The Mirage of India-Pakistan Dialogue

The collapse of talks between Pakistan and India is a bad omen for peace in South Asia. It can push the world's most militarized region closer to a new military standoff.

Posted on 08/24/15
By Jay Rover | Via ViewsWeek
This is the second time in a year that the peace talks between the two sides have collapsed. (Photo by Giridhar Appaji Nag Y, Creative Commons License)
This is the second time in a year that the peace talks between the two sides have collapsed. (Photo by Giridhar Appaji Nag Y, Creative Commons License)

Peace in South Asia is once again in perils after the breakdown of Pakistan-India peace talks amidst intense domestic pressure on both sides to take hardline against each other. Repeating their acrimonious history, the two sides are blaming each other for the cancellation of talks.


It is the second time in a year that peace talks between the two sides have faltered, both times over the long-running issue of Kashmir. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif had agreed to New Delhi talks between their national security advisers when they met at Ufa, Russia last month.


Pakistan pulled out of the talks saying it will be an exercise in  futility if India dictates the terms of the talks. Pakistan had announced that its national security adviser Sartaj Aziz will be meeting the political leadership from the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region during his stay in New Delhi ahead of the August 23 talks. New Delhi, which has always allowed such meetings between visiting Pakistani and Kashmiri leaders in the past except since Narendra Modi’s ascension to power, ruled out such a meeting, leading to an avoidable deadlock.


“We have come to the conclusion that the proposed National Security Advisers (NSA) level talks between the two countries would not serve any purpose,” Pakistan’s foreign ministry said late on Saturday (August 22). “It is not reasonable for India to assume the right to decide unilaterally that from now onwards, other issues will [only] be discussed after terrorism has been discussed and eliminated,” a statement from Pakistan’s foreign ministry said.


The development is a bad omen for peace in one of the most militarized regions of the world where the rivals are suspected to have close to 250 nuclear warheads. Pakistani and Indian troops have been trading fire along their border now for weeks which has taken several dozen innocent lives on both sides.


The Obama Administration on August 23 expressed “disappointment” at the talks collapse. “We are disappointed the talks will not happen this weekend and encourage India and Pakistan to resume formal dialogue soon,” State Department spokesperson John Kirby said. He added that the ‘constructive interaction’ between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Narendra Modi in Russia, had been encouraging. “We were encouraged by the constructive interaction between the leaders of India and Pakistan earlier this year at Ufa, particularly the announcement of dialogue between the countries’ national security advisers,” Kirby added.


Washington is not alone in its disappointment. Millions on both sides share the sentiment and so does much of the media in the two countries, which is reminding their respective governments that talks is the only way to resolve their outstanding disputes. Here are two selected editorials from India’s The Hindu and Pakistan’s Dawn newspapers which give interesting insight into their respective positions on the the collapse of talks:


No Alternative to Talks


The Hindu, India

The failure of India and Pakistan to hold the planned meeting between their National Security Advisers, as was agreed in Ufa six weeks ago, is unfortunate, indeed disquieting. It should give pause to both Islamabad and New Delhi on what kind of relations they could possibly expect to have in the foreseeable future. Arguments to the effect that there were earlier periods when they had agreed to disagree are at best disingenuous.  


At Ufa there was a limpid agreement on the agenda for the New Delhi meeting: that the NSAs would “discuss all issues connected to terrorism”. Ufa had also yielded a discernible road map to bring about a modicum of peace and tranquillity along the border and the Line of Control (LoC), which has been witnessing rounds of wanton firing and unacceptable casualties. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj put the number of ceasefire violations since Ufa at 91. Barely a week after Ufa raised modest hopes of an upturn in relations, there was firing in the Akhnoor sector.  


Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar spoke of four attempts made by the Director-General of the Border Security Force to “make telephonic contact with Sector Commander Sialkot” as per laid-down procedures, which met with no response. He mentioned how this was unacceptable. Now, with the prospects of even a limited engagement having receded, the question that arises is: how will the two nuclear-capable neighbours deal with each other? There is no doubt that through its grandstanding on Kashmir and Hurriyat, Islamabad reneged on the understanding reached in Ufa.  


It is equally obvious that New Delhi has recalibrated its Pakistan policy, willing perhaps to take a calculated risk that the world would be better disposed to its preferences in the matter of dealing with Pakistan, almost 14 years after 9/11. Yet, the new situation may have willy-nilly rendered India vulnerable to facing gratuitous advice, possibly worse. To assume that those who formulate India’s Pakistan policy believed Islamabad would respect the sudden red line drawn on the Hurriyat, would stretch credulity. The Hurriyat certainly does not have a place in bilateral processes. It is at best a Pakistani side-show with some nuisance value and without much consequence. India had indeed learnt to tolerate that. Now, New Delhi’s actions may have the unintended effect of making the outfit larger-than-life — which is an avoidable prospect. Pakistan has also not covered itself with glory by overloading the agenda with issues that the two NSAs meeting for an hour or two wouldn’t have been able to come to grips with. It is best at this point to open a discreet back channel that ensures better bilateral deliverables than has been the case over the last year and a half. There is simply no alternative to talks.

India-Pakistan Spectacle


Dawn, Pakistan


Rarely, even by the tortured standards of the Pakistan-India relationship, has there been as much farce and confusion surrounding the now cancelled talks between the national security advisers of Pakistan and India.


The dual news conferences yesterday of National Security Adviser Sartaj Aziz and Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj had made the late-night cancellation by Pakistan a mere formality. While it was obvious that neither side wanted to be seen to officially call off talks, it was also patently clear that neither side was willing to do much to rescue them in Delhi.


That the Indian government reacted so angrily to what was to have been a fairly innocuous and standard meeting between a visiting Pakistani leader and representatives of the Hurriyat Conference is perhaps a sign of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s true intentions. He does not really want dialogue with Pakistan, but does not want to be seen rejecting talks outright in front of the international community.


Yet, for all the Indian obstinacy, there have been some serious errors by the PML-N government in Pakistan. To begin with, what was the understanding in Ufa, Russia, that led to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Mr Modi issuing a joint statement? Did Mr Sharif mention the Kashmir dispute or bring up the composite dialogue? If not, why not?


Then, there was the statement itself – initially welcomed by many, including this newspaper, as an unexpected breakthrough, but pounced on by hawks in Pakistan for its so-called pro-India stance. That terrorism was made central to the upcoming round of talks without any mention of the broader Kashmir issue appeared an error on Prime Minister Sharif’s part. At the very least, the government should have expected the domestic backlash and prepared for it. Instead, the government seemed to have been caught unawares and quickly found itself under intolerable pressure.


Then came the next error: seemingly reversing itself on Ufa and demanding that the Indian government talk about Kashmir too. That elicited a predictable response from the Indian government in the form of an angry denial that the Ufa agreement had been about broader issues and a rejection of the Pakistani attempt to include Kashmir in the agenda. Finally, without a full-time foreign minister, the talks switched to being conducted at the NSA level, an awkward fit for full-spectrum dialogue and the Kashmir dispute.


Perhaps what is truly discouraging is the trend that has become apparent in the Sharif-Modi era. The prime ministers themselves mostly have encouraging words about the bilateral relationship, but they allow their underlings to damage goodwill and trust. Mr Modi in particular seems not to have a clear Pakistan policy at all. How does refusing to talk to Pakistan address any of the concerns that India has? But Mr Sharif needs to demonstrate stronger leadership internally too. How can a three-term prime minister find himself in a self-created bind?


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