Indo-Pakistan Relations: Captive To The Elephants In The Room

24/02/2016 7:09 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST

When Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif agreed, late last year, to resume official-level dialogue, it led to unrealistic expectations. This is the curse India-Pakistan meetings suffer from. No other bilateral meeting triggers such extreme shows of emotion.

Within a month of the announcement, Pathankot, the Headley disclosures and the sordid JNU mess demonstrated the multiple pitfalls that hold bilateral engagement hostage. Many would argue that there are far too many elephants in the room to allow for any kind of meaningful discussion, leave alone a negotiation breakthrough.

Many forget that agreeing to talk is far removed from talking and even further from the actual process of negotiation.

To begin with, there's the last war when East Pakistan became Bangladesh. Military historians will tell you that Pakistan's crushing defeat in that war, the emergence of a new nation and the fact that the Indian army could well have entered Islamabad and in the process, 'liberated' POK are memories that are deeply ingrained in the Pakistan military's psyche. For them, India is an enemy state that needs to be broken up, starting with Muslim-majority Kashmir, to avenge the loss of East Pakistan. This is the sole preoccupation of the Pakistan military.

Second, ever since partition, Pakistan -- which is built on theocratic principles -- found it difficult to acknowledge the existence of a secular India, where Muslims found an equal place alongside other minorities. There is considerable evidence to document Islamabad's participation in a proxy war through the aiding, funding and training of militant operations in India. Headley's disclosures and those of Kasab are clear evidence of Pakistan's complicity in terrorism at the highest echelons.

Third, Beijing has always viewed New Delhi as a potential threat and one that could undermine her hegemonic and expansionist interests. With India's growing influence and new friends, Beijing's concern has only escalated. For Islamabad, this has come as an extraordinary opportunity to isolate India, especially in South Asia.

Fourth, Washington's proclivity for rapping Islamabad on anti-terror operations and support for anti-US militant organizations, while simultaneously agreeing to sell F-16s and other military hardware has been confusing. In an unprecedented gesture, the Indian Foreign Ministry recently summoned the US ambassador to express displeasure. But, reality checks suggest that US policy towards Islamabad will continue to blow hot and cold. This is despite protestations from US senators that the weapons would be used against India and further that Islamabad has not yet credibly demonstrated its opposition to the growth of Islamic fundamentalism.

All these elephants in the room remove the manoeuvrability that negotiators require. The atmosphere continues to be critically vitiated and it is difficult to envisage how meaningful negotiations could navigate these troubled waters. Many forget that agreeing to talk is far removed from talking and even further from the actual process of negotiation.

For the moment, it would seem that the elephants rule the day and the mahouts are nowhere to be seen.

Despite the multiple gains that ensue, should India and Pakistan find the space to accept each other's geographical realities, the likelihood of normalcy appears to be remote and for the better part, significantly unrealistic. Tensions will continue to plague the relationship unless the military establishment in Pakistan is willing to sit at the table as a responsible interlocutor and the 24x7 TRP-led Indian media allows for confidence-building talks to begin.

It would appear that the best one can hope for is to accept a state of the uneasy calm or strategic distancing as the new normal in bilateral relations. Far too many prejudices are ingrained. Far too many unhappy memories and experiences are part of our beleaguered history. They are realities. People have died. Not just soldiers but innocent men, women and children. The scars of terrorism run deep. As indeed do the scars of mistrust. As a former Indian prime minister said, it is difficult when "the other side shakes hands with us over the table, but kicks our shins from below." You can shake hands with someone only if they unclench their fist. The same Prime Minister, at a historic SAARC Summit had also said, "Let us grow rich together." He held out the possibility of collective prosperity in a region that has only known abject poverty.

It remains to be seen if both sides have the courage to negotiate the future or if they would remain captive to the elephants in the room. For the moment, it would seem that the elephants rule the day and the mahouts are nowhere to be seen.

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