Spanish-born US philosopher George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. India’s propensity to act in haste and repent at leisure has run deep in its personality-driven foreign policy since Independence. Even on an issue that poses an existential threat to it — Pakistan-sponsored terrorism — India finds that history is repeating itself.
Despite the unending aggression flowing from Pakistan’s foundational loathing of India, New Delhi has failed to evolve a coherent, long-term policy towards that country. If anything, India’s Pakistan policy has zigzagged under virtually every prime minister. Since Narendra Modi’s unannounced Christmas day visit to Pakistan, New Delhi is relearning one fundamental reality — no amount of Indian hugging of Pakistan’s civilian leadership can blunt the Pakistani military’s strategy to bleed India through a ‘war of a thousand cuts’.
Consistency in policy or goals has never been India’s forte, given its hug-then-repent penchant. Indeed, successive Indian leaders have assumed that other nations will do what India is adept at pulling off — change beliefs and policies overnight. India has also distinguished itself by reposing trust in foes and then crying “betrayal” when they deceive it, as happened in 1962 and 1999 (Kargil). Another reason India relives history is that virtually every prime minister has sought to reinvent the foreign-policy wheel rather than learn the essentials of statecraft or heed past national mistakes.
Other than the tool of dialogue, India has little direct leverage over Pakistan. The dialogue instrument thus must be employed judiciously to help improve Pakistan’s conduct. For Islamabad, by contrast, talks with India are essential not to help normalise political and economic relations but to aid its hardball tactics to spotlight the revisionist issue that still serves as the glue to prevent a dysfunctional Pakistan from unravelling — Kashmir. Talks also provide Pakistan the equivalence it craves with India.
But with each Indian prime minister ingenuously thinking that he can make peace with Pakistan, successive governments have played into Islamabad’s hands by blundering.
Jawaharlal Nehru internationalised the Kashmir issue by taking it to the UN and implicitly accepting Pakistan’s takeover of more than one-third of Jammu and Kashmir. Lal Bahadur Shastri at Tashkent magnanimously returned Haji Pir, now a key staging ground in Pakistan’s war by terror. Indira Gandhi’s folly at Simla in securing nothing concrete from a vanquished Pakistan helped lay the foundation for Pakistan’s strategy to inflict death by a thousand cuts.
The sphinx-like Atal Bihari Vajpayee took Nawaz Sharif by surprise by embracing him at Wagah and then signing the Lahore Declaration that singled out J&K by name as a bilateral issue awaiting resolution. Not surprisingly, Kashmir and terror dominated Vajpayee’s tenure.
Vajpayee never learned from his serial blunders, which is why he paid another Pakistan visit just months before voters swept him out of office. It was under him that an ignominious episode unparalleled in modern world history occurred, with the Indian foreign minister flying to known terrorist territory to hand-deliver three leading terrorists from Indian jails. Just the way the terrorists-for-Rubaiya Sayeed swap a decade earlier helped fuel the Pakistan-scripted Kashmir insurrection, the Kandahar cave-in before hijackers led to a qualitative escalation in cross-border terrorism, including on national emblems of power.
And just as Vajpayee’s 1999 bus journey to Lahore produced the Kargil War and the hijacking of Indian Airlines Flight IC-814, Modi’s Christmas hug of Sharif in Lahore yielded a quick payback from Pakistan as New Year’s gift: Twin terror attacks, outsourced to Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) — one on the Pathankot airbase (in what was the military equivalent of the 2008 Mumbai strikes on civilian targets) and the other on the Indian consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan.
Indeed, the JeM — an Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) front organisation — typifies why India relives history. India jailed Masood Azhar for taking Western hostages in J&K in 1994 and then forgot about him until the IC-814 hijackers demanded his release. Once Azhar and the other two terrorists were traded for the hostages, the ISI brought him to Pakistan, arranging a hero’s welcome and installing him as the JeM head.
It did not take Azhar’s sponsors long to thank Vajpayee for his release by sending JeM gunmen to kill India’s elected leadership. The 2001 Parliament attack led India to mobilise its armed forces for war and demand that Pakistan shut down its state-run terrorist complex or face punishment. However, after keeping its forces in war-ready mode for months, India backed down meekly without securing anything from Islamabad.
Now, JeM’s sponsors have thanked Modi for his Pakistan visit by carrying out the Pathankot and Mazar-i-Sharif strikes. What has been Modi’s response? To supply Islamabad, even before the airbase siege ended, evidence of the Pathankot attackers’ Pakistani footprints and to tamely put up with Sharif’s charade of “preventively detaining” JeM leaders. If anything, the ISI will use the evidence to ensure that its next attack leaves no similar telltale signs.
By providing evidence and by offering to welcome Pakistani investigators, India has played into Pakistan’s hands by buying the myth that terror groups like the JeM are independent of the Pakistani State. Any Indian policymaker who thinks this approach will help contain Pakistani terrorism has probably been spending more time than he should have reading Alice in Wonderland. Pakistan’s terror masters will focus any Pakistani investigation on identifying their latest attack’s operational deficiencies.
After each terror attack, it’s déjà vu all over again, with Pakistan promising to assist Indian investigations, only to take India round and round the mulberry bush. It is past time for India to recognise that escapism as policy is an invitation to never-ending trouble. Moreover, maintaining a peace dialogue with a renegade neighbour only lends legitimacy to its roguish ways because that nation will use such talks as a cover to undermine India’s security.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author. The views expressed are personal.