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EFSAS Commentary

Pakistan needs to put its divided house in order if it is serious about the much needed peace talks with India


Any talk of reconciliation between long estranged neighbours India and Pakistan can only be welcomed. That said, Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s recent call for talks with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi that received considerable traction in the South Asian media was, when looked at more closely, neither an articulation of a sincere desire for talks, nor really meant to awaken India’s peace-receptors at all. When meaningless and directionless proposals for talks are put forth by a Prime Minister using the good offices of a third friendly country, only to be categorically ruled out by the same Prime Minister’s office within days by dictating conditions that New Delhi has repeatedly made abundantly clear were not acceptable to it, the real prospects for peace certainly cannot be said to have been furthered. The frivolousness of the entire exercise is also likely to convey a dim picture of Islamabad’s seriousness in improving ties with New Delhi, adding yet more uncertainty and suspicion to the long frosty bilateral relations between the two countries. As Pakistani experts have pointed out, it is also going to raise further questions about whether Pakistan actually has the will, or even the capability, to put its own highly divided house in good enough order to go searching for meaningful peace with India.

In an interview this past week to the Dubai-based Al Arabiya TV, Shehbaz Sharif had claimed that Pakistan wanted “serious and sincere talks” with India, and towards this important end he had requested Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) whom he had met on 12 January in Abu Dhabi during his two-day visit to the UAE, to use his friendly ties with New Delhi to bring the two sides to the table to discuss outstanding issues. Sharif said, “My message to the Indian leadership and Prime Minister (Narendra Modi) is that let’s sit down at the table and have serious and sincere talks to resolve our burning issues like Kashmir, where flagrant violations of human rights are taking place day in and day out. And two, they usurped whatever semblance of autonomy was given to the Kashmiris in their Constitution – Article 370 – they revoked that in August 2019 and minorities over there are being grossly mishandled. I’m not going to go into details, suffice it to say that this must stop. So that a message can go around the globe that India is ready to have talks and we are more than ready...” He added, “I have requested Mohammed bin Zayed – that he’s a brother of Pakistan and the UAE is a brotherly country. He also has good relations with India, he can play a very important role to bring the two countries to the talking table and I give my word of honour that we will be talking to Indians with sincerity of purpose. But it takes two to tango. Both hands must clap”.

Saying that the two countries should live peacefully, Sharif suggested, “Let’s be very blunt, even if we are not neighbours by choice, we are there forever and it is up to us to live peacefully and progress or quarrel with each other and waste time and resources”. Sharif claimed that “Pakistan has learnt its lesson. We had three wars with India and the consequences of those wars were more miseries, unemployment, poverty and millions were demoted from their level of satisfaction to a low level of satisfaction”. Averring that Pakistan wanted to turn its human resources and assets into “tools to provide prosperity”, the Pakistani PM continued, “And for that, we need to use our resources to alleviate poverty and unemployment, provide medicines and high-quality education and not waste these resources in getting ammunition and bombs. That’s the message I want to give to Modi”.

Returning to a favoured Pakistani theme every time it feels threatened by matters internal or external, Sharif made it a point to draw attention to Pakistan’s fast expanding nuclear arsenal. He suggested that in Islamabad’s eyes, this arsenal ultimately represented Pakistan’s only consequential line of defense when he asserted that both countries were “nuclear powers, armed to the teeth”, and that “God forbid a war takes place, who will live to tell what happened? This is not an option”.

Islamabad, actually, has been desperate to hold talks with New Delhi for quite some time, but the Indian government, having been singed repeatedly after each earlier outreach for peace, and having had enough of Pakistan’s consistent policy of exporting terrorism to India, has changed its response to a more hard-line one that requires Pakistan to first demonstrably stop all terrorist activities against India being promoted and sponsored by it before any meet and greet handshakes across a table would even become a consideration. India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), accordingly, responded to Sharif’s comments on 19 January by saying, “We have said that we have always wanted normal neighbourly relations with Pakistan. But there should be a conducive atmosphere which does not have terror, hostility or violence”

Pakistan’s reasons for wanting to talk to New Delhi are perfectly understandable. The country has been in the doldrums for several years, with one major political crisis following another. It now finds itself in the hands of Shehbaz, the stand-in brother of disgraced former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, leading a hotchpotch coalition that is frantically flailing around to respond to a deep economic crisis even as his predecessor, Imran Khan, is baying for his blood.  Media reports have talked of Pakistan nearing a situation akin to that of Sri Lanka, with its dollar reserves running low and concerns rising that it might default on its debts. Things have reached such a pass that Shehbaz was compelled to lamented in the same Al Arabiya TV interview that a nuclear power like Pakistan should not put itself in a situation where it had to go around the world and beg for economic assistance. Prior to that, on a visit to the UAE and Saudi Arabia a few days before Sharif’s visit, Pakistan Army Chief General Asim Munir, while praising the UAE and Saudi Arabia for coming to Islamabad’s help “like a brother”, also said that Pakistan could not keep holding out its hand for doles, and that it would have to learn to stand on its own feet.

Over the past few years Pakistan’s economic difficulties have prompted a greater public acceptance of the idea of normalizing relations with India. Pakistani author Ayesha Siddiqa, currently a Senior Fellow at the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London, wrote recently that “Since the 1990s, the mood in Pakistan has changed. India is important, but it’s not a major object of hate among the general public. Traders, merchants, and the business sector in Punjab and Karachi have little appetite for conflict or putting Kashmir as a priority. Similar views can be found among the youth. I recently spoke to students in Peshawar who said that fighting India was no longer important to them”. Changes in West Asian geopolitics have also seen Pakistan’s “brothers”, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, draw closer to India. Both these Gulf countries, without overtly taking sides, have also become votaries of peace between the two South Asian neighbours. Perhaps most of all, it is the insecurity on Pakistan’s western borders, with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Baloch insurgent groups targeting and killing Pakistani security personnel seemingly at will and with considerable ease, that has rattled Pakistan, especially its military establishment, whose troops are the ones succumbing near-daily to the insurgents’ bullets.

