India and Pakistan must not abandon bilateral talks to normalise ties

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India-Pakistan relations have fallen into a pattern in which the two sides conduct bilateral dialogue for some time and take a few steps towards normalising relations, before some event forces an abrupt cessation of talks. As a result, much ground is lost between them, and it takes enormous effort to restart the dialogue process all over again.

Rising public outcry fuelled by high pitched rhetoric on television and opposition parties critical of the government’s weak response to the gruesome beheading of an Indian soldier on the Line of Control has resulted in some hasty action. Visa relaxation for senior citizens was cancelled, Pakistani hockey players were sent back, a concert by a Pakistani singer cancelled, and the Pakistani women’s cricket team is unlikely to play in the World Cup in India.

The meeting of Brigadier-level army officers at the LoC that took place at Indian request did not yield any result. The Indian demarche for an investigation into the incident has been brushed aside by Islamabad. Ceasefire violations have continued on the LoC. Instead of pressing the Pakistan government to carry out an investigation, the Indian government has displayed its ire through moves that have little impact on the Pakistani establishment, but affect the lives of ordinary individuals in both countries.

Incidents along the Line of Control are a fact of life. Nine years of a ceasefire along the LoC have dimmed memories of the frequent spells of firing by both sides, that even spread to certain sectors along the international border till the ceasefire agreement silenced artillery on both sides. Beheading is a ghastly action, but it is not a new phenomenon. Army chief Gen Bikram Singh has acknowledged that beheading of slain Indian soldiers took place during the Kargil conflict and also in 2011.

The Indian Army found a way to respond to the Kargil incidents using Naga headhunting techniques that put an end to mutilations. A retired Lt General in a TV debate emphasised that when things happen on the LoC, there were ways to tackle them on the LoC itself, so that the appropriate message is sent. But his sane voice was lost among the shouting heads. Instead of restricting the incident at the Line of Control, the government has chosen to respond through cutting off other areas of bilateral engagement.

The dynamics of Pakistan’s domestic politics are revolving around the elections due by May. A charismatic cleric, Tahir ul Qadri, recently returned from Canada and has drawn thousands of supporters onto the streets to call for the government to resign. In the process, he has added a critical element that is widely perceived in Pakistan as the hand of the army. The judiciary, which has ratified all the ousters of civilian governments by the Pakistani army, has added its bit to the chaos by ordering the arrest of prime minister Raja Pervez Ashraf. It is the second time it has ordered out a prime minister in seven months. Former cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and his Tehrik-e-Insaf party had followed a similar route of taking a long march to Islamabad, but his marching forces petered out after some time.

The Pakistan army was said to have favoured Khan over the two mainstream political parties, the Pakistan People’s Party and Nawaz Sharief’s Pakistan Muslim League. Raising tensions with India at this time will help Pakistani army gain greater leverage in domestic politics.

The commerce secretaries of India and Pakistan are due to meet later this month. The question arises on whether the meeting will take place or are events leading to yet another disruption of bilateral talks. A Pakistani business delegation has already cancelled its tour. Carrying on bilateral dialogue is not a concession that India makes to Pakistan. Any disruption in the dialogue pushes back bilateral ties. It is in India’s interest to have a dialogue with Islamabad. Relations between two neighbours have to be managed and the process of managing the ties is through regular, uninterrupted talks, more so, for the two nuclear-armed neighbours with a fractious relationship. Incremental steps that are agreed upon through a dialogue go towards building normal relations between the two sides.

(The writer is a foreign affairs commentator)


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