India, Pakistan and the Road Not Taken

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    The road to rapprochement with Pakistan is littered with ‘if-onlys’ and missed opportunities. Take a look at the twists and turns in the search for peace between the neighbours, as New Delhi-based foreign policy and security analyst, and senior journalist Dr Manoj Joshi puts the troubled relationship under the lens.

    When I began to think about writing this essay about the pivots and the progression of India-Pakistan relations, many thoughts rushed into my mind. After all, in my lifetime, Pakistan has been so much of a presence in the collective memory of this region. And then when I thought of the theme, words from a poem of T S Eliot echoed in my mind.

    “What might have been is an abstraction

    Remaining a perpetual possibility

    Only in a world of speculation.

    What might have been and what has been

    Point to one end, which is always present.

    Footfalls echo in the memory

    Down the passage which we did not take

    Towards the door we never opened…”

    Not surprisingly, the history of the relationship defines how it unfolds. The separation of Pakistan and India has not been like that of the elements of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia or Eritrea and Ethiopia. Pakistan was a nation conjured out of thin air based on the belief that the Muslims of India were a nation unto themselves.

    That, too, was something that could have been worked on. The problem has been that that nation has, from the outset, believed that it is in no way less than India—which goes against the common sense of demography, geography and economic reality. But that has not mattered as the nation shaped its grand strategy to maintain effective parity with India.

    If it was economic parity, it would not be a problem. But, in practice, this has meant opportunistic foreign alliances, the maintenance of a huge military, the fabrication of nuclear weapons and the use of covert forces, including terrorists, to attack and destabilise India. In some ways, this has worked; India has not been able to leave behind such impediments in South Asia, despite its vast military, nuclear weapons, size and resources. In other words, its ambition to play a larger role in the world has been stymied.

    Looking back, I find that there are four points where there could have been an alternative opening, leading to pathways other than the dismal one we have walked on so far.

    First. On the vexed question of Kashmir, India and Pakistan came close to working out issues on their own. In 1953, things began to look good, with Jawaharlal Nehru exchanging letters with two of Pakistan’s prime ministers, first Khwaja Nazimuddin and then his successor, Muhammad Ali Bogra. Informal discussions between Nehru and Bogra began on the sidelines of the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference in London in early June 1953.

    On his way back from London, Nehru dropped in at Karachi for more substantive talks, and both sides acknowledged they had had a good discussion on Kashmir, canal waters, evacuee property, and enclaves in Bengal, among other matters. This was at a time when the United Nations had reached what appeared to be a dead-end in trying to resolve the Kashmir problem.

    In mid-August, Bogra, accompanied by his foreign minister, Zafrullah Khan, returned the courtesy to visit New Delhi. A joint statement after the meeting noted that the two sides had agreed that the best way to move ahead would be “an impartial plebiscite”. This had been agreed to earlier, but the devil had been in the details. This time around, India and Pakistan agreed that the details would be worked out by them directly, rather than through the UN-appointed plebiscite administrator, US Admiral Chester Nimitz.

    But, soon, this new approach on Kashmir began to collide with Pakistan’s strategy of effective parity. The US began to look at Pakistan as an anchor of its anti-Soviet alliance. In May 1953, Pakistan received Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who came scouting for allies, followed in December by Vice-President Richard Nixon. In February 1954, the US took the decision to provide military aid to Pakistan and, later that year, in May, the US-Pakistan Mutual Defence Assistance Agreement was signed. By this time, a “deep state” had emerged in Pakistan around its military, which appointed itself the guardian of the state.

    This more-or-less torpedoed Indo-Pakistan efforts to resolve the Kashmir issue by themselves. Nehru fought strenuously against the Cold War and here, the biggest power in the world had just become an ally of Pakistan. Direct negotiations continued till September 1954, when Pakistan declared that Nehru’s attitude was blocking progress and that the case needed to be bounced back to the UN Security Council.

    To say that the US arrival in the region poisoned any chance of an India-Pakistan rapprochement would be an understatement. Flush with US military aid, Pakistan took a distinctly illiberal turn towards military dictatorship. Its relations with India went onto an entirely different trajectory, one that saw efforts at normalisation under civilian governments, and equally determined exertions by the “deep state” to prevent it.[i]

    Second. Separating fact from fiction is not easy when it comes to history. Many Pakistanis view the Indian military action to liberate Bangladesh as nothing but a stab in its back. The creation of Bangladesh may have had an Indian catalyst, but the elements required were purely Pakistani. Responsibility for bringing East Pakistan to the brink lies fully with the Pakistani deep state. This was not a war of India’s choosing. It was a Pakistani civil war whose consequences weighed heavily on India. Almost till the end, the Indians thought they could work out a negotiated settlement between the two wings of Pakistan. Dhaka wasn’t even the target of the Indian military till 10 December 1971.

