Is India changing the course of engagement with Pakistan

The dynamics of India’s foreign policy have changed; New Delhi’s move to cancel foreign secretary level of talks which were to be held in Islamabad on August 25, hints it clearly. Apparent reasons behind kickstarting the talks were normalisation of frayed relations with Pakistan, with which dialogue has been stalled since January 2013. The last foreign secretary level talks between the two countries were held in Islamabad in September 2012.

Following Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s arrival in New Delhi on invitation for the swearing-in ceremony of Narendra Modi on May 26, the two countries found it urgent to restart the stalled talks. India’s newly elected Prime Minister Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Sharif, after holding bilateral talks, directed their officials to resume the process of putting nuts and bolts in to their chequered bilateral engagement structure. It was in this background, the date was fixed for the resumption of negotiations between the two countries which, in the last 67 years, have faced no steady growth in their relations. That too was done amidst the howl of protests from the opposition, as it didn’t want India to start dialogue with Pakistan when the latter was continuing with ceasefire violations on the Line of Control.

Data from the government officials shows that since Sharif’s departure from New Delhi on May 27 and announcement in the date’s (July 23) for the foreign secretary level talks, the Pakistani army violated the ceasefire 19 times of the total 60 such incidents being recorded along the LoC and international border in Jammu and Kashmir till now this year. These violations by the Pakistani army personnel, according to security agencies sources, are undertaken to facilitate infiltration across the LoC. This can be assumed from the fact that in the last three months, more than 50 bids by militants to cross the international border in Jammu and Kashmir were thwarted by the Border Security Force personnel guarding the areas.

Despite this, New Delhi was not in hurry to raise black flag in protest against Pakistan and cancel the talks. But patience withered for India when even after reminding Islamabad that no meeting with separatists from Jammu and Kashmir should be held prior to the scheduled foreign secretary level talks, Pakistan’s New Delhi-based High Commissioner Abdul Basit continued with meeting with Hurriyat leaders. It was seen as interference in India’s internal affairs, prompting India to cancel the forthcoming meet between foreign secretary Sujatha Singh and her Pakistani counterpart Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhary. “The Pakistani High Commissioner’s meetings with these so-called leaders of the Hurriyat undermines the constructive diplomatic engagement initiated by Prime Minister Modi in May on his very first day in office,” the Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement. It also reflected the anguish of Indian establishment. Yet, New Delhi’s sensitivity was not reciprocated, rather the Pakistani High Commissioner continued on meeting the Hurriyat leaders even after forceful snub and cancellation of talks by India. Defending his acts, High Commissioner Basit said Kashmiri separatists are stakeholders in the peace process between India and Pakistan and that he followed only the past convention, when before every big talk there used to be meetings with Hurriyat leaders.

Indeed, in the past 15 years, Pakistani leadership and bureaucrats had developed a practice of holding talks with separatists before the start of any talks with India. This they used to do amidst India’s perfunctory protest. Even last year Pakistan Prime Minister Sharif’s special envoy and Foreign Affairs Advisor Sartaz Aziz held a meeting with Kashmiri separatists, despite howl of protests from India. The then External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid had described the meeting as “insensitive” and “counterproductive.”

But this time around, with Modi at the helm of the country’s affairs, New Delhi had to say enough is enough. “Either talk to separatists or talk to us”, Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh told Pakistani High Commissioner in no uncertain terms. New Delhi, in fact, went by rule book and reminded Pakistan about the principles of the Simla agreement and the Lahore declaration- both of whom maintain no stake holders other than India and Pakistan in continuing with peace process between the two countries. “The only path available to Pakistan is to resolve outstanding issues through a peaceful dialogue within the framework and principles of the Simla Agreement and the Lahore Declaration,” MEA said in a terse statement.

With this, for the first time in decades, Pakistani establishment was forced to realize that it can’t have a cake and eat it too. Though following this, it has made noises and termed the cancellation “unfortunate,” yet the nail that India has pushed into the heads of the Pakistani authorities by cancelling the secretary-level meeting has left Islamabad seethe with anger also. Pakistan Foreign Office spokesperson Tasnim Aslam, who had a stint with the Pakistani mission in India, argued that High Commissioner Basit did not interfere in India’s internal affairs, “that is just a pretext.” But New Delhi is firm on its stand; it has made it clear that it wants friendship with neighbours and for this it can’t sacrifice its national interest. Perhaps, time has come for Islamabad to understand this, especially when India is changing the course of its engagement policy.

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