Given how important it is for Pakistan to sue for peace at this juncture, the amateurish manner in which Shehbaz Sharif’s latest attempt has been botched has dealt a veritable blow to any prospects for peace that may have existed, and it has also drawn ridicule from Pakistan’s political opposition. A clarification on Shehbaz’s Al Arabiya interview issued by the Pakistani Prime Minister’s Office on 17 January stressed that the reversal of India’s “illegal actions” in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) was a non-negotiable precondition for talks. Referring to the interview, a spokesperson for the Pakistani Prime Minister’s Office tweeted that “the Prime Minister has repeatedly stated on record that talks can only take place after India has reversed its illegal action of August 5, 2019. Without India’s revocation of this step, negotiations are not possible”. It was on 5 August 2019 that Article 370 of India’s Constitution which gave ‘special status’ to the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir was scrapped by India. Pakistan’s Home Minister Rana Sanaullah also weighed in soon after, saying the main prerequisite for negotiations with India was “the revocation of its illegal step on August 5, 2019, which stripped the (Kashmir) Valley of its legitimate status”.

Without getting into the merits, or otherwise, of India’s August 5, 2019 decision, one thing that Shehbaz Sharif and his office were both well aware of, as indeed was the country’s military establishment, was that the current Indian dispensation had repeatedly stressed both publicly and during back-channel negotiations that New Delhi will not revoke its August 2019 actions in J&K, and that the maximum it would be willing to consider in this context would be a restoration of J&K’s statehood. The question then arises – what exactly did Shehbaz Sharif aim to achieve when he suggested peace talks and even solicited the time and precious goodwill of a well wisher, the UAE President, when he knew full well that his post-interview pre-condition would render the entire exercise a non-starter for India? Or was it that the complexity of the hybrid power structure that had evolved in Pakistan, and the internal divisions within the political class, and more significantly within the military establishment, had reached such proportions that agreeing upon anything as substantial as holding peace talks with India was proving to be a bridge too far?  

Pakistan’s political opposition, unsurprisingly, latched on to Sharif’s sloppy and inexplicable methods and statements, and was unsparing in its ridicule. Shireen Mazari, the former Human Rights Minister in Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government, tweeted, “The joker we have for Imported PM should really stop blabbering on issues where he lacks clarity of thought & merely undermines Pak. Here he goes begging India for talks saying Pak has ‘learnt its lesson’. An absurd statement coming from the head of govt”.

As stated right at the outset, any talks that actually bring peace to South Asia can only be welcomed. EFSAS had, in its Commentary of 08-04-2022 commended former General Qamar Javed Bajwa for urging “the political leadership of the region to rise above their emotional and perceptual biases and break the shackles of history to bring peace and prosperity to almost three billion people of the region”. That was the last time the Pakistan Army made substantive remarks on relations with India, and General Bajwa’s tone and tenor had led EFSAS to conclude that “These suggestions of the Pakistani Army Chief, when seen in the context of his statement on the enduring ceasefire along the Line of Control (LoC) with India seem to suggest that the back-channel dialogue between Indian and Pakistani interlocutors, most likely representatives of the intelligence agencies of the two countries, are not only continuing but also making some headway”.

It has recently come to light that such back-channel negotiations were, indeed, being held in that period. Two prominent Pakistani journalists, Javed Chaudhry and Hamid Mir, have claimed in their separate articles on Bajwa that the General had come close to solving the India-Pakistan issue. Hamid Mir wrote that when General Bajwa had made his famous speech at the Islamabad Security Conference in April 2022, Pakistan was ready for peace. Ayesha Siddiqa added, “I remember some civil society members, who were in touch with the (military) establishment, telling me in early 2021 about the echelons being ready for India and Pakistan to hold on to their respective Kashmir regions and move away from conflict”. Chaudhry and Mir also revealed that India and Pakistan were ready to freeze the J&K issue for 20 years and start bilateral trade, but the then Prime Minister Imran Khan had nipped the plans in the bud. Members of Imran Khan’s cabinet such as Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Shireen Mazari, who were also known to be close to sections of the military establishment, mysteriously opposed an order to import critical food items from India.

The foregoing is not just a sordid tale of how convoluted the situation in Pakistan has become, or even of how that has inhibited genuine peace efforts from reaching a positive conclusion. It is equally as relevant to the Shehbaz Sharif interview fiasco. In this case, some reports have suggested that Shehbaz’s comments on having “learnt the lessons from three wars” may not have been well received by the Pakistan Army. Other questions also arise. If the Pakistani establishment had agreed with India “to hold on to their respective Kashmir regions and move away from conflict”, as well as to freeze the J&K issue for 20 years, will, or can, Sharif’s pre-condition, which pertains to Indian actions on that part of J&K that it controls fully, now be taken seriously by India? If anything, India may become even more suspicious of future Pakistani overtures.

It does appear today that both India and Pakistan want to hold talks and move towards peace, but any such exercise will only be consequential and have any chance of success if Pakistan comes to the table after having first put its own highly fragmented house in order, and then having evolved broad consensus among stake-holders about what the mandate at the negotiations was going to be.