    The action against Pakistan by Indira Gandhi, the prime minister at the time, may have almost been an afterthought. Yet, she was a generous victor: she returned 90,000 prisoners of war without holding the Pakistani military’s feet to the fire. The Simla Agreement of 1972 was a remarkably equal document, considering it was being signed by a victorious power and a defeated one. It envisaged a formal “as is where is” division of the Jammu & Kashmir state, with the “Ceasefire Line” being transformed to a “Line of Control”, or LoC, and, eventually, to an international boundary.

    Remarkably, Indira Gandhi took the slippery Z A Bhutto, her counterpart, at his word that he would come through on the proposal.[ii] Her advisers somewhat grandiosely spoke of Versailles and warned that too tough a peace would forever bar reconciliation. Sadly, the opposite happened. Humiliated by its defeat, the Pakistan Army’s distrust and fear of India deepened.

    In the meantime, beginning in 1972 (before India’s nuclear test in 1974, in Pokhran), Bhutto initiated Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme as an ultimate means of ensuring effective parity with India.

    Third. Flush with the experiences of the US-Saudi-Afghan jihad, a new conventional arsenal courtesy of the United States, and nuclear weapons provided by the Chinese, Pakistan turned the heat on India in the period 1985-1995. The tactic was to use a variety of actors—Indian separatists, primed -for-jihad Pakistanis and, some years later, young Muslims radicalised by the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992—to launch a multi-pronged covert war whose aim was to break up India into manageable pieces and weaken it in all ways possible.

    The Indian response was to deal with this defensively, strengthen the police, fence off borders, reach out politically to dissidents and offer Pakistan a path towards reconciliation. At the height of the Kashmir rebellion, in January 1994, New Delhi sent Islamabad a set of six detailed proposals, spelling out ways to resolve a number of outstanding India-Pakistan issues.

    Pakistan rejected the proposals but the idea resurfaced as the “Composite Dialogue” aimed at discussing—Kashmir, terrorism, the Tulbul Navigation project in Kashmir, the boundary at Sir Creek in the Rann of Kutch, the Siachen glacier, and economic and commercial ties.

    This dialogue process was more of an endless tunnel than an alternative door. It was based on the belief that if the two sides could get the habit of resolving problems, say the relatively smaller ones like Sir Creek or Siachen, they could eventually build up momentum to deal with the big ones like terrorism and Kashmir. But it was not to be.

    The two sides actually worked out deals on Siachen and Sir Creek, but they walked back at the last moment. The 1998 nuclear weapons tests by both India and Pakistan raised tensions to new levels, blocking all avenues of dialogue.

    Fourth. The next effort to walk on the alternative path involved three unusual men— Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) ‘pracharak’ and Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, Pakistan Army chief, and later President, Pervez Musharraf, and noted economist and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. As is well known, two of them, Musharraf and Manmohan Singh, came from families who became refugees on account of Partition. Vajpayee was a life-long member of an organisation that believes in an Akhand Bharat or United India.

    Vajpayee deserves the greatest credit here. He was a visionary who saw India living in peace with its neighbours. He famously said: “You can change friends but not neighbours.” Besides vision, he possessed the sagacity and determination to push forward his ideas.

    In 1999, setting aside the tensions arising from the nuclear weapons tests, Vajpayee arrived in Lahore in a bus and made it a point to visit the city’s Minar-e-Pakistan, the monument to the founding of Pakistan. This was a signal of reconciliation not just by the Prime Minister of India, but a long-time member and evangelist of the RSS.

    The man who undid this was General Pervez Musharraf, who as Pakistan Army chief was the de facto head of the Pakistani deep state. He organised an audacious operation to occupy parts of the LoC on the Indian side in the Kargil region. In a carefully controlled military response and some help from the US, India defeated this move in 1999 during what has come to be called the ‘Kargil War’.

    In 2001, Vajpayee invited Musharraf, now President of Pakistan, for talks in Agra and sought to move forward the agenda of reconciliation, not just with Pakistan, but also in Kashmir. The talks failed and the deep state hit out in various directions— massacres and bombings in Kashmir, an attack on Parliament House in New Delhi in December 2001.

