Are the two NSAs scripting the new India-Pakistan lexicon of peace?

  • Vinod Sharma, Hindustan Times, Islamabad/Lahore
  • Updated: Mar 09, 2016 08:23 IST
Naseer Janjua and Ajit Doval, National Security Advisors of Pakistan and India. (PTI File Photo)

They’re talking but not through the media — which they’ve used only to let their actions speak. It’s a relatively new experiment in Indo-Pak relations bedevilled historically by vituperative slugs. Gentle nudges seem to be working for now. The etymology of the new lexicon could be in the growing chemistry — and suggestions of trust — between the two national security advisers.

Their off-camera engagements have yielded results — including a terror alert last week to New Delhi from Islamabad. The optimism stems as much from other signals: Pakistan lodging an FIR on the Pathankot attack; its foreign minister saying a phone number the attackers used was traced to Jaish-e-Mohammed’s Bahavalpur base; the information that JeM chief Masood Azhar is in custody.

Against this backdrop has come a bigger straw in the wind— the hanging on February 29 of Mumtaz Qadri, a police commando who pumped bullets into West Punjab governor Salman Taseer for seeking reforms in the country’s blasphemy laws. Politically, the execution is a big deal for the Sharif brothers — Nawaz and Shahbaz — given its religious-political implications in their home province.

Qadri was deified after the 2011 killing by a rabid assortment of Mullahs and advocates. They feted and garlanded him for taking out the very person he was assigned to safeguard.

The hanging and the intelligence alert NSA Ajit Doval received from Pakistani counterpart Naseer Janjua on possible cross-border attacks during Mahashivratri, could be read as a gingerly shift to containing, if not immediately confronting, anti-India groups based in the country’s eastern enclaves in Punjab. A Pakistani official distinguished the push in the east from the army’s Zarb-e-Azb operation on the Af-Pak border in the west. “The task in Punjab isn’t easy as it cannot be performed militarily,” he reasoned.

In southern Punjab where groups such as JeM have formidable clout, the answer lies in intelligence-based police operations made credible by parallel India-Pak dialogue on ‘resolvable’ issues. “Masood Azhar and Hafiz Saeed touch a chord with people on Kashmir. We have to have a counter-narrative. They’d dwindle into history if we give Kashmiris an environment of comfort,” the official said.

For the present, the civilian regime’s actions in tandem with the army are subtle, not frontal. For instance, PEMRA (the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority) got LeT headman Saeed’s support for and threat of more Pathankot-type cross-border strikes blacked out in the local media. It reportedly has gag orders in place against groups revelling in anti-India rhetoric.

An aide of Nawaz Sharif explained the effort was “to narrow the field of play for terrorist organisations” through legal restrictions. They can’t be allowed a free run of the place with over 5,000 lives lost and 1.80 lakh Pakistani troops engaged in counter-terror operations, he said.

And like many others I met — journalists, diplomats, politicos, think-tankers — the PM’s aide advocated early resumption of FS-level talks. Recalling what he termed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “assurance” to Sharif in Lahore (before the Pathankot attack) to not let anything “disturb” the dialogue process, he cautioned: “trust deficit will increase if dialogue is postponed further. Such positions aren’t sustainable”.

Imtiaz Gul of the Islamabad-based Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS) underscored the need for an outcome-oriented dialogue to “disincentivise (sic) the theory of victimisation” in Kashmir the militants exploited for popular traction. He didn’t go into details. What’s well known is that Pakistan’s security forces aren’t untouched by the exponential rise of the religious middle-class in the Islamic Republic.

Even the army cannot but pay heed to internal feedback on its anti-terror campaign, said a Lahore-based commentator. The officers promoted to higher ranks now come from the deeply religious middle-class. From Islamabad’s standpoint, that makes advances on the political front with New Delhi ‘imperative’ to balance out action against anti-India jihadists.

So what’s doable in the immediate future? Cognizant though of our army’s position against withdrawing from strategic heights it occupies in Siachen, Pakistani experts consider the glacial confrontation ‘resolvable’ — what with a blueprint inherited from 1989 and revisited in Track-2 military to military engagements. “The psychological factor of an understanding on Siachen will be huge,” said former Pakistan high commissioner to India Aziz Ahmed Khan. But for that to happen the two sides have to develop an equally huge reservoir of trust!

(The writer travelled to Pakistan recently as a guest speaker at the Centre for Research and Security Studies)

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