It took less than three months for the candle of hope lit by Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif at the Indian prime minister’s inaugural ceremony in Delhi to be extinguished. India has cancelled foreign secretary-level talks scheduled to be held in Islamabad next week because Abdul Basit, the Pakistani High Commissioner, met a few separatist leaders. It’s not as if Basit did anything illegal or novel. Kashmir being the apple of discord between India and Pakistan, it is natural for Pakistan’s envoy to consult with secessionist Kashmiris before an important round of bilateral discussions. It has been done many times before. On this occasion, though, the Modi government threw a hissy fit, which is being spun by pliant commentators as a “tough approach”.

The extinguishing of hope was predictable, and followed directly from the mistake of inviting Nawaz Sharif to Delhi. The two prime ministers should have met only when they had something serious to decide upon, after the spadework for an agreement, however minor, had been completed. The euphoria of the inauguration handshake created expectations difficult to fulfill, considering the deeply entrenched and entirely incompatible views of the opposing sides.

The fact that Narendra Modi is no Atal Behari Vajpayee turned Mission Difficult into Mission Impossible. Vajpayee was committed to a legacy-defining vision of securing lasting peace with Pakistan. There was a tiny possibility that he might have accepted the sacrifices essential for it, and convinced his party and the nation to go along. In the reign of Modi, whose idea of India is the most aggressive of any leader since independence, such a sacrifice is inconceivable.

Give and take

Any successful negotiation requires give and take from both sides. The stumbling block to resolving the Kashmir issue is that Pakistan wants something India has, but can offer nothing in return that India desires. Although the official positions of the two sides indicate that each is in occupation of territory that rightfully belongs to the other, in reality India has no use for that part of Kashmir we call POK. Nor has anybody in POK expressed a will to secede from Pakistan and join India. In any conceivable deal, then, India can only lose territory. The abstract peace dividend doesn’t provide anything close to adequate compensation for this physical loss. Which is why India has negotiated in bad faith for decades.

In 1972, the two nations signed the Simla Agreement, resolving not to wage further wars, and to address speedily the issue of Kashmir. In 1999, through the Lahore Declaration, we agreed essentially to the same things, tacking on a promise not to nuke each other. But for over 40 years, through cycles of violent insurrection and relative calm, through dozens of horrific terrorist attacks and thousands of peaceful demonstrations, through periods of sectarian amity and passages of ethnic cleansing, India’s position on the issue hasn’t budged an inch, down to the proscription of any maps that show Pakistani Kashmir for what it really is.

Why would any Indian politician risk negotiating in earnest, when it is clear that Indians in general do not give a fig for what Kashmiris actually want? We are happy to let our security forces commit crimes shielded by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. We are content to pour billions of rupees into defending an icy wasteland where our soldiers regularly die of exposure. We are barely moved by the discovery of unmarked graves in which thousands of Kashmiris were secretly and hastily buried.

Bad faith

We cover up our bad faith, and our lack of concern for Kashmiri opinion, with clichés like “Kashmir is an integral part of India.” Well, Scotland is an integral part of Great Britain and of the United Kingdom, but the Scots will get a chance to vote for independence next month. We pretend that the democracy Kashmiris enjoy, such as it is, provides an adequate argument against separatist claims. The right to self-determination may be a complex matter, but state and local elections are clearly no substitute for it. Indians voted in nationwide elections in 1920 and 1937, but that didn’t stop us from demanding total independence.

The only thing that could make India negotiate seriously is a grave crisis that provides the world community leverage over our decision making. Such a crisis grows less likely with each passing year, as we grow stronger economically. In the circumstances everyone including the separatist leaders and the Pakistani High Commissioner seems to be going through the motions, like the bored cast of a dreary play.

It hardly matters that the Islamabad talks were cancelled, for nothing substantive would have emerged from them. Nothing ever has.