    After a year of near war between India and Pakistan, Vajpayee and Musharraf picked up the threads of the proposals that had been tabled in Agra. In 2003, Musharraf declared a ceasefire along the LoC which dramatically reduced civilian and military casualties there and also curtailed the cross-border movement of infiltrators from Pakistan that had used the bombardment as a cover to penetrate the Indian positions.

    Subsequently, a meeting of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which took place in Islamabad in January 2004, proved to be a propitious conjuncture. The organisation took the decision to create a South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) by 2014. This appeared to embed the India-Pakistan process in a larger South Asian framework, soothing Islamabad’s concerns about Indian dominance.

    Bilateral talks between India and Pakistan on the sidelines of the SAARC meeting led to the Islamabad Declaration of January 4, 2004, which triggered an all-too-brief era of good feelings between the two countries, one in which they made yet another and serious attempt to overcome their differences.

    This period—Manmohan Singh had by then succeeded Vajpayee as prime minister—saw more people-to-people travel between the two countries than in recent memory. Beginning in 2003, the two sides hosted each other alternately for four cricket series with fans travelling to either country in large numbers to support their teams. People also visited relatives, or simply revelled in visiting a new country.

    Importantly, back-channel talks between officials led to the two coming tantalisingly close to resolving the Kashmir issue through a four-point formula that would not change the borders as they existed, but make them soft by enabling movement of peoples on both sides of Jammu & Kashmir. This is known as the ‘Musharraf four-point formula’, but in reality it was something both sides had worked on.[iii]

    But even as the two countries began to work on it, the ground under Musharraf’s feet was undercut. He gave up his command of the Pakistan Army in 2007 and domestic turbulence gripped Pakistan. And, within a year, he was forced out of office as the President. The leadership of Pakistan was once again divided between the Army and civilians and though the latter tried to take up the threads of reconciliation, they came apart with the Mumbai terrorist attack of November 2008, organised, of course, by the deep state.

    Grand strategies

    Any Indian grand strategy ought to be focused on removing between 700 to 800 million of its citizens from abject poverty. This requires, among other things, a stable and peaceful periphery. Good relations with Pakistan are in India’s national interests. The same, of course, can be said of Pakistan as well.

    But the reality has proved to be different. As mentioned earlier, Islamabad has long pursued the maintenance of effective parity with India in everything but economic growth. India, lacking the military or economic heft to decisively alter Pakistan’s behaviour, either through military coercion or economic co-option, has sought to manage relations at the lowest level of violence.

    My belief is that, if India can manage just two decades of double-digit economic growth, it will have its own consequences. Recall, if you will, that the two countries have come closest to resolving issues when the Indian economy was flourishing during 2000-2008. That was also a time when India had come close to the US and was distinctly pulling away from the subcontinent.

    Targeting Mumbai in November 2008, as Pakistan’s deep state did, was aimed at derailing that process. (And this was not the first time that economic targets had been marked along with political ones. Recall that the Bombay Stock Exchange, Zaveri Bazar and the headquarters of Air India were targets in bombings in early 1993 as well.)

    There are at present several alarms. Fast-paced economic growth appears to be a thing of the past. India’s grand strategy has begun to imitate that of Pakistan. Indeed, political trends in India seem to be validating the belief of Pakistan’s founding fathers that Muslims will be consigned to the role of second-class citizens in India.

    As I write this, there is virtually no diplomatic interaction and the costs of hostile relations between the two are starkly visible. Each country has become the monkey on the back of the other. The price being paid is higher for India, which has geopolitical ambitions to emerge as a great power. With the Chinese strung out in the north across the Himalaya, and the Pakistanis to the west, India appears to be destined to remain locked in South Asia, with Pakistan, as it has been since 1947.

    [i] This section is based on P L Lakhanpal, Essential Documents and Notes on Kashmir Dispute (Delhi, International Books, 1965) Section 12 “Direct Negotiations”

    [ii] P N Dhar, Indira Gandhi, the ‘Emergency’ and Indian Democracy, (New Delhi, OUP, 2000) pp.209-11

    [iii] Sanjaya Baru, The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh, (New Delhi, Penguin/Viking, 2014) pp 186-195


    Dr Manoj Joshi is a New Delhi-based foreign policy and security analyst, author and Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. He was earlier the Political Editor of The Times of India, the Defence Editor at India Today, and has worked in senior editorial positions in The Hindu, Hindustan Times and Mail Today.
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