The India-Pakistan Dialogue Process: Continuity and Scepticism (ARI)

The India-Pakistan Dialogue Process: Continuity and Scepticism (ARI)

Theme: Progress in talks between India and Pakistan has been undermined by the lack of significant progress in resolving disputes and by possible uncertainties that may arise regarding the future of the process itself, especially in the wake of the 11 July terrorist bombings in the Indian city of Mumbai.

Summary: This analysis looks at the state of play of the Indian-Pakistani dialogue at a particularly critical time, following the doubts that have arisen regarding the perpetrators of the Mumbai (India) bombings on 11 July. Pervez Musharraf and Manmohan Singh signed a joint statement on 17 September in Havana undertaking to resume talks, frozen since July, and thus confirming that the process would go ahead. Overall, relations between India and Pakistan have improved substantially in the last two years, since there has been major headway in bilateral diplomacy and in the exchanges between the two peoples. However, the way the third round of talks has been conducted confirms that there is still distrust and immobilism. Certain events, such as the acts of terrorism and the latest nuclear developments in the sub-continent (like the treaty between India and the United States and the partnership between Pakistan and China), highlight the failures in the dialogue process, since both issues are pivotal for security between the two countries.

Analysis: Early this year the third round of talks began between the governments of India and Pakistan in order to continue to foment a dialogue process that is crucial to the region’s development, peace and stability. In the last two years, bilateral relations have been fully normalised and significant progress has been made in establishing communication channels at various levels (creation of joint committees in economic and business areas, easing of measures to obtain visas and promotion of sporting relations, among others). It was therefore expected that subsequent talks would lead to the specification of measures to resolve disputes, especially on lesser issues, including the dispute over the Siachen glacier, the Tulbul Navigation Project/Lake Wular Barrage (the two governments each use a different term) and the Sir Creek dispute, in the region between the Sindh province in Pakistan and the state of Gujarat in India. The Indian and Pakistani governments already reached a degree of consensus on these disputes during the last decade (when talks were broken off following the Kargil conflict in 1999), so that the foundations for current negotiations revolve around the options which were already being considered then.

However, this year no agreement has been reached which might imply a qualitative leap in the dialogue process, and scepticism therefore prevails as to the future of talks. One example of this was the failed attempt in May at reaching a solution regarding the Siachen glacier, based on demilitarisation and joint administration. These measures could be perfectly acceptable for both parties, but the ideological immobilism which pervades the usual political rhetoric between the governments has prevailed. The only way to break the current deadlock is probably through international arbitration of the Baglihar dam dispute –according to the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty, that was sponsored by the World Bank and that lays out the arbitration mechanism to resolve controversies–, whose final ruling is due at the end of the year.

Foreign Affairs representatives from India and Pakistan will meet again in November to analyse the results of the third round of talks and establish the forthcoming calendar of meetings as from January. This meeting will also lay the groundwork for a joint mechanism to combat terrorism, a proposal by the Indian government in view of the challenges posed for the relations between India and Pakistan in the wake of the Mumbai commuter train blasts on 11 July, which killed more than 190 people and left several thousand injured. The initial assumption that there might be a ‘Pakistani hand’ at work in this massacre, as recently apparently confirmed by the Indian police, has already had an impact on the future development of relations between the two countries, and it will no doubt strengthen the most hawkish positions in each government.

Another significant factor in the bilateral dialogue process, and one which is being silenced by the negotiating teams, refers to the recent events in the nuclear field, particularly the controversial agreement between India and the US, involving the transfer of technology and the supply of energy to India for its civilian nuclear facilities. The nuclear issue in Southern Asia, apparently on a back burner since 1998, has regained a critical role in the relations between India and Pakistan, although both governments act cautiously in public.

The Impact of the Mumbai Bombings and the Question of Terrorism on the Dialogue Process
On 1 October the Mumbai police released a report concerning the bombings, which pointed at the Pakistani intelligence services, better known as the ISI (Inter Services Intelligence), as the instigators of the attack. The report, which has already been criticised, suggests that the attack was the joint work of members of Lashkar-e-Toiba (which denied any involvement and condemned the blasts) and members of the Students Islamic Movement of India (known as SIMI), an illegal organisation created in 1977, with a track record of terrorist activity in India, especially notorious in Mumbai. Despite objections regarding the degree of involvement of the Pakistani secret services, the ISI is unlikely to have cut off all support to some of the groups still operating in Indian Kashmir, such as Lashkar-e-Toiba. Furthermore, this same organisation had already acted outside the state of Jammu and Kashmir, since it was involved in the attack on the Indian Parliament on 13 December 2001. This involvement and the objectives of the perpetrators of the attack would be aimed at destabilising India and making it more vulnerable security-wise and not, as some commentators have suggested, at punishing it for its increasingly close relationship with the US.

