The categorical denial by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs may have laid to rest rumours of a possible meeting between the prime ministers of India and Pakistan on the sidelines of a regional conference in Kyrgyzstan this weekend. Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems to have determined that talks for talks’ sake are meaningless as long as Pakistan refuses to change its view of its larger neighbour as a permanent enemy.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan continues to seek a meeting with his Indian counterpart, hoping to be seen by the world as a potential peacemaker. But the only people who might take his initiatives seriously belong to the Scarlett O’Hara School of International Relations. For those who might not understand that evergreen cultural reference, the heroine of Gone with the Wind famously believed that “Tomorrow is another day”.
But for most other observers, historical context matters, and past patterns of behaviour provide guidance to the likelihood of future success. Based on the history of India-Pakistan relations, Modi has good reason to think that Pakistan tends to engage in talks with India for global respectability, but its dominant military is unable to shed its ideological aversion to normal ties with India.
Between 1950 and December 2015, when Modi dropped in on then-Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Lahore, leaders of the two countries have met 45 times. The peace process, which always starts with round of talks, has almost always ended with a military move by Pakistan aimed at securing advantage in Kashmir (such as the one that led to the 1965 war and the 1999 Kargil conflict) or a terrorist attack (such as the ones on Indian Parliament in 2001, in Mumbai in 2008, and at Pathankot in 2016).
This time, Pakistan faces isolation abroad and political unrest and economic crisis at home. Pakistan’s civil and military leaders seem to think that initiating a new round of talks with India will help their country. But India’s leaders believe they have understood the Pakistani playbook.
The door to negotiations must never be considered permanently shut but nor should dialogue be an end in itself.
One need not endorse Hindutva to recognise that Prime Minister Modi has been elected with an overwhelming mandate to build a militarily and economically more powerful India. If India is to project its power globally, it must manifest greater strength in its immediate neighbourhood. For that, Modi feels he must compel change of behaviour on part of Pakistan instead of allowing Pakistan to continue to claim parity with India with terrorism as a key tool.
Since its birth through the Partition of the subcontinent in 1947, Pakistan has emerged as an ideological state virtually controlled by its powerful military. The Pakistani military maintains supremacy in the country by encouraging a national ideology based on religious identity and antipathy towards India.
Pakistan inherited one-third of British India’s army, which had originally been raised for World War II. Unlike other armies, Pakistan’s military was not raised proportionately to an external threat. It needs a threat proportionate to its size to justify its claims on the meagre resources of a low-income country.
For that reason, India is described in textbooks as Pakistan’s eternal enemy and an ideological threat to its very survival. Until that changes, it is unlikely that Pakistan will give up the use of militants and terrorists to continue to stir trouble for India as a way of compensating for its smaller size in relation to India.
Like many neighbouring countries, India and Pakistan have disputes that need resolution. But Pakistan’s ideological orientation should not be ignored nor should the need of its dominant institution for permanent conflict. The history of Pakistan’s calls for talks when it is at a low point is telling.
Pakistan seeks talks with India in moments of weakness only to turn around and insist on India acceding to its terms subsequently. This goes all the way back to the 1965 war when Pakistan felt ostracised by the US and had failed to win a war it had initiated. Pakistan turned to the Soviet Union to organise peace talks, resulting in the Tashkent declaration of January 1966.
Field Marshal Ayub Khan and then-Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri declared “their firm resolve to restore normal and peaceful relations,” which did not prevent the two countries from going to war over Bangladesh within five years. Pakistan lost half its territory and most of its population in the 1971 war, as East Pakistan became Bangladesh and a civilian government took over in the remainder of Pakistan.
Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Pakistan’s President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto signed the Simla Accord within a few months of the surrender of Pakistan’s large garrison in Dhaka.
The agreement emphasised respect for “each other’s national unity, territorial integrity, political independence and sovereign equality” and promised that the two countries would “refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of each other”.
More significantly, it said, “Both governments will take all steps within their power to prevent hostile propaganda directed against each other. Both countries will encourage the dissemination of such information as would promote the development of friendly relations between them.”
Had the commitment to preventing hostile propaganda been upheld, millions of young Pakistanis would not have grown up wishing India ill or volunteering to join jihadi groups dedicated to Ghazwa-e-Hind – the prophesied final battle between Islam and un-Islam before the end of times.
India, too, now cultivates a desire to ‘teach Pakistan a lesson’ and TV talk show hosts talk about eliminating their nuclear-armed neighbour. But, in all fairness, that is a more recent phenomenon. Before the jihadis came into play, most Indians were indifferent to Pakistan and the screaming Indian talk show host is hardly comparable to the jihadi recruiter in business in Pakistan since the late 1980s.
Like it did with the Tashkent declaration, the Pakistani side made the Simla Accord a subject of adverse propaganda soon after it was signed. General Zia-ul-Haq, who ruled from 1977-1988, and several prominent Pakistani diplomats described the Simla Accord as an unequal agreement imposed on a nation defeated in war.
The agreement had served its purpose of securing repatriation of Pakistan’s 90,000 prisoners of war and the ‘permanent enemy’ had to be confronted again. Relations deteriorated after the Khalistan insurgency in the 1980s and the Kashmir insurgency beginning in 1989.
Then-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s bus ride after the 1998 nuclear tests by both countries raised hopes of normalisation that were dashed by the Kargil conflict. Since then the ‘talks-followed-by-terrorist-attack-followed-by-calls-for-talks’ pattern has endured.
Modi now seems focused on trying to coerce Pakistan into changing its behaviour instead of allowing it to repeat that pattern.
The problem between the two countries is neither a single unresolved issue nor is their tension a function of different styles of leadership of various Pakistani generals or politicians.
As long as Pakistan’s establishment remains committed to the notion of India being a ‘permanent enemy’ and wages propaganda to keep Pakistani citizens in ideological frenzy based on the two-nation theory, India-Pakistan talks will remain as fruitless as they have been in the past.