As Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit’s comments regarding the peace process being suspended hit the Indian media, the impression is that Islamabad and New Delhi may have missed the peace bus yet again. But the question is: did either side even get onboard the bus? The doors remain closed for years and open up briefly, a shift that both sides find difficult to interpret and manoeuvre. This is an age-old story of varied expectations. In that respect, Basit is correct in arguing that peace should not be viewed as a favour to the other, but a process arising out of a country’s own needs or understanding of conflict and peace in the region.
The Pakistan high commissioner is a senior bureaucrat and not the ultimate policymaker. He is in no position to suspend the peace process or the talks. But his comments echoed the frustration of the security establishment regarding the slow movement of the comprehensive dialogue. The fact of the matter is that whether it is terrorism or Kashmir, both nations have not moved an inch from their positions. Basit’s comments express the reality that the peace process is a victim of acute divergence regarding expected gains. While for Delhi the primary issue is counter-terrorism, and solving the Mumbai and Pathankot cases, Islamabad believes that nothing can move without resolving the Kashmir issue as per UN resolutions.
In arguing that Pakistan will wait until India comes around to taking the composite dialogue route instead of just sticking to the issue of terrorism, Basit seems to be taking an approach that the delegation from Islamabad ought to have taken at Ufa, in Russia, last July, where India and Pakistan issued a joint statement that excluded any mention of Kashmir. Since Kashmir is central to Pakistan’s imagination, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif should not have signed a joint statement that excluded the issue. Sharif was under no pressure to sign a joint statement unless there was some compulsion to demonstrate Pakistan’s keenness to move forward to the US. Indeed, Washington plays a vital role of balancing temperatures between India and Pakistan.
Basit’s statement, hence, very clearly outlines the security establishment’s perspective that Pakistan will only talk about terrorism as long as there is a willingness to resolve other issues. This means that Pakistan’s joint investigation team’s visit to Pathankot should have been accompanied by a roadmap for foreign secretary-level talks, which, to Islamabad, is the litmus test for Delhi’s sincerity in engaging wholeheartedly. The talks on terrorism cannot proceed without Kashmir, or the pace of talks on terrorism versus outstanding disputes cannot be different.
The India bogey
Pakistan’s military establishment has remained cautious of any peace overtures that undermine the country’s security or the territorial dispute with India. It is also highly suspicious of India talking the talk but not walking the walk as far as composite dialogue is concerned. Since the 1990s, the military has not allowed any political government to transform peace talks into a sustainable process, which will take a life of its own independent of the Army. Reportedly, the Lahore Declaration of 1999 was scuttled due to this very suspicion that a peace process begun in Delhi would make gains without making concessions on the primary dispute – Kashmir. Therefore, despite the perception that the former army chief General Ashfaq Kiyani had shown flexibility on trade with India or had talked about the key threat to Pakistan being terrorism, India has remained the primary bogey. There is also the deep suspicion that left to politicians Pakistan may end up compromising its key interests.
Despite Sharif being invested in the idea of peace with India and improving relations with Pakistan’s neighbours, Basit’s statement seems to have put things back in perspective for the audience in Delhi. This means that the security establishment will guard the peace talks as it has always done during the Lahore Declaration, and even under Pervez Musharraf. Moreover, it’s not just the peace process with India that is suspended but also the negotiations between Islamabad and Kabul. The talks with Afghanistan have not moved far because Pakistan’s army does not trust Kabul and would like to midwife peace between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The Pakistan Army does not trust Indian influence in Afghanistan especially now that it believes it has proof of Delhi’s involvement in fanning the Baloch insurgency. The capture of the alleged Indian spy, Kulbhushan Jhadav, is what, at least, gives the Pakistan Army credibility at home vis-à-vis the political government. It does not matter that the matter of Jhadav as a spy is not definitively settled.
What is, however, more important is the fact that now people in Pakistan will be forced to think through Sharif’s eagerness to improve relations with Delhi. As some of the pro-military analysts argue, Jhadav is the much-needed equaliser. The underlying message then is why constantly harp on talking about terrorism when both sides are guilty of the same crime. Since India does not now appear above board to Pakistan, a better option is to start with the composite dialogue than just harp on Mumbai and Pathankot. These matters will be discussed but alongside India’s involvement in Balochistan.
Back to square one
There is also a possible realisation that the situation in the Kashmir Valley may heat up again due to the nature of politics, increased intervention from Delhi and rising frustration of the youth who feel burdened with the manner in which nationalism is defined and imposed on people around India. While imposed nationalism means different things to different people, its implementation on religious minorities especially in Kashmir makes the situation worse.
Apparently, there is an increase in Islamism in Kashmir, which does not necessarily mean benefits for Pakistan, but it can translate into increased violence and hostility towards the idea of the Indian federation inside the Valley. Pakistan’s intelligence could calculate the situation as favourable, or at best resulting in a situation whereby the current government in Delhi may be forced to discuss the matter.
The political government in Pakistan is no longer capable of enforcing its agenda on its security establishment. Sharif is being shaken up wildly through different means. From political parties such as the Jamaat-e-Islami, who traditionally support the armed forces, to aspirants for the Army’s favour like Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party have all have ganged up against Sharif.
Depending on how matters unfold, the two neighbours are back to square one. Islamabad and Delhi need to either rework the framework for talks whereby terrorism and composite dialogue are conducted simultaneously, or resign themselves to the reality that this is not the time for peace.