How to Keep Indo-Pak Talks from Failing Again

Only days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprise visit to Lahore promised to put India-Pakistan relations back on track, a terrorist attack on an Indian Air Force base in Punjab this week has threatened to derail talks all over again. There is still little clarity on who was responsible for the attacks or where it was planned, but a Kashmir-based terrorist conglomerate called the United Jihad Council, composed of multiple groups operating out of Pakistan, has claimed responsibility.

India’s Foreign Ministry has stonewalled calls for the abandonment of talks following the attack. But this wouldn’t be the first time India’s stop-start dialogue with Pakistan has been jolted by bloodshed. The challenge for New Delhi would be to learn from history and ensure that terrorists don’t get their way again. A good starting point would be to frame some clear ground rules towards talks with Pakistan. Here are some pointers:

Define the issues of conflict and agenda of talks

Global discourse on India-Pakistan relations has long been dominated by Kashmir. But that isn’t the only contentious issue on the table. In 1997, the then Indian Prime Minister IK Gujral concluded a Composite Dialogue agenda with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that included eight points, ranging from Kashmir to water disputes, drug trafficking and economic cooperation. The dialogue was interrupted by the Kargil War in 1999 but was later resumed by President Musharraf and Prime Minister Vajpayee before being stalled again by 26/11.

Yet, despite several attempts to define what they want to talk about, India and Pakistan continue to vacillate. Talks between the two National Security Advisers were called off in August last year because Pakistan refused to allow terrorism a place on the table, while India wanted Kashmir off it. With things being no more certain today than back then, nobody can count that out from happening again.

Part of the problem is also the lack of consistency in India’s own stand on Kashmir. While India holds the Treaty of Accession to be valid and therefore considers Pakistan’s occupation of parts of Kashmiri territory to be illegal, prime ministers in the past have flirted with the idea of conceding Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to Islamabad (at least in private), largely due to practical compulsions. But if India holds Kashmir to be an integral part of its territory, it makes little sense for New Delhi to discuss the future of its own state with diplomats from Islamabad.

The Modi government’s view on Kashmir has been no clearer. Far from calling upon the international community to act against Pakistan for what it considers “illegal occupation” or at least making its case heard on the floor of the United Nations, India has constantly shied away from discussing Kashmir in global forums. In a fiery interview with Al Jazeera’s Mehdi Hasan last month, when asked for India’s proposed solution to the conflict in Kashmir, the BJP general secretary Ram Madhav refused a direct comment, further signifying New Delhi’s reticence in clarifying its view. Even the United Nations has a clear policy on Kashmir. In 2010, under the eyes of Security Council, the UN removed Kashmir from its list of disputed territories.

Define expectations from talks and draw red lines

One of the reasons India-Pakistan talks often break down is that there is little clarity on red lines and what comes with their violation. After NSA talks were called off in August last year, the two NSAs met in Bangkok early last month, agreeing to include both terrorism and Kashmir on the dialogue agenda. The talks also brought peace along the Line of Control (LoC) onto the table, after a host of ceasefire violations through 2015. Yet, following the terrorist attack in Pathankot this week (and a clear violation of the joint vow to fight terrorism together), India continues to search for a response. There is also little guarantee that the talks will find a way to punish ceasefire violations along the LoC, if they are to happen any time in the future.

By contrast, New Delhi has called off talks on comparatively far more frivolous grounds in the past. In 2014, India unilaterally called off Foreign Secretary talks after the Pakistani High Commissioner in New Delhi consulted Kashmiri separatist leaders before the meet – a custom which, Islamabad claimed, was practiced regularly even under previous governments. Even today, it is unclear whether India considers Pakistan’s engagement with Kashmiri separatists to be a “red line” or what the consequences would be, should Islamabad continue such parleys.

In the absence of such red lines, there are no safeguards against a breakdown in talks at the slightest irritation on either side any time in the future. Worse, such ambiguity allows enemies of peace talks derail efforts at will.

If India wants to ensure the sustenance of meaningful talks with Pakistan, it needs to bring clarity on its policy goals towards Islamabad. That includes clarity on what is on the agenda, what the two sides expect from the talks and what each side holds to be “red lines” for the other. If there is one thing that New Delhi can learn from the past, it is that any policy is better than no policy.

(c) 2016, The Huffington Post