The India-Pakistan relationship currently resembles a collage of circumspection and expectation — faint hope coexisting with old doubts.
On the face of it, either side appears in search of consensus within: New Delhi for initiating a comprehensive dialogue pushed back by Pathankot; Islamabad for going after Punjab-based anti-India groups that export terror to derail dialogue. The conflict in this confluence is between Pakistan wanting early resumption of foreign secretary-level talks while India bides time for ‘proof’ of an honest probe to catch the perpetrators of Pathankot.
The Narendra Modi regime is of the view the attack on the IAF base hurt the ambience the Indian Premier built for a full-blown dialogue by visiting Lahore to wish Nawaz Sharif on his birthday. Only a professional probe into the incident — complete with names of individuals and organisations that carried it out — could help get closer to the FS-level talks.
The ongoing engagement between the two countries’ national security advisers on terrorism has undoubtedly paid dividends, including useful intelligence exchange. But foreign secretary Jaishankar’s comment that dealing with terror took precedence over the comprehensive dialogue for now will stand until, at least, the arrival of the Pak probe team. Much would depend on the evidence they bring and the evidence they seek, said an Indian official.
There’s appreciation in Delhi of Pakistani NSA Lt Gen Naseer Janjua’s approach in his talks with India’s Ajit Doval. The tipoff he sent about a terror strike during Maha Shivratri was a refreshing change about which Pakistan’s interior minister Chaudhary Nisar has since briefed Parliament: “Such activities are carried out by non-state actors but we have to take the burden of responsibility.”
The initiative however would have little value unless the Pathankot case is taken to its logical conclusion.
“Pakistan shouldn’t be in denial mode. They should explain to us the compulsions that make them keep or not act against anti-India elements. We can disagree but can also understand their point,” remarked a highly-placed security official. He was responding to a close aide of Sharif who, in an informal interaction with Hindustan Times, called the Pathankot probe an “opportunity to assure each other of our commitment to counter terrorism.”
The Pak PM’s aide was simultaneously emphatic that progress with India on issues of concern to his country would help the Sharif regime build a political consensus – of the kind it has behind the army action on the Af-Pak border – to go after groups active in the eastern flank.
He flagged issues such as Siachen, Sir Creek, Kashmir, trade and terrorism to clarify: “We aren’t insisting on identical pace. But FS-level talks need to be made a normal process…”
The spread of groups like Jaish-e-Mohammad and the Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan’s Punjab province and beyond through a network of mosques, seminaries and even kindergarten schools affords them a socio-religious clout, officials there insist, and it can only be progressively diminished.
What made the challenge even more formidable were their linkages with elements in security-intelligence agencies.
“We have taken a decision in principle to fight all of them. But you must appreciate we cannot go after them at the same time,” the official remarked.
He said Sharif has taken a strategic decision, with the Army on the same page, to improve ties with India. But he wasn’t sure whether the Modi regime has reached that point yet.
For his part, the Indian official said: “Pakistan’s legitimacy is down internationally. It should realise that India can help regain it better than even the US. Four our part, we have to assure them that our growth will not weaken them but will be for them a source of stability and strength. They in return should stop blaming us for their faults and resort to a proxy war...”
In short, things could move forward if Pakistan carries out ‘bona fide’ probe into Pathankot with tangible results.
Once trust develops, all issues that are doable can be taken up—and that includes Siachen. The possibility of Modi and Sharif catching up during the March 31-April 1 Nuclear Summit in Washington is there. They also have a meeting window in the India-Pak T-20 match.
Noting is confirmed. But then surprises are becoming commonplace in our bilateral ties.
(The writer was in Pakistan recently on a lecture invite from the Centre for Research and Security Studies)