India wants to change the terms of engagement with Pakistan, but does it have the strategic space to do so? India and Pakistan need sustained engagement if they are to work out their differences, writes Shivam Vij.
India and Pakistan have called off Sunday's talks in New Delhi. The meetings had been announced in Ufa, Russia, after a meeting between Pakistani Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif and his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi. If India and Pakistan are unable to get the peace process going at the highest levels, there is little hope that tensions between the two countries would subside any time soon. If anything, relations are bound to get worse.
There are two probable reasons the talks were canceled. Meetings were to be held between the national security advisors of both countries, to discuss terrorism. This is what was announced in the joint agreement in Ufa. But now India says that Pakistan is seeking to add other issues, including the disputed territory of Jammu & Kashmir.
Pakistan argues that the Ufa joint statement referred to issues other than terrorism as well. It is clear from the text of the Ufa joint statement that the high-level talks were to be only about terrorism. The Indian side says that the civilian government in Pakistan, having promised talks on terrorism in this meeting, is under pressure from Pakistan's military establishment to bring the Kashmir issue to the table.
Kashmir is the perennial sticking point
India says terrorism, Pakistan says Kashmir; India says terrorism, Pakistan says Kashmir. This is a tired routine. The Indian foreign minister has clarified that Kashmir would be part of the agenda, but not in the national security advisor-level talks.
New Delhi says Pakistan must first address Indian's concerns on terrorism and build a climate of trust before engaging over Kashmir. This has particularly been the case because since the Ufa joint statement, there have been two terrorist attacks in India, in Udhampur and Gurudaspur, which India claims originated from Pakistani territory.
The lesson to draw from all this is that the Ufa meeting between the premiers of two nuclear-armed nations had not had the benefit of diplomatic preparation. India asked for the meeting at Ufa after months of disengagement with Pakistan. While India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi fashions himself as somewhat of a foreign policy rockstar, he has chosen not to be pro-active over India's biggest foreign policy challenge: neighboring Pakistan.
There is talk in New Delhi of trying to isolate Pakistan regionally, and using India's international clout to try and rebuff Pakistani hostility towards India.
Disengagement is counterproductive
An Indian paramilitary trooper stands guard during a curfew imposed on the Kashmiri summer capital in Srinagar on July 19, 2013
The lesson from this is that the two countries need sustained, constant bilateral contact. Diplomats of the two countries need to be constantly in touch in order to be prepared for rapid policy developments and turnarounds.
This would be the easy part. The more difficult task is the red line India has drawn for Pakistani officials to not meet with some Indian citizens. These Indian citizens are Kashmiris, political leaders of a movement for Kashmir to secede from India. The movement is backed by Pakistan. India and Pakistan have fought three of their four wars over Kashmir. These Indian-Kashmiri secessionist leaders represent two factions of what is known as the Hurriyat Conference.
Pakistani officials have been inviting Hurriyat leaders to various events at the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi's diplomatic enclave for years. The Narendra Modi government seeks an end to this practice. Pakistan's High Commissioner was to host a reception for their visiting national security advisor, and many Indians were invited. In a press release, Pakistan says the national security advisor would have met a cross-section of Indian political and business leaders, among them the Hurriyat leaders.
Letting dinner spoil the party
India cancelled talks between the two foreign secretaries last year for the same reason. India says Pakistani officials meeting Hurriyat leaders amounts to making the Kashmir issue tri-partite, where as under agreements in the past, it is to be an issue only between New Delhi and Islamabad.
So how does five Indian-Kashmiris dining with a Pakistani government official make the Kashmir issue tri-partite? This is not the same as Pakistan insisting that the Hurriyat should sit on the negotiating table between India and Pakistan.
The nitty-gritty details aside, it seems that India is trying to weaken the Pakistani position on Kashmir. The Hurriyat red line means that no Indo-Pakistan talks in New Delhi will take place for a long time, because Pakistan will not accept such conditions.
More opportunities ahead
Leaders of the two countries could meet at the United Nations General Assembly next month. Prime Minister Modi is scheduled to visit Pakistan for a South Asian regional summit early next year.
India is trying to change the terms of engagement with Pakistan. In doing so it is taking a big risk, because it may not have the strategic space to do so. The current moment puts India-Pakistan relations under clouds of uncertainty.
It is a moment we should all be worried about.
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