Barring any kind of formal dialogue with Pakistan, there is nothing wrong in exchanging pleasantries or having track-two diplomacy or NSA-level meetings between the two countries
By Shankar Kumar
After cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan became Pakistan’s Prime Minister, India and Pakistan held their first bilateral engagement in Lahore on August 29 when officials of the two countries met and discussed issues on Indus Water Treaty. India’s Water Commissioner PK Saxena travelled with his team members to Pakistan to hold talks with Syed Mehr Ali Shah, the acting Commissioner for Indus Waters. This was seen as melting of glacier between the two arch foes to which further warmth is expected to be given when External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj is likely to meet her Pakistani counterpart Shah Mahmood Qureshi on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meet in New York in September.
With this, speculation is rife about planned reactivation of suspended dialogue anytime between the two countries. For critics, there is a basis for such speculations and they see it in the letter written by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Imran Khan on August 18, the day he was sworn-in as Pakistan’s 22 Prime Minister. In that letter, Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed New Delhi’s resolve to build good neighbourly relations with Islamabad. This was, however, the second congratulatory message to Imran Khan from Prime Minister Modi in the span of 19 days. On July 30, he had telephoned the PTI leader to congratulate him on his party’s victory in the general elections and expressed hope that both countries would work to open a new chapter in their bilateral ties.
Critics say barring any kind of formal dialogue with Pakistan, there is nothing wrong in exchanging pleasantries or having track-two diplomacy or NSA-level meetings between the two countries. Unless Pakistan, they feel, stops exporting terrorism to India, there shouldn’t be any kind of talks with the former. Even a general perception in India is that the Modi government should wait to see that whether Imran Khan is able to invest political capital on Indo-Pak relations or not, maintain an independent foreign policy or not, keep a distance from jehadis or not. In the past 71 years of its existence, Pakistan has been ruled by army generals for around 35 years directly and the rest of the years indirectly. Since 2008, democratically elected leaders are holding on to power in Pakistan and self-proclaimed champions of democracy are happy to term it as a major development, forgetting the fact that Pakistan Army only played behind the scene in every decision that the democratically elected representatives took on the policy front.
It would not be deleterious to say that Pakistan Army has shamelessly used the country’s political system as a façade to rule the roost. If that would not have been the case, former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif comment in May on the country’s non-state actors’ role in the 26/11 incident would not have compelled Pakistan Army’s top officials to huddle together to denounce Sharif’s statement as rubbish. “Militant organisations are active in Pakistan,” Sharif had said in point blank manner in an interview with Dawn, a noted Pakistani English daily on May 12, 2018. “Call them non-state actors, should we allow them to cross the border and kill over 150 people in Mumbai. Explain to me. Why can’t we complete the trial,” he had asked. By raking up the ghastly 2008 November Mumbai terrorist attack, the former Pakistan Prime Minister had obviously pointed his fingers towards the country’s army and ISI. And this would not be termed as Sharif’s overreaction or statement given to score points against Army as it played an active role in holding him guilty in the Paradise Paper case and subsequently, disenfranchising him politically.
Pakistan watchers say that even if Imran Khan, on the face value, may look independently thinking political leader, he will actually tread path shown by Army or the country’s deep state. They rather consider the PTI chief as Pakistan Army’s stooge as months before National Assembly election on July 25, the world was served with information that Imran’s victory was sure. And this came true as, despite hue and cry raised by opposition parties about poll rigging and European Union observers’ unhappiness over the conduct of the polls, the PTI was made to see that it remained the largest party in the National Assembly. Hence, to expect that Imran Khan would be able to defrost India-Pakistan relations would be foolhardy.
Then it should not be forgotten about his association with Muslim hardliners and the Taliban. Over the years, he has earned ‘Taliban Khan’ moniker in Pakistan politics. He described Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan(TTP) commander Wali-ur-Rehman as ‘pro-peace,’ when he was killed in a drone attack in 2013. “The drone attack that killed pro peace Wali-ur-Rehman led to our soldiers being killed/injured in revenge attacks! This is totally unacceptable,” he tweeted. Later in the same year, the PTI chief suggested that the Taliban should be allowed to “open an office” somewhere in Pakistan. He argued that if the US could open offices for the Afghan Taliban in Qatar, why couldn’t the Pakistan Taliban do the same? In November 2013, when Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud was killed in the US drone attack, Imran Khan said it was “absolutely deliberate—this was a deliberate targeting of the peace process.”
It is not that the PTI chief’s love for the Taliban is one-sided affair. In February 2014, the Pakistan Taliban nominated five persons, including Imran Khan to represent them in the mediation talks with the government. Though, the PTI chief refused to do so, the incident showed the terrorist outfit’s trust in the cricketer-turned-politician. In an interview to BBC’s HARDtalk programme this year, he defended the Taliban’s justice system. Earlier in January this year, his party gave a grant of 550 million Pakistani rupees to madrasas run by Sami-ul-Haq, who is well recognized as ‘Father of Taliban.’ And then just ahead of the National Assembly polls, he joined hands with Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khali, who is on the US terror watch list. Just recently, controversy erupted after Imran Khan-headed government flatly denied that during telephonic talks with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, there was ever any talk on terrorism even as the US stood its ground on the issue, stating that there was indeed mention of terrorism in their conversation and that the US Secretary of State sought “decisive action” against all terrorists operating in Pakistan. Imran Khan’s refusal speaks of his steadfast ability to defend anything related to Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. In this background, would it be justified to believe that Pakistan’s new Prime Minister would ever come to India’s expectations? Certainly not. His proposal to hold talks with India on all issues, including Jammu and Kashmir, would serve no purpose unless he shows that he is committed to fight against terrorists and their backers.