Why be afraid of talks with Pakistan?

Why be afraid of talks with Pakistan?
By H.K. Dua

PICKINGS may be slender and slow in coming, but India and Pakistan have agreed to begin a search for peace on the sub-continent. Rightly so.

The statements and reports emanating from Sharm El-Sheikh need not be taken as negatively as are being viewed by the usual sceptics, who are generally doubtful that India can ever persuade Pakistan to give up the path of terrorism by talks.

None can dispute that the people on both sides of the divide have been craving peace for years and are fed up with a history of tensions and wars and terrorism — which indeed is a war by other means. But the pursuit of peace certainly, besides keeping the powder dry, requires patient efforts for peace by talks across the table, to be complemented by a sustained and quiet track II diplomacy.

After every round of talks between two countries known for adversarial dispositions and suspicions there are bound to be varied responses and interpretations. The talks at Sharm El-Sheikh were not planned to play some zero-sum game where the gains of one party are bound to be at the cost of another. The idea behind the talks was to move towards a dialogue that had been severely fractured by the grisly events of 26/11 perpetrated by malevolent elements from Pakistan who would not like to see peace between India and Pakistan.

The Sharm El-Sheikh meetings between the two Prime Ministers and their foreign secretaries and other senior officials were meant to create ground for the resumption of the composite dialogue to sort out substantive issues that have over the years embittered relations between the two neighbours.

But some of the initial reactions in India to the outcome of the talks needlessly suggest that India has given more than it has gained by agreeing to resume the composite dialogue without making Pakistan give cast-iron guarantees that another 26/11 will not be allowed to happen again.

Essentially, such doubts arise from the fear that India is a weak party that tries to buy time through talks rather than face Pakistan headlong on the ground or otherwise.

Not talking with an adversary — actual or perceived — is not a practical proposition in the 21st century diplomacy. It could also be counter-productive. A nation like India should have confidence in its ability to deal with Pakistan across the table, ensuring at the same time that Pakistan, in its own interest, takes steps to prevent another 26/11 taking place.

The talks can, in effect, be a means to advance national interests by an intelligent use of diplomacy and skill. These can be regarded as a sign of strength, not weakness.

The US and the Soviet Union went on talking to each other during Cold War years through overt and covert diplomatic contacts. Anatoly Dobrynin remained Moscow’s Ambassador to six US Presidents over 21 years with Washington even giving him a separate entrance to the State Department during the worst times of a crisis-ridden relationship. Both Moscow and Washington found these contacts useful to prevent
flare-ups that could push the two super powers into a global war.

China and the US had nearly 650 rounds of meetings in Warsaw when they were bitter enemies in the 1960s and before Dr Henry Kissinger and President Richard Nixon flew to China to normalise relations with Beijing. The US was fighting the Vietnam war while representatives of the two countries were quietly meeting at Hotel Majestic in Paris. And recently President Obama chose to offer engagement with Iran to close a chapter of hostile relationship between the two countries without a loss of face. At the end of the day, it is the outcome that is important.

It is true that the joint statement by the two countries at Sharm
El-Sheikh can be interpreted by different people in different ways. But that is often the case after every round of talks between the two countries that have for years lived with mutual suspicion. Of significance is the Prime Minister’s statement to the media making clear how India looks at the outcome of the talks.

Dr Manmohan Singh said, “the dialogue cannot begin unless and until the terrorist acts of Mumbai are fully accounted for and the perpetrators are brought to book”. He added that unless this happened “I cannot agree; and our public opinion will not agree.” He pointed out that no roadmap for the resumption of the dialogue had been drawn up yet, but indicated that India had an obligation to engage Pakistan.

It is possible India is expecting the Pakistan government to take steps against the accused involved in the 26/11 killings in Mumbai during the next few days. Of significance is that no date has been announced about the resumption of the dialogue, nor has its nature or content been thought of. Those are to be sorted out by the two foreign secretaries during the next few weeks. And even the dates of the meetings of the two foreign secretaries have not been announced.

Apparently, India will be watching what action the Pakistan government will be taking against the perpetrators of the Mumbai carnage. The quality of action — and certainly not an attempted eyewash — will determine any movement towards a composite dialogue which again will take a long time to deliver peace. It is certainly going to be a long-drawn affair, subject to quirks of Indo-Pakistan relations.

After all, given the shortsightedness of the politicians and generals, wars are easy to start and always are avoidable. Peace-making is difficult and requires patience, wisdom and statesmanship of a high order. Towards that end, even a small step like the one taken at Sharm El-Sheikh should be welcomed rather than criticised.