Features | Politics | South Asia

Another India-Pak Impasse

The latest talks between India and Pakistan haven’t gone anywhere. They won’t while Pakistan’s military holds sway over policy.

India and Pakistan have again apparently reached an impasse after yet another round of negotiations that concluded in Islamabad last week. Even the joint press conference involving the countries’ Foreign Ministers, S.M. Krishna of India and Shah Mohammed Qureshi of Pakistan, ended in acrimony. Krishna, for his part, at least maintained a dignified silence when his counterpart equated the statements of Indian Home Secretary GK Pillai about Pakistan’s complicity in the Mumbai terror with the venomous remarks of the leader of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hafiz Mohammed Saeed.

Since the outburst, Qureshi has sought to tone down his rhetoric and has had some kind words about Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. From New Delhi, Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao has also indicated that the talks will continue despite the lack of any progress on key issues.

The deadlock at these talks was, for all practical purposes, foreordained. Despite the presence of a civilian regime in Pakistan, the military remains primus inter pares. Consequently, it’s entirely reasonable to assume that Qureshi was adhering to a script that had been prepared in the General Head Quarters of the Pakistan Army in Rawalpindi. According to press reports in India, Qureshi had demanded that India set a timetable for the resolution of the Kashmir dispute as a precondition for any form of meaningful cooperation in other areas. Such a gambit was designed to bring the talks to a swift impasse—and it did.

Even if the two sides continue the dialogue, without the imprimatur of the Pakistani military, there’s little or no chance that they’ll make any meaningful progress. Thanks to the military’s extraordinary role in Pakistan’s tortured politics, any viable discussions with India have taken place only when two conditions obtained: either the military itself was in the saddle or when it had been thoroughly discredited.

The military, thanks to the privileged position that it has long carved for itself in the political landscape of Pakistan, exercises an effective veto on relations with India. Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, the current Chief of Staff, has publicly made it known that he considers India to be the principal threat facing the country. Such truculence serves the military well and can be used to justify vast defence expenditures, protect its extraordinary economic prerogatives and guarantee its political role.

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Consequently, it’s unlikely to grant a civilian regime the necessary freedom to conduct substantive discussions at a time when it perceives India to be on a sticky wicket in its part of Kashmir. Thanks to its own lack of skill in addressing long-standing grievances dealing with regional autonomy, New Delhi again faces a rising tide of discontent.

Given this political backdrop it’s hardly surprising that the Pakistani security establishment is again in an intransigent and unforgiving mood. Allowing the civilian regime to engage in serious negotiations with New Delhi would mean abandoning an opportunity to make New Delhi pay a significant price for its existing troubles in Indian-administered Kashmir. It would also mean that the Pakistani military would have to finally rein in its chosen instruments, various jihadi groups that it has spawned and nurtured, to pique and harass the Indian state in Kashmir and elsewhere. Why else would the normally urbane Qureshi make a tortured and impassioned comparison between the statements of Pillai on the interrogation results of an indicted terror suspect, David Headley, and the xenophobic and scurrilous outbursts of the Lashkar leader?

The military’s pivotal role in shaping the fortunes of Indo-Pakistani relations can’t be underestimated. A quick survey of history shows that without its nod or its temporary removal from the political scene, discussions are all but futile. For example, under considerable diplomatic pressure from the United States and the United Kingdom in the aftermath of the disastrous Sino-Indian border war of 1962, India agreed to several rounds of talks with Pakistan. These talks, which ultimately concluded in failure, nevertheless came quite close to reaching a resolution of the Kashmir issue on terms quite favourable to Pakistan. But even though a civilian, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, spearheaded these talks, they were conducted under the aegis of a military regime, that of Mohammed Ayub Khan.

The second fruitful negotiations came in the wake of the complete rout of the Pakistani military in the 1971 Bangladesh war. The military, thanks to its brutality and incompetence in East Pakistan, was back in the barracks licking its wounds. Consequently, Bhutto, who was the new civilian leader of Pakistan, was in a position to negotiate with much leeway with counterpart Indira Gandhi at Shimla in 1972. It’s to his credit that even as the leader of a defeated nation he managed to coax much out of a politician as astute as Gandhi without conceding much.

And again, after the mysterious death of Gen. Zia-ul-Haq and the military’s return to the barracks, Bhutto’s daughter, Benazir, initiated a dialogue with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. These talks had actually shown some signs of progress until the abrupt outbreak of an indigenous ethno-religious insurgency in Indian-controlled Kashmir brought them to a close.

Although Bhutto was certainly responsible for stoking tensions through irresponsible rhetoric, the security establishment’s role in transforming the uprising in Kashmir remains undeniable. It moved with much dispatch and considerable dexterity in transforming what was an internal revolt against the Indian state’s political malfeasances into an externally funded, religiously motivated, extortion racket.

Other examples of the military’s complicity abound. Just as the military’s absence facilitated the Shimla Accord, its looming presence during the second Nawaz Sharif regime effectively torpedoed the efforts of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. After the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests of May 1998, Vajpayee had initiated a dialogue with Pakistan and had sought to put into effect a series of confidence-building measures under the terms of the Lahore Agreement. Within months thereof, however, the Pakistani army had breached the Line of Control in Kashmir along the trackless wastes of Kargil. The ensuing conflict effectively put the negotiations into cold storage yet again.

Despite Manmohan Singh’s grim determination to continue talks with Pakistan in the hopes of a diplomatic breakthrough, it’s far from clear that any discussions in the near future are likely to be any more fruitful than last week’s meeting. As long as the Pakistani military establishment feels at liberty to dictate terms to an insecure civilian regime, future discussions are merely the chronicle of a death foretold.

Sumit Ganguly is a Professor of Political Science and holds the Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington.