Intro: The separatists have though called Narendra Modi government’s decision to call off talks between foreign secretaries of Pakistan and India childish; does this move in some way hint at Modi’s new doctrine for handling Pakistan?
The decision of the Indian Government to cancel the Foreign Secretary level talks scheduled at Islamabad on 25 August 2014 is a step in the right direction. The fact that the Pakistan’s envoy to Delhi Abdul Basit decided to meet the separatist leader Shabir Shah from Kashmir, despite Indian government advising him to desist from doing so, showed his insensitivity towards the host country’s concerns. Having violated the diplomatic niceties, it was imperative for Indian government to act and it acted suitably. Its action was just and appropriate.
If previous Indian governments had allowed Pakistani envoys and visiting dignitaries to meet them, the same does not allow them to do so in the face of Indian opposition. This becomes even more acute, when one looks at the whole development in the context of Indian conduct in Islamabad. No Indian envoy or visiting Indian official has ever visited any nationalist leader from Pakistan occupied Kashmir, though many anti-Pakistan movements are flourishing there. It is well known that one nationalist leader from Gilgit-Baltistan, who had visited India in the past and has been extremely critical of Pakistani occupation, is suffering from acute medical problems, possibly emanating from slow poisoning. He is in a state of penury and has been prevented by the Pakistan government from going abroad, by impounding his passport and placing his name on the Exit Control List. However, the Indian government or its envoys have not met him or provided any aid as they do not want to offend Pakistan.
The current action of the Indian government will ensure that at the very least, as long as this government is in power, no visiting Pakistani official dares to meet these separatist leaders. Many ‘learned’ Indian analysts believe that the government should have stopped the Hurriyat leaders from meeting the Pakistani envoy rather than cancelling the talks. It would however, have been the wrong approach, as the separatists despite being used by external agencies, are citizens of a democratic country, and should have the freedom to go wherever they want. More significantly, any action to stop them or arrest them would have given them undue publicity as almost all of them are spent forces, with absolutely no credibility or support base. On the other hand, the Pakistani envoy expected to remain within diplomatic norms should not have met them, when he was specifically directed by the Indian government. On the other hand, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, when he visited Delhi for Prime Minister Modi’s swearing in ceremony, showed sagacity and refused to meet these separatist leaders, although they wanted to meet him then. This also raises another question, as to why did Pakistan’s envoy met the Hurriyat leaders, when his own PM had refused to meet them just two months ago. The possible reason is that he was acting at the behest of General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi rather than the Foreign Office in Islamabad. Probably his action was guided by a sense of self preservation, considering the precarious state of Nawaz Sharif’s government. The recent increase in cases of ceasefire violations across the Line of Control also indicate that the GHQ has decided to ratchet up the tensions possibly in an attempt to divert attention of its citizens from the internal turmoil.
Does the calling off of Foreign Secretary level talks, a big setback to India-Pak relations and peace process? Not the least, as the talks were scheduled at a time, when Pakistan is going through turbulence and the situation in Islamabad appears most fluid. At the moment Pakistan’s capital is under seize from two forces and the future of current government looks most uncertain. It would therefore be extremely futile to talk to a government, whose sustenance and support is questionable. More significantly, the two prime ministers could still meet in New York on the side lines of UN General Assembly meeting, if Nawaz manages to remain in office and Pakistan does not indulge in any further acts of provocation.
At the time of writing, the Pakistani capital is besieged by two rival militias led by Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri. While Imran Khan, the leader of Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI), which rules the province of Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa (KP), believes that he has been fraudulently denied power in the last elections and is demanding resignation of PM Nawaz Sharif, major electoral reforms, reconstitution of election commission, accountability of people ‘allegedly’ involved in rigging the 2013 election and an apolitical government to conduct fresh elections. After threatening to resign from the legislatures, he has eventually decided to move into Islamabad’s Red Zone to demonstrate and put pressure on Nawaz. In the process, he has criticised all other actors and institutions of democracy like judiciary or the other opposition parties that are asking him to show restraint. He has even criticised the United States for opposing ‘change’ and stating that “no extra-constitutional transfer of power in Pakistan was acceptable.” Imran has accused the US for meddling in Pakistan’s internal affairs and Nawaz government to be America’s servant.
Maulana Tahirul Qadri and his Pakistan Awami Tehrik (PAT) on the other hand are demanding a complete overhaul of the prevailing system in Pakistan. His slogan is ‘Revolution’ and he is promising the moon. Being a Canada based cleric, he has generally been supported by the West for propounding a moderate version of Islam and besides being a cleric with fairly good support base, he is also being supported by the Sunni Tehrik, which represents Sunni Barelvisand Majlis-e Wahadat Muslimeen (MWM) the political arm of Shias. While his supporters in Islamabad may number slightly less than Imran’s, they are extremely committed and ready to shed blood and even lives at the beck and call of their leader.
Both the leaders had promised a million men march, but according to media estimates not even one twentieth of the promised number was present. Yet as they’ve moved inside the high security zone of Islamabad, one wrong move can incite huge violence and bloodshed. Nawaz appears to be at wit’s end; his offers of negotiations were not taken by the two leaders earlier and even now when they have agreed to talk, they are insisting on his resignation. The demonstrators have not realised that in their unconstitutional quest for power, they have weakened the institution of democracy considerably and have given the military a decisive edge- the military can descend on the capital at any opportune moment and grab power under the garb of defending the city against intruders. Pakistan Army has never been comfortable with Nawaz and wanted to put him in his place: the trial of Musharraf and attack on journalist Hamid Mir have further enhanced the rift between the executive and the Army. It appears as if the army has triggered Qadri and possibly Imran as well, to fix Nawaz Sharif, who despite his clear majority now appears to be a lame duck.
While the Army is playing games against its own government, another actor lurking in the background is Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which has wanted to avenge Pakistan Army’s attack on North Waziristan. Imran has always had a soft corner for TTP and had not supported the operations against TTP, unequivocally. If large scale violence breaks down in Islamabad and other urban centres, it will force Army to pull out some of its troops from FATA, which will allow the TTP to regain some of the lost ground. More significantly, TTP has good number of sympathisers even within the armed forces.
Although Nawaz is hoping to tire the demonstrators out, each successive day of demonstration in Islamabad is further weakening Nawaz’s resolve and the institution of democracy in Pakistan. The prevailing situation will eventually usher in another round of direct military rule or bring in a government sympathetic to or controlled by radical Islamic outfits.
India wants peace in Pakistan, but looking at the current time frame, when Pakistan is in crisis, the time is not yet appropriate for talks till some clarity emerges about the future of Pakistan’s government.
Alok Bansal (The writer is Director Centre for Security and Strategy India Foundation, New Delhi)