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Another false start

Sukumar Muralidharan | Updated on January 23, 2018

Back to square one In a joint statement after the Ufa meeting — Pakistan insisted it took place at India’s request — India avoided any reference to Kashmir being an issue of bilateral interest Photo: PTI

Sukumar Muralidharan   -  BUSINESS LINE

A meeting between the Indian and Pakistani Prime Ministers became the prelude to a fresh bout of ceasefire violations and angry exchanges

On July 10, the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan met on the sidelines of a multilateral summit in Russia while top diplomats conjured up a joint statement and a commitment to resume talks. Perhaps they were anticipating the mood of an imminent Bollywood release, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, where a man of almost saintly goodness works a miracle, spiking guns on both sides of a bristling border and calling forth a rousing display of people’s power. In the real world, the magic evaporated within hours. India was insistent on avoiding any reference to Kashmir in the joint statement. Pakistan yielded to the extent of putting that part of the conversation under the term “all outstanding issues”. But they did not let that stand too long.

Explaining the intent of the meeting three days later, Sartaj Aziz, national security adviser to the Pakistan Prime Minister, designated to start talks with Indian counterpart Ajit Doval, clarified that it took place at India’s request, in a context of “growing international support for Pakistan’s foreign policy stance”. No dialogue was imminent, just a preliminary engagement to reduce mutual tensions. A dialogue could then conceivably begin on matters of bilateral interest, including “the core issue of Jammu and Kashmir”.

Soon afterwards, the guns opened up along the frontier. The customary Independence Day exchange of sweets between border guards did not take place. And in his address on the occasion, Pakistan’s High Commissioner in Delhi, Abdul Basit very pointedly underlined his country’s undying commitment to the Kashmir cause.

India’s Deputy High Commissioner in Islamabad, JP Singh, was meanwhile having a busy month, summoned no fewer than five times to the Pakistan Foreign Office to be served stern demarches on matters ranging from the border firing to the extension of bail for terrorism-accused Swami Aseemanand. Responding to a like summons in Delhi on August 16, Basit accused India of no fewer than 70 ceasefire violations in two months.

Whatever may have been the prime-ministerial intentions, agencies down the line in both countries were clearly having problems getting on board. And for India, the effort to speak down to a pesky neighbour from a posture of moral ascendancy was proving difficult to sustain.

Pakistan had found in Swami Aseemanand the perfect weapon for countering every demarche involving Zakiur Rahman Lakhvi and other suspects in the 2008 terror attack in Mumbai. Out on bail for close to a year, Aseemanand is one among several accused in a string of terrorist attacks, including the 2007 fire-bombing of the Samjhauta Express which killed 68, mostly Pakistani civilians.

Developments in Kashmir and its near neighbourhood, meanwhile, had the security agencies in overdrive and the media falling back on the drill of blaming every breach of peace on Pakistan. But factual challenges were quick to emerge, posing some difficulties for India’s effort to maintain an unwavering narrative about Pakistani culpability.

A certain frustration has been evident in recent months, including in the declaration by home minister Rajnath Singh on July 31 that “Hindutva” terrorism was a distraction from the singular focus required to deal with current security threats. Unsurprisingly, this led to a fresh excavation of the circumstances in which Aseemanand and others, including a serving Army intelligence officer, Colonel Shrikant Purohit, were charged with terrorism.

An explanation after a fashion has been offered by a former intelligence operative, RSN Singh, who has since retirement from active duty found his political moorings in the Hindutva right. Purohit’s mission, Singh wrote, was to infiltrate Islamic terror outfits and follow all available trails to their benefactors in Pakistan. “The Colonel”, wrote Singh, “is a legitimate intelligence operative… No intelligence agency issues written orders in pursuance of intelligence operations. The entire system is based on trust and faith. It is yet to be established how much disconnect there is between the legitimate and illegitimate activities of the officer during the course of his duty.”

These are telling locutions, especially the casual admission of “legitimate and illegitimate” methods being used in intelligence and the possibility of a “disconnect” between these, which suggests the equal probability of a “connect”. Intelligence on both sides may, indeed, have frequently breached the dividing lines between preventing, pre-empting and provoking terror attacks.

Doval is also on record from 2013, before he assumed his current charge, with the comment that if Pakistan were to do “one more Mumbai”, it would “lose Balochistan”. This passed without serious comment in India but since Doval’s appointment to a key national security position, has been blazoned across the border and condemned as a declaration of ill-intent. And then came another brazen case of misspeaking at the highest level, with defence minister Manohar Parrikar’s avowal in May that the best way of neutralising terrorism was through terrorism of another order.

Early this month, Tariq Khosa, retired director-general of Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency, wrote an op-ed in Karachi’s Dawn, urging his government to respond to the demand for action against the Mumbai 2008 culprits. Yet, what would normally have been read in Indian media as a damaging mea culpa, passed with merely a few cursory mentions. The reason simply was that the article made a much larger case: that Pakistan had much to gain from cooperation in the Mumbai investigations, since it could demand reciprocity in the Samjhauta Express investigations, the insurgency in Balochistan and ending the sustenance of terrorism in Karachi and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

This was a clear statement, in other words, that the policy of mutually inflicting pain, with no thought of gain for either side, has gone on long enough.

Sukumar Muralidharan is an independent writer and researcher based in Gurgaon and Shimla

Published on August 21, 2015

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