A New Era: Indo-Pak Terror Talks
History repeats itself, Marx famously said, the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce. The history of India-Pakistan relations has repeated itself so often in the past 15 years that it no longer seems even farcical. The pattern is tiresomely familiar. Terror attacks lead India to suspend diplomatic engagement until Pakistan moves against the perpetrators, but after a period of disengagement it is India that initiates dialogue resulting in the resumption of comprehensive engagement. And so the pendulum continues to swing. This week New Delhi yet again confronts the decision of whether to take forward the engagement with Pakistan.
Today, India is the victim of terrorism originating from Pakistan and ironically the latter had the taste of its own medicine when terrorists attacked schools and places of worship.
Pakistani Foreign Office spokesperson Qazi Khalilullah urged India to do away with the practice of hurling “unsubstantiated terror allegations against Pakistan.” Commenting on the joint Indian-French statement on terrorism, issued at the end of the visit by French President Francois Hollande to India, the spokesperson said Pakistan’s sacrifices in the war against terrorism have been acknowledged by the world community.
One thought that between the unscheduled Christmas day visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Pakistan to meet his counterpart Nawaz Sharif and spread bonhomie and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit across the border last month when Pakistan assured India of “steps being taken to expedite the early conclusion” of the Mumbai attack trial, our neighbour would have stepped up efforts to assist in India’s investigations into terrorism. But in a setback, the Islamabad High Court dismissed its government’s petition seeking voice samples of 26/11 mastermind Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi and six other suspects. The prosecution was seeking voice samples to compare them with communications intercepted by Indian intelligence and petitioned that the samples were essential for concluding the investigation of the case.
Earlier in 2011 and 2015 too the issue of obtaining voice samples of Lakhvi had been dismissed by the trial court saying “no such law exists that allows obtaining of voice sample of an accused.” Agreed, it’s the law of the land. But it is time Pakistan changed its law to ensure terrorists and supporters of terrorism are brought to book. Moreover, no nation is immune from the terror threat as terrorists have become global citizens.
As a State, Pakistan should at least now wake up to the harsh reality of terrorism and the essentiality of cooperation between nations for delivering justice, and if necessary, change its own laws towards that nobler, universal goal.
Today, India is the victim of terrorism originating from Pakistan and ironically the latter had the taste of its own medicine when terrorists attacked schools and places of worship. As a State, Pakistan should at least now wake up to the harsh reality of terrorism and the essentiality of cooperation between nations for delivering justice, and if necessary, change its own laws towards that nobler, universal goal. As the famous Greek philosopher Plato put it, “Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws.” Further, “Justice in the life and conduct of the State is possible only as first it resides in the hearts and souls of the citizens.”
Terror invariably succeeds in derailing India’s public reasoning about complex international affairs. Most of the debate in the electronic media is of the “Pakistan must pay/ vengeance is mine” variety. Lost in the cacophony is the middle ground that government policymakers need to populate. For instance, our middle ground, even if contested, is to stress the reasoned logic of dialogue with Pakistan without letting down our vigil against terrorism. That is not the message that triumphed during the spirited and impassioned debates post-Pathankot. There is, instead, an incessant manufacturing of consent to showing a smaller and a “loser” country (Pakistan) its place by a muscular and barrel-chested India.
Credibility, clarity and consistency are the hallmarks of such an approach. The government must become the go-to purveyor of verified facts, the gold standard source for credible information. It has to mitigate fear-mongering and rumour-proliferation. The message from various government agencies has to be a unified one. During the Boston Marathon bombings of 2013, public officials opened meaningful lines of communication through multiple media methods, allowing for a clear message that mitigated and moderated the negative consequences of a great deal of misinformation and speculation. This was not the case with the Twitter feeds or public responses of the Indian establishment following the Pathankot attack. Mere expressions of sympathy or boilerplate statements of resolve will not do.
It is in India’s interest, then, to strengthen Sharif’s position—so long as he proves to be a credible interlocutor.
Instead of being used by terror, let us learn from each instance (as also from our friends and partners abroad) when terror strikes at the vitals of the Republic. We must institutionalise and formalise our responses to terror more efficiently and with greater planning. High adrenaline jingoism and testosterone nationalism are not the answers to the problem. Strategic responses to threats to the homeland must include mastery of the art of strategic communication. The challenge here is before the government. On a wider plane, the people of India must demand of both their representatives in the political space as well as the media that norms for information flow that do not jeopardise national security in times of terror are never ignored.
The challenge for the government is to craft policies towards Pakistan that recognise both these realities. On the diplomatic front, we need to be clear about why we want to engage with Pakistan and how we wish to do this. Sharif has evidently staked his political capital on improving ties with India. Even if the Pakistan army and the ISI are not on board they do not seem inclined to openly oppose him.
It is in India’s interest, then, to strengthen Sharif’s position—so long as he proves to be a credible interlocutor. Instead of linking diplomatic contact with demand for action against perpetrators, India should use diplomacy to test his willingness and ability to move in the right direction. Instead of worrying too much about domestic opinion, New Delhi should downplay the symbolic importance of meetings with Pakistan and present diplomacy as a normal activity. Modi’s trip to Lahore was an important step in this direction. He must use the bully pulpit to make the case for continued engagement.
…Pathankot is entirely continuous with most major attacks that we have seen: the problem is usually in our response to intelligence inputs rather than lack of intelligence.
If diplomacy cannot help tackle terror, then we need a set of strategic options for this purpose. The default tendency is to call for retaliatory options. The defence minister recently stated that individuals and organisations which strike India “should also receive the pain of such activities…if they don’t realise what pain they inflict they inflict, then they don’t change”. To be sure, deterrence works by the threat of punishment.
But deterrence also works by denial—by making it rather more difficult for terrorists to target India. The attack in Pathankot underlined our weaknesses on this front. It also quashed the widely held belief that all terrorist attacks are due to intelligence failure. In fact, Pathankot is entirely continuous with most major attacks that we have seen: the problem is usually in our response to intelligence inputs rather than lack of intelligence. Upgrading our capacity for denial is as important in deterring terrorism as retaliatory punishment.
In effect, we need a two-track policy towards Pakistan—one that doesn’t entangle our diplomatic and strategic choices. An optimal menu of positive and negative levers is indispensable to shaping the behaviour of various constituencies in Pakistan. It will also help the government lead, rather than follow, opinion at home.