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India & Pakistan have to stop playing snakes and ladders – Mani Shankar Aiyar

Mani Shankar Aiyar in an exclusive piece for "Global Village Space Magazine" argues that way forward for India & Pakistan lies in a strategy that he summed up in a phrase some twenty years ago – “uninterrupted and uninterruptible dialogue” – a concept that was for a while adopted by Hina Rabbani Khar as official Pakistani policy but has never found endorsement in Indian official circles. Yet, unless such uninterrupted and uninterruptible engagement takes place, belief in the possibility of peace and harmony and in accommodation transforming into agreement, will never be allowed to take root. Transactional Dialogue is no answer to issues of India & Pakistan.

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Mani Shankar Aiyar |

The history of the last seven decades appears to conclusively demonstrate that there is little or no scope for a paradigm shift in India-Pakistan relations, able to bring the two countries together. Yet I remain an optimist, because I believe that our two governments have never made a determined, concerted and persistent attempt to break the deadlock. With mindsets fixated on the past, with so much to avenge and so much to fear, with the relationship caught in a web of complex international pressures, and with inadequate incentives to push for a brighter future, the tendency is towards living with an unstable equilibrium rather than embarking on initiatives that might lead nowhere and in fact destabilize the subcontinent to the point of producing the very opposite of the desired results.

However, an equilibrium that is inherently unstable, has a greater probability of tipping over than working towards a more steady situation that resolves what can be done and clarifies what stands in the way of issues that cannot find immediate resolution. One which postpones to a future generation the final resolution of matters that require time – the great healer – to find answers; while, assuring the disputants that their individual expectations might yet be fulfilled.

Is this a Feasible Goal?

I believe that the answer to this question can be given a positive twist if there is a readiness on both the sides to unburden themselves of past myths – which might have had some validity at one time, but have almost completely lost their salience in the last seven decades. Many of these myths run on binary parallel lines in India and Pakistan, thereby negatively impacting the present perceptions they have of each other.

Firstly, is the myth in Pakistan, that India has not yet accepted the permanence of Partition? And is the parallel myth in India, that of Pakistan’s permanent implacable hostility towards India? Let us examine each of these binaries. Within Pakistan, there are two principal sources of suspicion and distrust: one: that India has never acknowledged nor accepted the validity of the Two-Nation theory; and two: that India is therefore determined to end the very existence of Pakistan.

By way of proof, Pakistani intellectuals recall statements of several Congress and other Indian leaders that the Partition experiment would last no more than a quarter-century, and that it was precisely within 25 years that Indian military intervention in East Pakistan led to the break-up of Pakistan and the emergence of Bangladesh.

It is quite true that India has never subscribed, and never will, to the Two-Nation theory; but that does not stand in the way of it accepting and subscribing to the Three Nation reality. It is also true that only after the departing British had made clear that India’s independence would come with partition, did the Indians accept its inevitability, that too with great reluctance.

Even with the political compulsion of the emergence of Pakistan, India could not accept the Two Nation theory for the imperative reason that, even with the two wings of Pakistan arising on the subcontinent, millions of Muslims would remain in India. What would happen to these Muslims if India became a Hindu country in response to Pakistan’s announcement of becoming an Islamic state?

As of today, the number of Muslims in India are almost as many as the number of Muslims in Pakistan. The Muslim citizens of India are so numerous that they constitute one of the largest concentrations of Muslims anywhere in the world – to the point that, today, it is as impossible to consider Islam without India as it is to consider India without Islam. India must, therefore, be a secular state. If India were to declare itself a Hindu state by subscribing to the Two Nation theory, it would seriously question the affinity, patriotism and nationalism of 170 million of its own citizens.

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The integration of its many minorities into the contemporary nationhood of independent India is the quintessential challenge of building unity in the country, and any acceptance of the Two Nation theory would militate against the security, well-being and progress of the Muslims along with other minorities of India. It is, therefore, of the highest import for Muslim Pakistanis to understand that whatever reason supported the Two Nation theory during the Pakistan Movement, any invocation of that in today’s subcontinent would be deeply harmful to Indian Muslims.

