by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard: 02nd Jan 2007
The dogs of war look increasingly frustrated and undernourished. Over a year ago, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh officially took war off the list of Indian options in dealing with Pakistan. At a recent meeting of the Defence Acquisition Council, the top-most MoD body on weapons purchases, defence minister AK Antony brushed off an urgent request to make up serious operational deficiencies in India’s strike corps, which would spearhead any attack on Pakistan. Deciding to wait for T-90 tanks to roll off India’s assembly line in Avadi rather than urgently buying some more, off-the-shelf from Russia, the defence minister reasoned that war with Pakistan was unlikely soon. If the hawks need more bad news, it’s there: the Finance Ministry has no big arms purchase proposals before it this financial year. That points to a large surrender of funds from the MoD budget this year.
For the India-Pakistan dialogue, there could not be better news. For too many years, the existence of war as an option for India and terrorism as one for Pakistan has occupied the space that would otherwise have been taken up by a realistic consideration of more viable options. India rightly refuses to negotiate under threat of cross-border terrorism and Pakistan has agreed to create a joint anti-terror mechanism in order to assuage those concerns. India, too, must address the deeply felt apprehensions of a weaker dialogue partner that war is high up on New Delhi’s option list. Realistically, cross-border terrorism for Pakistan and war for India remain options of last resort when all else fails. But the rattling of sabres cannot disturb the hum of dialogue.
For Pakistan, therefore, it is important to convince India that the joint anti-terror mechanism is more than a symbolic gesture; New Delhi, in turn, must address Islamabad’s fears that its arms build up is directed at Pakistan. One way of doing so is by dropping Indian protests each time Pakistan gets some new weaponry. Building a constituency for peace within Pakistan must be as much a part of Indian strategy as bringing people on board in this country. Actively blocking Pakistani defence acquisitions, like engines for the JF-17 Thunder fighter planes, only hardens attitudes in Islamabad while achieving little in terms of the military balance.
If changed mindsets are evident in dealing with Islamabad, little has changed in dealing with the Kashmiri separatist leadership. This is an internal issue that requires no negotiations or external concurrence. It is, therefore, hard to understand why the giant strides being made in back channel negotiations with Pakistan are not reflected in New Delhi’s relationship with the Kashmiri separatists. After the second Kashmir Roundtable in May 2006, the public dialogue has almost entirely given way to back channel attempts to broker a cease-fire with the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen.
New Delhi’s problems in dealing with Kashmiri separatists are two-fold. The first is a crisis of credibility in which nobody wants to talk to New Delhi because each time someone has made a proposal, New Delhi’s curmudgeonly response has left that group wondering why it risked so much for so little. In violent separatist movements breaking ranks is no recipe for longevity; former Hizb leader, Abdul Majid Dar, who entered into an aborted ceasefire with New Delhi paid with his life. The second problem is New Delhi’s reflexive insistence on entering into dialogue with only those groups that toe its line to an acceptable degree. Such an outlook rules out of the dialogue a wide range of separatist opinion, leaving those groups or individuals with little choice but to oppose reconciliation with all the means at their disposal. In J&K, groups like those of Syed Ali Shah Geelani are, consequently, treated no differently from the most radical of jehadis.
In situations like J&K it is seldom possible to be selective about those one negotiates with; circumstances, often shaped by previous negotiations, do that instead. An instructive example is the Israel-Palestine dialogue, where Tel Aviv now finds itself in the incongruous position of paying Egypt to supply arms to the Palestinian Fatah group to fight Hamas. When Fatah ruled Palestine under Mahmoud Abbas, Israel missed the opportunity to talk, making increasingly stiff demands for curbing Palestinian attacks. Now, compared to Hamas, Fatah seems an attractive partner. In a rapidly radicalizing J&K, delay will only spawn a harder line.
In trading terminology, it’s a rising market. New Delhi has to buy now. By the end of 2007, in the current trajectory of the dialogue, the landscape of India-Pakistan relations may well be unrecognisable.