Recently with the case of an alleged Pakistani terror boat self-exploding off the Gujarat coast and innumerable incidents of ceasefire violations along the international border, India has overtly taken a tough stand on the issue. Meanwhile, the Narendra Modi government continues to export tomatoes, bottle-gourd and other items to Pakistan, while we suffer a shortage in our very own domestic market, with prices of vegetables soaring in the Capital and the neighbouring areas.
Despite the overtly strong view adopted by India regarding the ongoing terror threats and ceasefire violations, is it advisable to be continuing trade with them at this crucial juncture? Even though explained to be two separate issues, can they coexist in isolation or are they inextricably bound, influencing each other in myriad ways? These are some questions we must ask while considering our historically complex relationship with Pakistan.
Both Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar have linked the recent Pakistani boat incident with terror. Singh said the boat was on “a terror mission” while Parrikar reiterated that the “occupants of Pakistan boat were possible terrorists.” Responding to the issue, Syed Akbaruddin, spokesperson, Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), said, “The Indian government (Home Ministry, Defence Ministry and the MEA) have already made their stand clear on the issue. All the ministers have spoken and articulated respectively on the issue. There is nothing more to add.”
Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, analysing the incumbent government’s aggressive posturing towards Pakistan in the context of terror, explained: “We are handling it in a much better way compared to the former Manmohan Singh government because now the government has a tough policy on the issue. For example, if a hostile act is initiated from Pakistan’s side, then the response is doubly ferocious from India. The question now is whether this will be enough to teach the Pakistani side a lesson or a different strategy will be needed.”
On the issue of keeping trade ties with Pakistan intact at a time when there’s a domestic crisis involving shortage of vegetables in the country, he said, “It depends, because if we are supplying commodities which are in short supply in India that is one thing. Also if you have made a contract earlier, then to breach it would incur damages. As the agreement has been reached between two parties – one in India and the other in Pakistan – then the Indian party will supply X quantity of items to Pakistan and if that contract is breached then the other side can actually invoke international arbitration or sue for damages.”
Former High Commissioner to Pakistan G Parthasarathy notes that the issue has far deeper implications than what it appears on the surface. “India has a fairly nuanced policy which has been in place for nearly four decades now. That is why we take a very hard line on Pakistani actions which compromise our national security, whether it is through terrorism or any other issue,” he said.
“At the same time, we do not do things which hurt ordinary people in Pakistan. There is a political objective of demonstrating to the people in Pakistan that India is not hostile towards them. This policy includes firstly, maintaining and expanding people-to-people contacts and secondly, also expanding trade and economic relations. For example, if you go back to 1978, Pakistan was then desperately short of wheat and Prime Minister Morarji Desai offered to them wheat from our buffer stocks. The same policy holds good even today. We give them non-reciprocal concessions including ‘Most Favoured Nation’ treatment on trade, so that no barrier is placed on them as their government places on us,” added Parthasarathy.
On the question of a double-speak on the part of the government, he said, “There is no question of double-speak in our policy at all. People who are ignorant say it is a double-speak. The fact of the matter is that it is a carefully nuanced policy not just by this government but by past governments as well. Continuing trade and people-to-people contacts with Pakistan, even during the Kargil conflict, demonstrated that while we would deal firmly with the Pakistan army and win the war, we had no desire to hurt common people.”
Speaking on the matter, former Foreign Secretary Shashank said that we cannot call this a double-speak in our foreign policy. Instead, he said, “What you can say is some parts of the foreign policy pursued by the previous government have been tweaked a little bit. For example in response to ceasefire violations or firing across the international border, the decision is that we will respond immediately. In fact, some more autonomy has been given to the local commanders to take immediate action and respond to such firing.”
He goes on to explain, “Earlier, there was this understanding that even when both the countries suffered from terror-related incidents, then too talks between them would go on. They were stopped only when terror attacks on Mumbai took place in November 2008. Nevertheless, after sometime talks resumed in a limited way.”
“Thirdly, in relation to the aspect of keeping up the commercial relations and adding new areas like power, trading, etc., between the two countries, there’s a difference. It was not seen as anything but normal behaviour between two neighbouring nations, because after all, you have so many cases of people straying and crossing the international border or boats of fishermen getting caught on either sides and then you have to provide them with required consular assistance. Also, commercially we do add to the value of our bilateral trade. But if there is a domestic shortage then I am sure the government will take appropriate steps. Earlier, on terror, there might have been a softer approach but now the government has decided to take appropriate and prompt response,” he explained.
When asked to comment on the perceived duality, if any, in the foreign policy being followed by New Delhi vis-a-vis Islamabad, former External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid said, “I would not use a word (when asked about this being a ‘double-speak’) of that kind, particularly because these were the very words that were constantly thrown at us when we were in the government. It is important to understand that this is a complicated relationship. For us to expect any kind of idealism in this relationship is going to be very misplaced. Even if the idealism is temporary, as we saw during the swearing-in ceremony of the NDA government, Pakistan was invited and I think the Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif came at some inconvenience to himself because not everybody from there would have wanted him to come to India. But he did come and one should appreciate that he wanted to make that gesture. The problem is that we must understand that he is not the master of everything in Pakistan. He is operating in a very a very narrow space with severe constraints which are largely anti-Indian.”
The Congress leader went on to explain the need for a far-sighted approach to the issue. “We have to have a clear long-term perspective as to where we want to go and how we would get there. As I said it is complicated and it does not have an easy solution whether military, political or even an economic one. We must not expect wonderful things in a hurry, we must take one step at a time. The answer does not lie in wiping Pakistan out of our memory because Pakistan will continue to pinch us but we must ensure that the pinch does not hurt,” he said.
His party colleague and former Union Commerce Minister, Anand Sharma stressed that dealing with terror and trading with Pakistan were two separate issues. “I think these are separate issues and you do not stop trading. In a situation when the domestic prices rise sharply and there are supply-demand issues, there is an in-built mechanism which I hope this government activates. In such a scenario we prevent exports as we used to always do, for example if prices of onion, cotton, sugar or other commodities rise sharply then we would immediately step in by raising the Minimum Export Price (MEP). We would raise it to a level where it would be uneconomical to trade. Then the supply issue has been addressed, when the supply is more than demand and the prices come down.”
On dealing with the terror issue which India faces with Pakistan, Sharma said, “When there is tension then there has to be a firm and adequate response but at the same time you have to be reminded of the fact that you cannot change either the history or geography therefore and you have to coexist as neighbours. We should also find ways so that the situation does not spin out of control, whereas the responses have to be firm. Jingoism would be misplaced.”
Also nationally there lies the politics behind the entire issue. Sharma slammed the BJP-led government for giving conflicting reports on this. “On our handling of the recent terror-boat incident, there are conflicting reports appearing from the government. It seems there is no coordination between the various government agencies. It is for the government of the day to ensure and share whatever information they can without compromising on national security with the country so that the true picture emerges. (On BJP calling Congress agents of Pakistan) - The ruling party loses its mental balance to call the principal Opposition party as agents of an enemy country. It is sad.”
Meanwhile, BJP spokesperson Sudhanshu Trivedi backed the government’s decision on the stand taken on terror as well as trading with Pakistan. “There is no duplicity. It shows our tough stand on national security and with a humanitarian touch as we observed a nation-wide condolence for the Peshawar massacre. Though Pakistan is constantly making mischief even after that to India, but still we continue to follow the Indian tradition of chivalry as we help them out on humanitarian grounds. We must also remember the floods in J&K last year when Prime Minister Narendra Modi offered help and assistance to the Pakistani side as well,” he said.