Indeed, the most enduring consequence of the two Partitions of 1947 and 1971 has been the three-way Partition of the sub-continent’s Muslims. Therefore, instead of harping on past grievances, the mutual reconciliation of the three states of the subcontinent – into which the Muslim community has been vivisected – needs to be seen in Pakistan as being in the highest interest of the ummah. (Indeed, to stretch a point beyond the scope of this article, such sub-continental reconciliation should also include the almost wholly Muslim nation of Afghanistan which, ironically, is far closer to India emotionally than it is to Pakistan!)

Therefore, the myth also needs to be abandoned that India’s rejection of the Two Nation theory is tantamount to a rejection of the irreversible historical and political fact of Pakistan’s sovereignty and independence as a nation.

As a matter of fact, the most persuasive reason for Pakistan to accept that India has no desire, intention or capability of occupying their country and dissolving Partition is, the manner in which Indian troops were voluntarily withdrawn from Bangladesh less than a hundred days after the fighting ended. Also the fact that they never even considered their re-induction during the long and steep decline in relations after the coup d’etat against Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, and the massacre of his family, on the night of August 14 and15 – a decline that was reversed only when the Bangabandhu’s daughter took the reins of power in Dhaka into her hands.

Perhaps more importantly, Pakistani scholars need to study and recount to their compatriots the story that emerges from the availability of a large trove of official secret and top-secret papers relating to decision-making at the highest tiers of the government of the crucial 1970-71 period that arose in the wake of the December 1970 elections in Pakistan. The archives reveal that the Indian Prime Minister and her closest advisers, namely P.N. Haksar, were firmly against any rash or precipitate reaction to the election results, as advocated by some hawks and hotheads, because they believed the advent of an Awami League government in Pakistan opened unprecedented prospects for an India-Pakistan reconciliation that had eluded both countries since 1947.

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It was only after the military crackdown, which led to West Pakistani forces becoming “strangers in their own country”, as one leading Pakistani officer has poignantly included in the title of his memoirs of that grim period, that the question of intervention arose. And while there were elements pressing for such intervention, the Indian PM and her government resisted and rejected such advice for months in the hope that international diplomatic pressure and sheer good sense within Pakistan would lead to a democratic and political settlement of what was, at least initially, an internal Pakistani problem. But when army brutality against their own people led to a flood of refugees that eventually mounted to some ten million, the issue ceased to be internal to Pakistan and became a matter of deep concern to India.

A recently published book by Jairam Ramesh, Intertwined Lives: P.N. Haksar and Indira Gandhi, cites papers which show the extreme anxiety in the highest circles of India, to avoid armed conflict spilling over into West Pakistan. Hence, the readiness soon after the 1971 conflict ended to return the occupied West Pakistan territory to Pakistan. The Simla Agreement of July 1972 was testimony to that desire.

Thus, Pakistanis need to understand and feel reassured that no reasonable Indian seeks the reversal of Partition. Pakistan is seen in India as a fact of life. Its dissolution and re-merger into India is neither sought nor capable of being accomplished. There is no existential threat to the country and therefore Pakistan can confidently consider embarking on a dialogue with India, broadcasted on the media, for us to live together as good neighbours. That perhaps explains the virtual unanimity of party manifestos in three successive democratic elections in Pakistan, which prioritize peace-making through negotiation as the need of the hour.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about India. The parallel deep-seated perception in India is that Pakistan, namely the establishment, the people and especially the Pakistani army, are so rooted in their hatred of India and Hindus that India’s primary task should be to guard against Pakistan-based terrorism and stay on alert against Pakistani armed aggression rather than chasing the chimera of an impossible peace with an impossible Pakistan.

Yet, hope lies in the other fact that, by and large, political parties in India – even those belonging to the opposition – and the population respond positively when the Indian government moves forward, and by the same token, pulls back only when the government does so. This gives the Indian government much greater leeway than the government at times seems to recognize, in embarking on a peace initiative with Pakistan.

