How Kashmir Is Pushing Delhi To Love BIMSTEC Unlike SAARC?

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by A G Noorani

There was something pathetically unreal in the sustained press speculation about a resumption of talks between India and Pakistan after the Indian elections. Even a cursory study of the record of the Modi government’s policy on the talks would have injected some realism in the minds of the hopefuls.

It is, of course, very true that India and Pakistan had established a tradition in the past of offering congratulations after their respective general elections, coupled with an offer of talks which the other side gladly accepted. Neither country wanted a stand-off or confrontation. However, it should have been obvious by 2016, if not earlier, that Narendra Modi was out to break tradition in domestic as well as foreign policies.

Foreign secretary talks were cancelled in 2014 on the pretext that Pakistan’s high commissioner had invited a Hurriyat leader for talks. This was but par for the course. Former president Pervez Musharraf met Hurriyat leaders at the Pakistan high commissioner’s residence in New Delhi on the eve of the Agra summit in July 2001. This was not a rare event. He is known to have scolded the hard-line Syed Ali Shah Geelani earlier more than once when he gratuitously raised the North Waziristan issue. He was brusquely told to mind his own business. On another occasion, he was urged to moderate his hard-line stance and cooperate with other Kashmiri leaders. Modi’s abrupt cancellation of the talks was not a bit affected by his flamboyant trip to Lahore on former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s birthday. Pathankot provided yet another excuse for not talking.

Given Modi’s policy, what would talks even achieve?

But one must ask, given the Modi government’s basic approach towards Pakistan and Kashmir, what talks will achieve. A glimpse of that stand is evident in recent moves. India had invited several heads of government for Modi’s swearing-in ceremony on May 30, including leaders of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec) — Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Leaders of Kyrgyzstan (the current chair of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) and Mauritius were also invited.

“This is in line with the government’s focus on its ‘neighbourhood first’ policy,” the External Affairs ministry said, tongue in cheek. India has systematically undermined SAARC and vigorously promoted Bimstec though it is not a member; but, then, neither is Pakistan.

This is part of India’s proclaimed policy of ‘isolating’ Pakistan. It surely cannot parley with Pakistan while urging the world to keep it out at bay. The policy is certain to fail. So did Sukomo’s policy of ‘confrontation’ with Malaysia and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s vis-à-vis India, to name but two. West Germany was able to sustain the Hallstein Doctrine for long because of the power of the Deutsche mark, refusing to have relations with any country that had links with East Germany.

India enjoys no such clout. Besides, Pakistan has won new friends like Russia. It has a standing in the Middle East, Europe and elsewhere. Donald Trump notwithstanding, the US needs it badly, if it is to stage a dignified retreat from Afghanistan. India’s massive efforts in Afghanistan will not alter the facts of geography, history and the compulsions of politics. And there is the rising superpower China, whom India courts.

If the policy of isolation is doomed to failure, expectation of a dialogue is unreal. What will India and Pakistan talk about? There is no common ground on the core issue of Kashmir. It was finally established in 2005-2007 by Musharraf and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the realistic innovative four-point formula — but wrecked by a rabble of vicious, small minds. In Kashmir, Geelani led a vicious bunch, but one that did not point out any defects or suggests improvements.

It was the same story in Pakistan sung by critics of Musharraf’s domestic policies and by the BJP in India. At a great moment, small minds operated viciously to destroy a historic achievement. Imagine the scene in South Asia today if it had succeeded.

However, Kashmir is not the sole issue between the two countries. There are the joint statements of 1987 and 2001 which list them. Alas, there is no prospect of a dialogue on these either, although common ground was achieved on Sir Creek, Wullar barrage and Siachen. Other matters are also very susceptible to settlement. That is what Modi and his adviser do not want. ‘All or nothing’ is their policy. Their demands are: Pakistan must wash its hands of Kashmir and those fighting there must surrender. On this diplomatic graveyard India will build peace — settling these issues with Pakistan and imposing on Kashmir a constitutional order which accomplishes the BJP’s goal of erasure of Article 370 and ensures Kashmiri’s ‘integration’ with India — the peace of the graveyard.

(The writer, an author and a lawyer, is foremost Kashmir expert. He lives in Mumbai. This piece appeared in Dawn first.)

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