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Back to square one

Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit on Thursday said that he believes peace talks between India and Pakistan remain “suspended” for the time being. There are no talks scheduled between the two countries, he said. This assertion comes as an embarrassment to the Indian government, which has been exceptionally accommodative in its bid to resume the Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue process with Pakistan. Basit also ruled out the possibility of India’s National Investigation Team (NIA) team’s visit to Pakistan for a probe into the Pathankot terror attacks. The announcement comes days after Pakistani officials visited the Pathankot air base to inquire into the January terror attack. The move had drawn flak from opposition parties in India. Asked about the possibility of NIA team visiting Pakistan for Pathankot terror probe, he said, “Personally, I feel that this whole investigation is not about the question of reciprocity it is more about both countries extending cooperation on the issue.” Within hours, External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Vikas Swarup asserted that Basit’s words did not adhere to the “broad” agreement that the JIT visit to India was on the “basis of reciprocity”. New Delhi has repeatedly said that the five-member Joint Investigation Team (JIT) from Pakistan was allowed to come and visit the Pathankot air base on the understanding that the National Investigation Agency would also be allowed to go to Pakistan. Adding further confusion to the mix is the Pakistani high commissioner’s characterisation of the peace process. New Delhi referred to a statement by Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson on the same day to refute Basit’s claims.

Foreign Secretary-level talks between the neighbouring countries came to a halt following the terrorist attack on the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot on January 2. India maintains that Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed terror outfit was behind the strike. It demanded the arrest of JeM chief Masood Azhar and his brother, who was one of the terrorist handlers involved. After a series of false starts, the JIT was formed on the direction of Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who assured India of a thorough investigation. But Basit wasn’t finished. Referring to the recent arrest of alleged Research and Analysis Wing officer Kulbhushan Yadav in Pakistan, Basit said it “irrefutably corroborates what Pakistan has been saying all along”. In an unprecedented move earlier this week, the Pakistan armed forces released a videotape purportedly of alleged RAW spy and former Indian Navy officer Kulbhushan Yadav confessing to having funded Baloch insurgents. New Delhi has vehemently denied the authenticity of Yadav’s "testimony", which they believe was a dictated statement made under duress. The Indian government has also rejected the allegations that he was a “RAW officer” involved in “subversive activities”.  After all the heightened expectations, Indo-Pak relations are back to square one. What further confirms this fact is Basit’s claim once again that Kashmir remains the root cause of mistrust between the two countries. A familiar pattern is clearly emerging. In the face of allegations that Pakistani soil was used to conduct a terror attack on an Indian air force base, Islamabad has once again brought the Kashmir issue and India’s alleged involvement in Balochistan to the forefront. So what does this most recent stance indicate?

“Little hope exists for further change (in Indo-Pak relations) as long as the structural peculiarities of politics in Pakistan do not change. The Pakistan Army exercises its primacy over state institutions precisely because of a threat from India—and thus, has an interest in perpetuating this threat. It needs the support, moreover, of anti-India jihadists to legitimise its campaign against the global jihadists who have challenged its power, hoping to overthrow the state. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, there is little doubt, sees a hostile relationship with India as both economically destructive and an enabler of military primacy—but neither he, nor a successor, will be in a position to call the shots, unless the structure of power in the country radically transforms,” according to Praveen Swami, a veteran journalist, who specialises in the field of strategic and international affairs. In other words, the Pakistan military calls the shots and normalisation of relations with India would undermine its authority. As this column has stated in the past, Pakistan’s decision to back anti-India terrorists is based on a very dangerous vision of statecraft. One theory suggests that the attack on the Pathankot air base was the latest result of a Pakistani national security strategy that addresses its own internal challenges while also pursuing its age-old agenda against India.  “Reviving JeM was a cornerstone of Pakistan’s strategy of managing its own internal security challenges,” according to a recent column by noted academics Christine Fair and Seth Oldmixon, who have extensively studied the geopolitics of the subcontinent. “Officials with the United Nations office tasked with monitoring these groups told one of the authors that JeM activists have long been poised for infiltration into India. Thus, the only thing surprising about this JeM attack is that it didn’t happen sooner, given the imperatives of recuperating this group as a means of diverting Pakistani Taliban terrorists away from targeting Pakistanis towards targeting Indians. Thus, denervating JeM is not only a cornerstone of Pakistan’s foreign policy of nuclear blackmail to achieve ideological objectives in Kashmir, it is a critical part of Pakistan’s internal security strategy to rehabilitate Pakistani Taliban militants. The JeM is Pakistan’s own "Ghar Wapasi" programme for bringing errant terrorists back into the fold.” It is a theory popular among many Indian strategic experts. Recent developments suggest that the current Indo-Pak peace initiative may have failed as a result of the Pakistan army’s assertions that were implicitly reflected in High Commissioner Abdul Basit’s address on Thursday.

But there is a bitter truth to Basit’s implicit assertions that relations between India and Pakistan have witnessed no progress at all. In other words, there has been no resolution to the deep mistrust that exists between the two sides. Besides procedural gains, like NSA-level talks, little has been achieved since 2001-02. In the 15 years since Pakistan has refused to dispose of its terror infrastructure aimed at India. Moreover, there has been little progress in bilateral trade and no forward movement on key discussions over Siachen and Sir Creek —let alone Kashmir. So why maintain any sort engagement? “For one, they (strategists in New Delhi) argue engagement ensures that the complex elements of Pakistan’s polity—Islamists hostile to the state; politicians seeking to undermine military primacy; a fledgeling industrial bourgeoisie seeking regional economic opportunity—do not ally against an existential threat from India,” writes Praveen Swami in his latest column for the Indian Express. What will the Modi government do now? “He may well give Pakistan more time, but it is doubtful if he will be able to show that his Pakistan policy has persuaded Pakistan to turn its back on terror,” said Vivek Katju, a retired Indian diplomat, and an old Pakistan hand. “Will he then proceed to engage Pakistan despite its calibrated use of terrorism? The Foreign Secretary hinted so though he did not elaborate on the nature of the engagement. More explicitly, can the proposed Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue go hand-in-hand with terrorism?” Moreover, if the rhetoric over Pakistan's alleged duplicity starts to get louder, will New Delhi be able to withstand calls for it to break off? These are questions best left to New Delhi to answer. But one thing seems apparent—Modi’s failure to convince Pakistan to turn its back on terror.
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