improvement of the relations. For some time it appeared that Zardari government was keen to do so, but because of pressure from the army and mullahs they had to back down. Again more recently, after Nawaz Sharif responded to Modi’s invitation to attend the swearing-in ceremony, it seemed as if he was keen to improve relations, but the hardliners within the establishment created situations which made further positive developments difficult.

So what are the options for India under such circumstances? First we need to understand the nuances of recent developments in Pakistan. As mentioned earlier, there is a feeling within Pakistan that India is an existential threat to the nation. Whatever may be the reasons for the same and howsoever irrational we in India may feel this view to be, the fact is that such perceptions do exist. Apart, at least two important sections of the Pakistani society – the army and the Islamic fundamentalist groups – have their vested interests in keeping the relationship strained. Among these it may be possible, indeed there are indications that a section of the Pakistani Army has started perceiving that the growth of Islamic fundamentalism is becoming a greater threat than India. Of course within the academics and the political classes there are many who have believed this for some time now.

There is no denying that there have been many efforts earlier by the political leaders in Pakistan to try and improve relations with India. Mainstream political leaders such as Nawaz Sharif, Benazir Bhutto as well as Asif Zardari have at different points of time sought to improve relations with India. That they have not been successful in their attempts has been more on account of their inability to carry the army along rather than because of their own unwillingness. Of course like in any country, the political leadership has to take into account the public perceptions and unfortunately the public perception in Pakistan is strongly anti-India due to 60 years of continuous hostile atmosphere.

Given the above realities, what options India has? We need to understand the biggest threat India and indeed even the world faces today is from the growth of Islamic radicalism. It is in our interest to fight this menace with full strength at our might. Pakistan is also facing same challenge. Indeed in their case, the threat is much more potent. Whatever may be Pakistan’s perception of the threat they faced earlier, many in Pakistan today, including within the army, feel that growth of Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan is existential threat to them.

If this is so, I would argue that this is the time for the two countries to sincerely take each other’s concerns into account and try to sort out their differences. It is in India’s interest to work with the right minded people in Pakistan who understand the situation.

Not talking to the Pakistani Government, particularly a civilian government is not the optimal option for India. It may not yield immediate results but it is the only option we have. To contain the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in the region, including in Pakistan, is in India’s interest and this obviously cannot be done without active cooperation from those sections of Pakistani society who think similarly.

It is, therefore, in India’s interest to strengthen such elements within Pakistan and the way to do it is to continue having dialogue with them. Of course, there are elements within Pakistani polity who would not want such dialogues. They will try to take steps to undermine such dialogues by whatever means are available at their disposal. In many cases, such elements may even be in the position to influence Pakistani official policy to a considerable extent but that is all the more reason for India to continue trying to strengthen the hands of the moderates in Pakistan.

Only reason for not talking to anyone in Pakistan is if we have come to conclusion that there is no one there who has understood that Islamic extremism poses an existential threat to Pakistan. My present understanding of Pakistan is that this is definitely not the case. Therefore, India needs to fashion its Pakistan policy more maturely and continue to engage the Pakistani society at all levels without becoming hostage to the plans of Islamic extremists.

Attn: The article represents the views of Mr. Rajiv Kumar, who retired as Additional Secretary in Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India. Mr. Kumar has experience of dealing with security and intelligence-related matters for nearly thirty years. By Rajiv Kumar (ANI)