Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Yet another attempt at peace with Pakistan

Islamabad's actions after Pathankot are a charade that has been played before

The terrorist attack on the Pathankot airbase has succeeded in deferring—though not entirely burying—the prospects of talks between the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan. The two national security advisers are, reportedly, in regular contact. The interval created by this deferment provides a brief but crucial opportunity to reflect on India’s policy on Pakistan.

Since the “pull aside" meeting between the prime ministers of India and Pakistan—Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif—in Paris on the sidelines of the climate change conference, the relationship between the two neighbours has followed a pattern which subcontinental observers are too familiar with. Putting aside the conditions imposed on Pakistan, New Delhi decided to move, once again, to the dialogue table. The national security advisers met in Bangkok. The visit of external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj to Islamabad for the Heart of Asia conference paved the way for the revival of the comprehensive bilateral dialogue.

Modi, like his predecessors, showed overzealousness when he made a stopover, while returning from Kabul, in Lahore to personally convey birthday greetings to Sharif. In what has become a customary ritual, India’s friendly overture was met with a violent response from across the border. The attack on Pathankot was traced back to Jaish-e-Mohammed, a terrorist group headed by Masood Azhar. While Azhar has had a chequered history with Pakistan’s security apparatus, his operations and designs against India have received full state support. In fact, there is strong evidence that it was Pakistan’s intelligence agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) which masterminded the hijacking of Indian Airlines Flight 814 in 1999 and secured the release of Azhar from Indian prison.

While not threatening to call off the talks, India made them contingent on action taken by Pakistan against the perpetrators of the Pathankot attack. The inertia in Islamabad was shrugged off by the telephone call from US secretary of state John Kerry. Multiple raids and arrests have followed, including the “protective custody" of Azhar himself. Azhar’s detention, though, has not been officially conveyed to India.

Many in India have welcomed the steps taken by the Sharif government and the Indian government has also expressed satisfaction. Such contentment is, sadly, an acute case of historical amnesia. This charade has been played before. Pakistan has previously arrested India’s most wanted terrorists—Hafiz Saeed and Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi—but has failed to marshal enough evidence to prosecute them in a court of law. Even Azhar was detained after the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament but was let off without any formal charges. It is telling that Pakistan has not been able to find enough evidence against heads of internationally designated terrorist organizations that operate on its own soil.

However, the dialogue process cannot be held hostage by terrorists, say the supporters of the peace process. An additional argument they make is that India needs to strengthen the civilian government vis-à-vis the army in Pakistan. These are specious arguments. A more detailed look at the political economy and the state of civil-military relations in Pakistan reveals why.

The divide between the army and civilians is at best blurred and at worst non-existent. Christophe Jaffrelot in his latest book The Pakistan Paradox: Instability and Resilience points out the “collusive transactions" the civilians enter into with the military “exposing the limits of their sense of democracy." He adds: “The convergence of civil and military authorities within an establishment comprising some 2,000 families offers a key to the interpretation of the country’s stability paradox: whether political parties or the army are in power, it is the interests of one and the same class that are protected."

In the early days of his political career, Sharif himself collaborated with General Zia-ul-Haq, the former military dictator, for 10 years. Sharif was repeatedly used by the army to keep Benazir Bhutto from gaining power in Islamabad. The invasion of Kargil in 1999 happened when Sharif was prime minister and his claims of being kept completely in the dark by General Pervez Musharraf are believed by few.

The new bout of peace efforts by India and Pakistan, however, requires one not to question Sharif’s bona fides. Probing questions, the peace lobby says, can destabilize the process. It should not be surprising if the process is destabilized regardless.

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