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Unfortunately, the total absence of any people-to-people interaction between Indians and Pakistanis in their own countries, allows continues persistence of hopelessly dated perceptions – although all over the world the Indian and Pakistani diasporas find friendship and things in common when together. Unfortunately, this is not reflected in life on the subcontinent.

In consequence, many, perhaps most Indians continue to believe that the anti-Indian and anti-Hindu rhetoric that animated the Pakistan Movement and the first quarter-century of Pakistan’s independence is still prevalent. Those were the days of acute acrimony, both on the home front and at the United Nations, and then eventually on the battlefield. “Hans, hans ke liya tha Pakistan/Lad, lad ke lenge Hindustan”. “Kal shaam tak, Islam ka jhanda Lal Kile par lehrayega”. “One Muslim soldier is equal to five Hindus” (Ayub Khan). “Remember Balban took Bengal with just six horsemen”. And, above all, Bhutto proclaiming to the international community, to wild applause from his domestic audience, that Pakistan would wage a “thousand year war” against that “monster, India”.

The fact is that kind of language has almost disappeared from Pakistan’s political vocabulary. There is inadequate recognition in India that nearly 95 per cent of today’s Pakistanis, in sharp contrast to the Partition generation, have never been Indians and therefore, do not have to define their identity in negative terms as “We are Pakistanis because we are not Indian”. Moreover, there is very little anti-Hindu feeling compared to the ethos that prevailed in, the run-up to and the first few decades of, Pakistan – because very few Pakistanis have ever met or interacted with a Hindu within their own country.

The past two general elections in Pakistan and the current third election now unfolding, have established that anti-India propaganda has little electoral appeal, which is why all political parties (except perhaps the Jama’at-e-Islami that never wins more than a couple of seats) pledge peace with India as their gambit to secure votes.

The peace constituency in Pakistan is huge – but Pakistan is not as much an electoral issue in India, as it is in the country itself. Perhaps this accounts for the inadequate recognition accorded in India to Pakistan peace overtures, especially in the context of the challenges thrown to India’s national security by Pakistan-based terrorist attacks. There is a strong suspicion of an official, if rogue, Pakistani hand in these outrages and frequent cease-fire violations, cross-border firing, infiltration, and support – moral, material and financial – to Kashmiri discontents and armed insurgents.

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The other side of the coin is that circumstantial evidence establishes beyond question that when Indo-Pak engagement takes place, these infractions tend to decrease. Reciprocally, when India and Pakistan do not engage, it turns into a field day for the enemies of reconciliation.

That is why, parallel to Pakistan raising itself out of the myth that India constitutes an existential threat to its very being, we need to move India towards a wider and deeper recognition of the sincerity and desire for peace in Pakistan. It also needs to be better seen in India that this desire for peace and reconciliation is not only general in Pakistani public opinion but, perhaps more importantly, in political circles, the media, the civil services and academia, and extends even to the military and intelligence agencies. Indeed, the irony is that India-Pakistan relations have more often than not moved forward under military rule in Pakistan, relative to civilian rulers looking over their shoulders and clinging to their chairs.

There is a new Pakistan and a new India, post-Partition and post-Independence, staring at each other bewildered – bewildered because while both have changed, there is little awareness in either country of how profound is this change that could transform our alienation into accommodation.

How to move Forward and Change Misperceptions

Can these misperceptions be changed? Certainly not on Track-II and certainly not by articles like this one. It is only if our governments engage with each other that, progressively and perhaps at a snail’s pace, mutual trust can be promoted. It is not that the two governments have not engaged in the past. They have – frequently in the days of Nehru and Liaquat Ali Khan, or on specific issues such as the Indus Waters Treaty in Ayub Khan’s early days; sometimes dramatically as when Nehru sent a team that included Sheikh Abdullah to talk to the Ayub regime, but which got aborted by Nehru’s death; the Tashkent and Shimla agreements; Zia’s numerous visits to India; Rajiv Gandhi’s two official visits to Pakistan during Benazir Bhutto’s brief ascendancy; the composite dialogue agreed on in 1997; the Lahore visit of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and, in particular, his visit to the Minar-e-Pakistan commemorating the birth of the idea of Pakistan; the Agra summit with Musharraf notwithstanding Kargil and the 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament; the four-point formula on Kashmir that emerged from the back-channel talks under the guidance of President Musharraf and Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh;  and even the sudden descent by Prime Minister Modi on the family home of Nawaz Sharif to wish him for his birthday and give blessings to his grand-daughter on the eve of her marriage.

