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Talking with the Indians

Published May 08, 2012 12:15am

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THE impulse to write this Op-Ed piece has come from some readers of my article ‘Negotiating with America’ (Dawn, April 24) who suggested that it be followed up with ‘Negotiating with India’. India has often talked to Pakistan but hardly ever negotiated issues that bedevil relations. In fact, the negotiating habits of both the states have produced cyclical conversations with little forward movement.

Evidence for the dialogue in hand is, however, mixed. The two countries may work out mutually profitable economic and commercial relations. On the other hand, reports that India has actually hardened its position on the long-awaited disengagement in Siachen after the heartrending tragedy at Gayari suggest stasis in negotiating postures. Sceptics argue that India is interested in the former because it gains much while it blocks the latter as any successful outcome would dilute its grip on Siachen.

There are widely different perceptions in India and Pakistan why the bilateral dialogue — now on, now off — remains unproductive. In an objective analysis, some reasons hark back to the Partition of 1947 while others attained salience in the post-independence conflicts. I propose to write two articles to focus on these deep-rooted factors.

India was divided largely because of triangular interaction involving the paramount colonial power exhausted by the Second World War, the Congress, a powerful political organisation for decades, and the Muslim League that assumed comparable leverage only after the great mobilisation of Muslims for the last general election in undivided India. For the Congress and its allies, there was already an India, united or divided, with a time-tested apparatus of the state.

Its key provinces had more democratic experience than the provinces constituting Pakistan. Its leaders had a vision, an idea, of India notwithstanding the tussle between Mahatma Gandhi and Subash Chandra Bose, the revolutionary from Bengal; and, notwithstanding the incipient conflict between the scholarly Abul Kalam Azad so emotionally attached to the civilisational symbiosis of India as to accept the trifurcating zonal scheme to prevent outright partition and others like Vallabhbhai Patel who secretly preferred a surgical division to win the battle for the soul of their postcolonial state.

The fact that India already existed made for well-considered decisions backed by force; it gave India a most advantageous time lead over Pakistan. A coalition of seasoned political leaders and a functioning executive authority guided by V.P. Menon enabled India to act strongly on issues concerning Pakistan. Having made substantive initial gains, India became a status quo power; its Pakistan diplomacy geared to defending that status quo. Frustrated by entrenched Indian positions, Pakistan occasionally resorted to dangerous actions in the vain hope of changing the pattern.

Pakistan was being shaped and configured in those fateful early years while being literally on the road. The author Philip Oldenburg (India, Pakistan and democracy) speaks of Pakistan as “an insufficiently imagined place”, a telling phrase crafted by Salman Rushdie. In reality, ‘imagining’ the new nation was not just insufficient; it was also a contested process.

I was a member of a small committee under Yahya Bakhtiar tasked in 1990 to open the Jinnah papers locked away by Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah as too personal. Jottings made by the Quaid in a loose sheaf folder, mostly at odd hours of sleepless nights, contained amazing insights. There was an entry about asking Liaquat Ali Khan to speak to Nehru about retaining common customs despite the mayhem of Partition. There was a painful record of Jinnah’s growing disappointment with the parochial politics of a number of leading Leaguers.

Ayesha Jalal’s memorable description of him as ‘the sole spokesman’ has strengthened the view that the Quaid was an unquestioned guide and decision-maker. The fact of the matter was that the grip of the terminally ill leader was progressively loosening.

A rough and ready example was Kashmir. India went through an elaborate political process to overcome the Maharaja’s procrastination and then mounted a well-planned military intervention. Pakistan’s contacts with Sheikh Abdullah and others in Kashmir were amateurish; the military component of the effort was a chaotic tribal incursion. The contrast reflected a gap not only in strategic comprehension but also in the quality of available administrative machinery.

Again, Nehru had a firmer grasp of the idea of national sovereignty and the realpolitik with which to assert it. He had not obstructed the plan for three zones, accepted briefly by both the Congress and the Muslim League. But then, in a moment that changed the course of history, he brought about its precipitous collapse by declaring that an independent and sovereign India would be free to change the arrangements then being made.

As Mountbatten rushed the transfer of power and threw his weight behind India in implementing the plan for Partition, imagining Pakistan with precision became even more difficult.

Later, when Pakistan joined western military pacts, Nehru rubbished the UN resolution for a plebiscite in Kashmir by treating the Pakistani decision as an affront to the imagined sanctity, inviolability and sovereignty of the subcontinent; he reassured Sheikh Abdullah there would be no plebiscite.

One can cavil at Nehru’s flawed political morality. The fact is that he successfully outmanoeuvred Pakistani leadership in statecraft and realpolitik and pioneered an enduring diplomatic approach to Pakistan: talk from a position of strength, create and defend new ground realities, concede nothing and impose political attrition.

Pakistan’s internal inadequacies, perceived existential threat from India and its international alliances rapidly led to a bureaucratic-military ethos. Its consequences for Pakistan’s India policy were enormous. India continues to harp on it even though Pakistan’s military establishment is now ready for accommodation.

Admittedly, it remains apprehensive of politicians who may go overboard in ‘appeasing’ the Indian interlocutors who have arguably no intention of seeking equitable solutions and closures even in the ‘doable’ segments of the bilateral agenda.

This brings us straight to the question if old negotiating tactics are being given up. It is a complex issue that should await the next future-focused article.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.