Case for Indo-Pak backchannel

As indicated by improved situation on the Line of Control, the India-Pakistan relations are limping back to normalcy but stability still remains far fetched.

Going by former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s dictum on impossibility of changing neighbours, India’s growth and Pakistan’s stability is impossible without trust, normalcy and cooperation between the two. 

To keep the interaction between New Delhi and Islamabad uninterrupted it serves interests of both to have official dialogue backed up by institutional and creative back channel framework.

Latest Escalation

In backdrop of tension on the Line of Control that erupted after beheading of an Indian soldier in first week of January, when the security discourse overtook the political discourse, the Army Chief Gen Bikram Singh, in an on the go remark, drove home a basic fact often ignored in context of India-Pakistan peace process. He said, ‘the level of normalcy between India and Pakistan has to be seen in relation to the situation on the Line of Control’.

The LoC is less than 25 percent of entire boundary of 2064 miles dividing the two countries but the fact that it runs through Jammu and Kashmir assumes centrality to any model of stability India and Pakistan work at. With a history of diplomatic, political and security ups and downs behind them, it was a LoC skirmish that recently brought the South-Asian giants once again back to the brink, sadly, at a time when they looked heavily invested in repairing their relations.

In the immediate fallout the foreign offices in New Delhi and Islamabad called the respective envoys to issue stern demarches. Pakistani hockey players playing for Indian team were sent back from Mumbai in the middle of pre-game trial session. Visit to India of two leading Pakistani theatre groups called off.

The biggest fallout was on the LoC itself. Emerging since 2005 as a ‘Line of Cooperation and Peace’ between India and Pakistan, the LoC suddenly returned to its traditional symbolism of ‘Line of Conflict’; gates were shut on the Cross-LoC travel and trade, the biggest ever confidence building measure between India and Pakistan on Kashmir. India put on hold full operationalisation of new visa regime.

The leader of Opposition in the Parliament asked for ‘ten heads of Pakistani soldiers’ to avenge beheading. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh summed up the political sentiment on January 14 when he said, ‘after this barbaric act, there can’t be business as usual with Pakistan’.

The much awaited MFN and new trade regime, seen as an alternative route to sustainable stability between two countries, has fallen into state of uncertainty. All this happened barely two weeks after India and Pakistan played cricket together in New Delhi, the first bilateral series in five years signalling best of relations.

Those who lack the strategic depth as that of Gen Bikram Singh think of bilateral cricket series as barometer of India-Pakistan normalcy. It was at the LoC –one breach, the proverbial one gunshot and then the cyclic retaliations –where the normalcy castle collapsed.

De-escalation

The government of Pakistan Peoples’ Party, which has been risking its political fortunes to the mighty army and unbridled jihadists in repairing relations with India post-26/11 Mumbai terror raids, found itself in a precarious situation after the LoC incident.

However, its initial response –denial –was pretty much typical of the traditional order. Then, sounding innocent, Islamabad returned with offer of a United Nations led probe, outrightly rejected by New Delhi as India has not been reporting to UNMOGIP since 1972.

Analysts say credit goes to the political sagacity of the top political leadership in India and Pakistan in exercising restraint and realising futility of further escalation and importance of keeping the channels of dialogue open. The DGMOs took the hotline to make commitment to respecting the ceasefire.

Since then there has not been any further violation of the 2003 truce on the LoC. Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar’s offer for a Minister level dialogue with India soothed the political climate.

External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid described Khar’s statement as ‘positive’ and reiterated that the ‘peace process is not going to be undermined by these incidents.

Sustaining the truce

Two weeks after the formal signs of normalcy signalled by New Delhi and Islamabad, a leading national newspaper in India has claimed that it was an Indian friend of President Zardari who mediated for the recent peace.

The newspaper has kept the friend’s identity secret for obvious reasons –in the Indo-Pak context when nationalist passions are high anyone talking for peace is seen as ‘friend of the enemy’.

This is common in both countries but much profound in India as attacks whether on LoC are in the heartlands occur in the east of Radcliffe line.  It might sound unpleasant to the self designated national interest community in both countries but India’s growth and Pakistan’s stability is impossible without trust, normalcy and cooperation between the two.

India and Pakistan have a bitter history of collapsing peace processes after years of political and diplomatic hard works. It has taken a lot for the UPA government in India and PPP government in Pakistan after 26/11 Mumbai attacks to put relations back on track.

The element of surprise which has often jeopardised the bilateral dialogue is difficult to rule out for future. What is, therefore, important for both countries is to have in place a permanent back channel team and manage the local situations locally and not magnify those to national level.

The worst might still happen. As India’s one of the most untiring peacenik Mani Shanker Aiyar says, ‘in order to jump larger distance sometimes you have to move a little backwards’. Uninterrupted, institutional and multi-level dialogue is the only option before India and Pakistan.

As the situation on LoC, the barometer of normalcy, continues to be fragile, the framework of ‘anonymous friends’ should go beyond advocacy of strategic patience to stress on and ensure the policy of ‘no first breach’.

It is a breach after every hard achieved concord that takes us many steps back. The anonymous friends –may be former diplomats or even former military Generals or politicos like Aiyar –could be packed into a back channel of communication not only between two governments but also set of officials in Foreign and Home departments. 

Author is a senior journalist Asia Society Fellow on India-Pakistan Young Leaders Forum. He can be reached at [email protected]   

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