Observing the India-Pakistan relationship over the last two decades has been like watching a film where some of the actors change but the storyline remains hackneyed, predictable and stale. In a relationship that has been typically defined by déjà vu- the attempt at dialogue, the terror strike that is virtually written into the script, the standard condemnation and then the denials and the dithering- for the first time one can finally see a shift in approach.
At the Pakistan end there has been none of the usual nay-saying. Instead, there has been a near- admission that the Jaish-e-Mohammed was responsible for the Pathankot air-base strike. On our side, India has wisely ignored the high-decibel pressure of television shows that believe the angry hash tag is War by other means. The biggest shift is in fact the move away from the needless histrionics we saw when the meeting of the two National Security Advisors in Delhi was cancelled over the Pakistanis wanting to meet with Kashmiri separatists. At the time an elaborate game of shadow-boxing reduced the diplomatic process to a ball-by-ball commentary on prime-time. Sushma Swaraj eventually saved the day and masterfully covered for the inconsistencies in the government’s approach with a pitch-perfect press conference. But by then the familiar and puerile melodrama of the India-Pakistan conundrum had done the damage.
This time notwithstanding a much graver transgression-targeting an Indian military base is effectively an act of war-the hand at the wheel, on both sides, has been much steadier. Both countries have quietly agreed to reschedule the Foreign Secretary level talks for another day in the near future, while the National Security Advisors continue to talk. This makes sense because the immediate aftermath of a terrorist violence is hardly the most opportune moment to talk about resuming the composite dialogue-which would bring to the table a host of other issues, including the stand-offs over Sir Creek and the Siachen glacier. The government seems to have finally worked out that the ‘drawing of red lines’- a phrase we heard a lot of when the Pakistan-Hurriyat Conference nexus became the basis to scrap the NSA dialogue- may well have a nice, macho ring to it but in the end it was quite simply unsustainable.
But despite the greater maturity there is still a big challenge that could yet trip the government’s next moves on Pakistan. By asking for “prompt and decisive action” against the perpetrators of Pathankot the Foreign Ministry has created – and rightly so- the expectation among Indian citizens that the Pakistani probe must go well beyond ambiguous raids and non-specific crackdowns. Indian diplomats may well argue that long-term policy cannot hinge on an individual and that the future of talks cannot depend on whether Masood Azhar in this case- or Hafiz Saeed (for 26/11) - is put away or not. But there is already exasperation and cynicism among people at the fact that the terrorist responsible for the attack on India’s Parliament as well as the assault on the Jammu and Kashmir assembly has only been taken into ‘protective custody.’ Not once in all these years has he been probed for the hijacking of IC-814 which delivered him his freedom from an Indian prison in 1999. The sense of hope that was raised by the Pakistan media which reported (it turns out incorrectly or at least prematurely) his detention has already been belied. Now imagine if four days before or after the Foreign Secretary’s arrival in Islamabad, Azhar is released from the house in Islamabad where he has been questioned. Such a scenario is entirely plausible-after all he has never been formally charged with terrorism. Despite the government’s efforts to delink the next round of talks from Azhar’s arrest, the question will inevitably surface- with Azhar free, what precisely would qualify as the ‘definitive’ action India had demandedt?
If it is true-as is often suggested- that the Jaish is not what the Lashkar is to the Pakistani military - the LeT has been used as strategic weapon against India by Pakistan’s security agencies and the Jaish has on occasion turned on its own, most famously with the attempted assassination attempt on Pervez Musharraf- then the inability to put Azhar away- or to even name him in press releases is inexplicable.
Let’s not forget that while the Jaish has been diminished today by counter-terror operations in Kashmir Valley it was Masood Azhar who was responsible for the very first suicide squad attack in Srinagar. Four months after he was freed in exchange for the passengers on board IC 814, a seventeen year old student – the son of a teacher- rammed a stolen car laden with explosives into the entry gate of the Army’s cantonment area in Badami Bagh. Azhar who had recently launched Jaish-e-Mohammed (it did not exist before the IC 814 hijacking) and was now settled securely in Pakistan claimed responsibility. Up until then the Lashkar-e-Toiba, by contrast did not endorse Suicide because of strictures against it in Islam. Now the Jaish forced a shift in battle tactics. When the second suicide attack took place on Christmas that same year the Zarb-i-Momin- a mouth piece for the Jaish called the bomber- a 24 year old from Birmingham, a “martyr.” So began the attempt to locate Kashmir within the larger global ‘jihad” and try and transform a political insurgency into a religious one.
The Jaish may have gone off-script over the years but it has definitely been part of the Pakistani Deep State’s Great Game in Kashmir. Acting against Azhar won’t be simple; no wonder a statement purportedly from the Jaish tauntingly declares that no arrest has happened.
Now, the difficulty for India is how to keep the process of engagement with Pakistan alive without seeming to renege on its own demand for “prompt and decisive action.” It’s a razor thin line that the Prime Minister must find the courage to walk.
(Barkha Dutt is consulting editor, NDTV, and founding member, Ideas Collective. The views expressed are personal)