But while the list of these meetings and their outcome could fill many volumes, so could the breakdown of these initiatives.

In a short article such as this, there is neither space nor scope for an extensive treatment of the “snakes-and-ladders” process of initiation, progress and breakdown that has characterized past efforts for engagement. An excellent account of the spurts and bursts of dialogue has been described in a recent publication,  by the former Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan, TCA Raghavan, The People Next Door. But the common thread that runs from the Liaquat-Nehru Pact of 1950 to the Raiwind overture of Narendra Modi is that we have never relentlessly persisted, with dialogue. At the least disturbance, be it Musharraf’s breakfast meeting with the media in Agra; or Manmohan allowing an innocuous reference to Balochistan in the Sharm-al Shaikh communique to more serious disruptions in matters like the Sawaran Singh-Bhutto talks after the 1965 war; or Bhutto repudiating his understanding with Indira Gandhi to convert the Line of Control into an international border; or the ghastly Mumbai terrorist attack sponsored from Pakistani soil (and dozens of others), dialogue has commenced only to be disrupted, usually much sooner than later. And once disrupted, the progress made is retracted rather than built upon on resumption of dialogue. Hence, the ‘snakes-and-ladders’ analogy.

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A transactional approach – which lists issues of dispute, labels them ‘intractable’ and insists on reciprocity at every stage – will never work in the absence of a basic conviction needed to make a breakthrough in the larger national interest and the political stamina to see matters through. This will necessarily be a long and hard slog. Getting the negotiators to come up with mutually acceptable formulae is but the start of the process; governments will then have to “sell” what has been agreed to their respective establishments and their peoples.

To begin the dialogue, believing it to be fragile is not the way forward. There has to be recognition that skeptics will have to be taken on board. It also needs to be fully taken into account ab initio that there will be forces of hostility who will resort to violence, to stop the processes of peace and reconciliation.

We have the model forged by Musharraf and Manmohan as a template that can be revived. On stage, they maintained cordiality, however on the back-channel there was hard bargaining between Tariq Aziz of Pakistan and Sati Lambah of India. Any progress they made or hurdles they encountered were referred to their principles, who issued their directions to continue the dialogue after consulting their respective stake-holders, including the military and intelligence.

Most important of all, instead of dealing with peripheral matters, they took on the most difficult issue of all: Kashmir. Three years of “uninterrupted” dialogue between the interlocutors led to near agreement, so near, in fact, that had Dr. Manmohan Singh scheduled his visit to Pakistan at the end of February 2008 rather than the end of March, a breakthrough even on Kashmir might have been secured. Unfortunately, Musharraf’s differences with his judiciary set in train the processes that led eventually to Musharraf’s downfall, and the Mumbai terrorist outrage on 26 November that year put an end to whatever remained of that dialogue. But the draft four points remain on record and could constitute perhaps the best take-off point for any resumption of the dialogue.

Elections are already underway in Pakistan and they are due shortly in India. Once the two new governments are in place, the way forward could be forged. But if the inevitable ups and downs in the India-Pakistan relationship are allowed to determine the course of the dialogue or its breakdown, then, I am afraid, we will be left back to playing snakes-and-ladders.

Mani Shankar Aiyar is a former Indian diplomat turned politician. A member of the Indian National Congress party, he has served as the Union Cabinet Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas from May 2004 through January 2006 and Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports till 2009, under the Dr. Manmohan government. He was also the first Minister of Development of North Eastern Region. Prior to joining politics in 1989 he served in the Indian foreign service. He is also a well-known political columnist and author of several books, including Pakistan Papers, A Time of Transition: Rajiv Gandhi to the 21st Century, and Remembering Rajiv, and has edited a four-volume publication, Rajiv Gandhi’s India. The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space. 


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