There is an increasing disconnect between the government of India’s attitude to Pakistan and the view of most educated Indians. The disconnect has been most apparent in the recriminations that have followed the failure of the Indo-Pak foreign minister’s summit. And each day brings new evidence — such as the Wikileaks documents — that seems to undermine the government’s approach.
To be fair, the official Indian approach sounds reasonable. The government says that India cannot hope to be one of the great powers of the 21st century if it continues to engage in pointless hostility with a small neighbour. It is, therefore, important to improve relations with Pakistan. Obviously, this will not happen overnight. But it is vital to continue with a process of engagement that results in confidence-building measures, in such symbolic gestures as the release of fishermen and in tiny incremental steps that improve the overall atmosphere. When both sides narrow what Manmohan Singh calls the ‘trust deficit’, then perhaps some real progress will be possible.
Educated Indians take a different view. They argue that there is only one compelling reason to talk to Pakistan: to put an end to cross-border terrorism. If Pakistan is serious about improving relations with India, then there is only one confidence-building measure that matters: a crackdown on those who murder and maim innocent Indian civilians. What’s worse, say many Indians, is that the Pakistan government is not only unwilling to stop terrorists from coming across the border but that elements within the regime are actually master-minding the terrorist operations. It makes no sense to talk of people-to-people contacts and cultural exchanges when Pakistani interests are already waging a proxy war against India. Any talks that do not result in an end to terror are worthless.
This position is the exact opposite of the government’s. For instance, the foreign ministry now suggests that the collapse of the last round of talks had something to do with the home secretary’s statement that the 26/11 Bombay attacks were — at least, according to David Headley — an Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) operation. The foreign ministry says that the home secretary’s assertion was ‘hundred per cent correct’ but that he should not have said anything about Pakistani-inspired terrorism on the eve of the talks.
That view demonstrates the distance between the two positions. The Indian public will only support the talks if we tackle the issue of terrorism head-on. The government of India, on the other hand, believes that we should not even mention terrorism for fear of upsetting the Pakistanis and damaging the dialogue process.
The government’s position would have more credibility if the foreign ministry could offer us any assurances that an incremental approach to improving relations will lead to a reduction in terror. In fact, the government is in no position to offer any such assurances. There have been so many confidence-building measures over the last two decades that by now both sides should be brimming with confidence. But the terrorism continues to get worse.
The response of the Pakistanis to India’s overtures this time around also suggests that Islamabad has no real interest in tackling the terror problem. The Pakistan foreign minister spoke insultingly about his Indian counterpart and — most revealingly — compared the Indian home secretary to Hafiz Sayeed. When a politician can no longer tell the difference between a bureaucrat and a terrorist, you know that his country is in serious trouble.
But even if we were to accept that the Pakistanis are serious about improving relations, there are practical problems.
First of all, the official position of the government of Pakistan is that it is also a victim of terror and is, therefore, unable to stamp out the terrorist threat to India, largely because it lacks the ability to do so. Secondly, it is not clear that the civilian government — the people we speak to — counts for very much. Real power appears to reside with the army whose chief was given an extension shortly after the summit collapsed. Thirdly, there is evidence to suggest that many of the terror groups are led and financed by retired generals who pursue their own private foreign policies. They do not consider themselves bound by their foreign minister’s commitments. And fourthly, there is the most obvious problem: the Pakistanis have a history of lying about their support to terrorist groups within the region.
Last week, a huge cache of 90,000 records of incidents and intelligence reports from the Afghan conflict was leaked to the internet site, Wikileaks. While this is raw intelligence that has not been fully processed, some revelations are worrying. The documents suggest that Pakistan has been secretly supporting the Taliban and sheltering such leaders as Osama bin Laden while simultaneously lying to the Americans about its activities. These intelligence reports also indicate that the ISI has been using the Haqqani network to launch terror attacks on Indians in Afghanistan. One such attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul resulted in the death of 54 people, including our defence attaché. Moreover, the documents record the movements of such figures as General Hamid Gul, an India-hating former head of ISI, who appears to be pursuing his own agenda while liaising with terrorist groups.
The consensus in the US is that while every bit of intelligence in the raw files cannot be treated as gospel truth, the sheer mass of evidence that Pakistan is financing and arming terrorists to attack Indians (and Americans, for that matter) is too strong to be dismissed.
These revelations will confirm the worst fears of most Indians. Every doubt we had is justified: the military does call the shots; retired Generals pursue their own agendas with private armies and Pakistan has been lying to both India and America about the role of the ISI in fomenting terror in the region.
In the light of all this, the government’s approach makes less and less sense. Why bother with a polite step-by-step engagement with Pakistan when the situation is so grave? Pakistan is busy sending terrorists to kill Indians while cheerfully lying to the world about the activities of the ISI and its army.
It is not necessary to be a Hindu communalist or a Pakistan-hater to recognise that India is wasting its time. The government needs to listen to the views of its own people. We do not want war. We do not believe in needless hostility.
But equally, we simply do not see the point of this pointless charade. Peace with Pakistan is a laudable aim. But one country cannot make peace by itself. And as long as the other continues to kill our people, all attempts at a high-level dialogue come across less as peaceful initiatives and more as signs of weakness.
If not outright stupidity.
(The views expressed by the author are personal)