NEW DELHI: India and Pakistan are back to square one, with terrorism and Kashmir being raised by the top leaders of the two countries as if there have been no yesterdays and there are certainly no tomorrows. Independence Day has dawned without any promise of a breakthrough as the foreign secretaries of both countries are scheduled for talks on August 25, now amidst a hostile environment created by their political leaders who are unable to move beyond the hard line constituencies in their respective countries.
Given the long history of the past years it is futile to say who started it, although this is a game that governments in both Islamabad and New Delhi have indulged in for decades. Prime Minister Narendra Modi set this particular ball rolling---but it could have as easily been PM Nawaz Sharif---while addressing the Indian soldiers in Ladakh where he spoke of Pakistan conducting a “proxy war” against India. Using strong words the PM said while addressing troops in Kargil that was the site of a conventional war between the two countries, “Pakistan has lost the strength to fight a conventional war, but continues to engage in the proxy war through terrorism.”
The Pakistan foreign office shot back terming the remarks as “unfortunate” and “baseless rhetoric.” The Indian foreign office retaliated with equal use of adjectives maintaining that PM Modi was articulating India’s concerns about terrorism. MEA spokesperson in response to a question said that India’s “tool kit” in dealing with terror threats was “not restricted in any manner.” He said, “terrorism for us is a real and present danger. The Prime Minister was articulating what is for us the core concern in our relations with Pakistan. Mere denials of selective approaches towards terrorism are not going to drive away our concerns.”
This was clearly not seen as enough with Pakistan PM Sharif revving up the issue of Kashmir almost immediately. In the Independence Day address to Pakistan, Sharif described Kashmir as a major source of tension between the two countries. He said that Pakistan wanted the “peaceful resolution of Kashmir with our full sincerity so that by removing this main source of tension, Pakistan and India could find new ways for promoting their relations.”
Pakistan High Commission Abdul Basit has subsequently invited the Kashmiri separatist leaders for a meeting before the foreign secretaries talks on August 25. This has always been seen as an irritant by India that has, however, allowed these meetings to take place. Visiting Pakistan leaders and top officials also hold meetings with the Hurriyat leaders and others each time they visit. A noticeable exception was in fact, the visit of PM Sharif for the oath taking ceremony of PM Modi where the Kashmiri separatist leaders were not invited for a meeting with both sides at the time talking of taking the relations forward. At least so it was perceived by officials on both sides, although Sharif had appeared tense throughout and left by just reading out a statement before the waiting media, without addressing the press conference that had been convened by the Pakistan mission here.
The two foreign secretary’s India’s Sujatha Singh and Pakistan’s Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry who were to meet to open the door for further talks, are now under sudden pressure given the exchange of words from both their Prime Ministers. Admittedly the excuse for the rhetoric could be that PM Modi was addressing his troops in the forward areas and had to speak of Pakistan while PM Nawaz Sharif was addressing the nation on Independence Day and had to refer to Kashmir. However, for the moment both seem to be sticking to their guns with the officials on both sides letting be known to their respective media that terrorism and Kashmir would be on top of their respective agenda’s. Fresh instructions will have to be given to the foreign secretaries if the PMs have a change of heart, otherwise the talks on August 25 will close the door rather effectively.
Pakistan clearly is not in a position to open a front with India at this stage, with its Army completely occupied on the western borders and within its own northern areas in Operation Azb-e-Zarb. In his comments PM Sharif has been speaking of the need for talks and better relations, a recurring theme despite the overt hostility. PM Modi has not referred to better relations till now, although both sent each other Independence day greetings. The Indian Prime Minister tweeted a to the point message stating, “On the occasion of their Independence Day, I convey my greetings to the people of Pakistan.” Sharif, however, opened a door with a “I look forward to our meeting in New York to discuss issues of mutual interest. It is our desire to turn a fresh page in our bilateral relations.”
There is silence in the Indian corridors of powers as PM Modi’s strong statement against Pakistan has come as a bit of a surprise at this stage when the foreign secretary level talks are a week ago, and preparations for a possible meeting between Modi and Sharif at New York need to begin if this is on the cards. Sources said that a meeting was not ruled out as both leaders will be in New York for the UN General Assembly at approximately the same time. The concerns on Kashmir and terrorism, sources here said, have been communicated by both India and Pakistan to each other over and over again and expectations now were to take relations forward. However, given the fact that crucial Assembly elections are due this year it is not clear what strategy will be adopted by the ruling party insofar as Pakistan is concerned.
It might be recalled that the previous Manmohan Singh government was always under considerable pressure from the US to begin and take forward the talks with Pakistan. Not much headway was made by either side with the Mumbai terror attack reversing the peace process altogether. The Modi government does not give the impression of being particularly concerned about strengthening relations with the US, with its focus clearly on China, and hence pressure from the US is not likely to work in influencing better relations with Pakistan. PM Modi has still to reveal his hand.