In a firm message to Islamabad, Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar on March 2 said action against terror takes priority over structured talks. India would not agree to foreign secretary-level talks until Pakistan took action against perpetrators of the Pathankot attack.
Categorical statement from the country’s top foreign policy officer came in the background of a terror attack in Afghanistan on the Indian Consulate in Jalalabad and mention of Kashmir in the US-Pakistan joint statement issued after the two countries concluded their sixth Strategic Dialogue in Washington. The dialogue was co-chaired by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Pakistan Foreign Affairs Adviser to the Prime Minister, Sartaj Aziz.
“The US and Pakistan emphasised the importance of meaningful dialogue in support of peaceful resolution of outstanding issues, including Kashmir,” the joint statement said.
The Foreign Secretary said, “After the Pathankot attack, the governments of India and Pakistan have been in touch mainly through NSAs. My counterpart and I have also spoken and the PMs have also spoken once. The picture you see is of parallel process.”
Speaking at the Raisina Dialogue, the first joint initiative of the Ministry of External Affairs and Observer Research Foundation for holding an international conversation on geopolitics, Jaishankar said, “In the aftermath of a terror attack, if you ask me what is the priority, dealing with terror or diplomatic dialogue, the answer is obvious.” He further said, after the Heart of Asia conference in Islamabad in December last year, the two biggest South Asian neighbours moved to set up the modalities of an official-level dialogue, but the Pathankot attack was a setback to the FS-level talks and other high-level exchanges.
When the FS-level talks were postponed in January, India had stated that it would resume in the “very near future”, but it became clear that New Delhi’s policy of delinking terror with talks was not yielding results.
Both India and Pakistan, nudged by Washington, hoped that the bilateral engagement could be carried out on two parallel and independent tracks—the NSA talks on terrorism and security-related issues, and the FS-level talks on other issues.
It must be said that the Modi government made a sincere attempt to recalibrate the inimical relations with its neighbour. The PM took a risk by paying an unannounced visit to Lahore on December 25 last year. But terrorism has been a “significant obstacle” in the way of normalisation of relations with Pakistan, Jaishankar said, and added that “most people want to treat Pakistan as a normal neighbour”.
India wanted a “modern relationship with Pakistan” but Islamabad needs to change its attitude inside the country on many issues, particularly “terrorism”. “It takes two hands to clap. Indians would like to have same relations with Pakistan as other neighbours,” Jaishankar stressed.
But after two months of the Pathankot attack, hope in New Delhi has begun to turn into despair as there is no firm evidence from across the border that something concrete is in the pipeline.
The BJP-led NDA government is finding it difficult to sustain the policy direction because the political price is becoming too high, particularly when five Assembly elections have to be contested in next two months.
It seems that the Modi government, like its predecessors, has realised that dynamics of relations with Pakistan is a much more complex exercise than initially thought and attempted.
Misra is a Senior Fellow at Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation