Does it matter if Foreign Secretary-level talks with Pakistan are called off?
The government of India has cancelled the proposed Foreign Secretary-level talks with Pakistan as a result of Pakistan’s High Commissioner to India, Abdul Basit, meeting with Hurriyat leaders. The meetings took place apparently despite Indian warnings to Mr. Basit that Pakistan could choose to engage in dialog with either India or the separatists, but not with both. It is possible that new red lines are being drawn on what India considers unacceptable engagement by Pakistani politicians and diplomats. Reaction to India’s response has been mixed; some have called it an overreaction, while others believe India’s response was justified.
But whether India’s decision was an overreaction or a justified response is of no real relevance. India and Pakistan hold such divergent and irreconcilable positions on Kashmir that a resolution seems almost next to impossible as things stand today. For India this matters little, as a status-quoist state in a position of advantage in every area of contention vis-à-vis Pakistan on Kashmir.
Pakistan, on the other hand, has a problem. As Christine Fair rightly notes in her book Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War, Pakistan is “revisionist, or anti-status quo, in that it desires to bring all of the disputed territory of Kashmir under its control, including the portion currently governed by India.” Pakistan’s problem though, is that there exists a significant and ever-increasing disparity between its ends and means. Its military campaigns to wrest Jammu and Kashmir from India have failed with increasing decisiveness in each successive attempt. India has also successfully thwarted – though at a significant cost – Pakistan’s sub-conventional war in Jammu & Kashmir.
In short, Pakistan’s attempts at resolving the Kashmir dispute through violent means have failed. Pakistan is therefore left with the only option of negotiation through diplomacy. But Pakistan’s leaders, present and past, have built a narrative around J&K that allows no scope for nuance, negotiation or compromise. The resulting public sentiment in Pakistan is that it is unlikely to be satisfied with anything short of India handing Kashmir over to Pakistan on a silver platter. And that is hardly going to happen.
It doesn’t matter how many whitepapers and non-papers are written and circulated about potential solutions to J&K. Optimism about their viability isn’t shared by many beyond the confines of Track-II moots in which they are enthusiastically presented. Ultimately, Pakistan cannot demand anything less than a total surrender of Jammu & Kashmir and India cannot (and will not) give Pakistan what it wants.
This is not at all to advocate a total cessation of dialog with Pakistan. There is benefit to be derived from continued dialog on ancillary issues such as liberalizing trade and visa regimes. As far as one can tell, India has only cancelled FS-level talks scheduled for August 25 in Islamabad, not shut the door on future opportunities for talks between the two governments.
Indeed, even as news of the cancelled August 25 talks hogged the limelight, state-run gas utilities from India and Pakistan appear to be in advanced talks for exporting gas from India to Pakistan via a pipeline from Jalandhar to Lahore. Operationalizing such a project would be significant, considering our troubled histories. India can continue to pursue these and other pragmatic initiatives with Pakistan, but there are more pressing foreign policy matters that demand India’s attention than its western neighbor.
For India, Pakistan is not a foreign policy priority but a national security threat, given its continued use of terrorism against the Indian homeland and Indian interests abroad. Dealing with such a threat requires a different set of objectives, actors and intended outcomes. Currently, those actors do not reside in the Ministry of External Affairs, but in other ministries and agencies of the Indian government. If India is to expend significant time and effort on Pakistan, it will be better served if they are spent in the pursuit of means to mitigate the threats to India’s national security emanating from that country.