There are likely to be two main reasons for the action: firstly, to trigger internal destabilisation, which might lead to a conflict between the Hindu and Muslim communities in a scenario, Mumbai, which is sadly well-known for this kind of clash; and secondly, to incite a tough reaction by the Indian government, either unleashing a direct crisis with Pakistan or by acting against Kashmiri separatism. In both cases, the perpetrators were seeking to damage India’s international image. By doing so, Pakistan, although not free of criticism, could secure greater involvement by the main international players to find a solution to the Kashmir conflict, which India seeks to avoid. Although this rationale could appear to be rather complex, certain previous events confirm that this has been the manner of operating of a sector of the Pakistani military: for example, armed intervention in Kargil in May 1999 and, probably, the attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001.

Neither has it gone unnoticed that on the very same day of the tragedy, elections were held in Pakistani Kashmir, although with few guarantees about the process. This has been interpreted as a link between the issue of Indian Kashmir (the lack of freedom to hold a referendum on the region’s future) and the attacks, supposedly perpetrated by Kashmiri separatists. However, the most striking thing was the news in the Pakistani press in the days following the massacre, that weeks previously the Indian government had sent a proposal for the independence of Kashmir to the government in Islamabad which could have signified an agreement on the conflict. Apparently, the Indian government made no comment at the time in regard to this news, and it is doubtful whether such an understanding would actually have been reached, even if the proposal had been considered by New Delhi. If Islamabad has sought to pressure its neighbour, its efforts are likely to have been in vain and indeed very counterproductive.

Reactivation of the Nuclear Question and its Possible Effects on the Dialogue Process
The third round of talks between India and Pakistan took place in an international and regional context shaped by two issues which had a direct impact, although in different ways, on the dialogue process: developments in the Iran nuclear crisis and the possible viability of an agreement on nuclear issues between India and Pakistan. The crisis regarding the development of Iran’s nuclear programme has divided the two southern-Asian neighbours, at least as regards their main economic interest with the Teheran government, namely viability of a gas pipeline project, known as IPI (Iran-Pakistan-India), starting in Iran and connecting all three countries. New Delhi seems to have postponed the project, although talks were already quite advanced thanks to the negotiations carried out by India’s previous Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas. The Indian government’s interest in the IPI has cooled, particularly in the wake of the escalade in the Iran crisis in February, coinciding with talks to seal its own nuclear deal with the United States. However, Islamabad plans to go ahead with the gas pipeline and, at the same time, its relations with Teheran appear to have strengthened following the crisis.

Although the governments of India and Pakistan agreed in the second round of talks to set up communication channels between the director generals of Military Operations, and to issue preliminary warnings regarding tests and notification of accidents, these measures pale in comparison with the latest developments in regard to nuclear power in the sub-continent, particularly the agreement between India and the United States. India and Pakistan are discussing a protocol of conduct for the maintenance of their nuclear facilities, but meanwhile they are seeking to expand them to include uses which might extend beyond purely civilian purposes.

The nuclear cooperation treaty between India and the United States might finally be approved by the US Congress, since the House of Representatives sees no contradiction with its legislation and because it has thrown out a handful of amendments that were slightly ‘uncomfortable’ for the New Delhi government. However, there is still a chance that the final document after the deliberations in Congress might differ substantially from what Indian nuclear experts are hoping for. In any event, nuclear cooperation between India and the US, even though it refers only to power for civilian purposes, has already triggered a worrying response from Pakistan in its desire to set up a similar platform for cooperation with another country, which is likely to be China. So far, Beijing will be involved in creating two nuclear power plants in Pakistan, although the Islamabad government is likely to want to seal a more strategic alliance based on this cooperation.

In July, the Washington Post carried a report on the construction of a new nuclear reactor by Pakistan which, due to its characteristics, could be used for military purposes to produce nuclear bombs. The study, by a research group on security issues (the Institute for Science and International Security, ISIS), was criticised by the US government on the grounds that it contained erroneous data. Nevertheless, the Director of ISIS ratified the information in the report. In any event, there is no doubt that the Pakistani government wishes to increase its nuclear capacity and that the argument regarding the civilian use of power does not rule out other military or strategic interests. This situation evidences the fact that the nuclear problem in southern Asia might arise once more from the lethargy it has been in since the 1998 nuclear tests. In that case, efforts to build confidence by the governments of India and Pakistan would be of little avail. Furthermore, the events mentioned above indicate that the two countries are far from converging on the issue of nuclear power.

The Problem of Violence in Indian Kashmir
Although in the last two years a series of measures have been implemented to improve the political, economic and social situation in the state of Jammu and Kashmir (the ceasefire along the Line of Control dividing the two countries, the opening of border crossings –the last one this very year–, economic measures and better legal guarantees for the victims of violence, as well as an economic development programme for the state), the political discourse regarding the region’s future remains unchanged. Pakistan wants to make headway on Kashmir, while India prefers to create a friendly climate between the two countries and tackle this conflict at a later date, in no case modifying the border as charted by the Line of Control. The Indian government also alleges security motives for not completing partial demilitarisation of the state (in November 2005 the Indian government commenced a timid withdrawal of a paramilitary force in some towns of the Kashmir valley), where in the last year violent action by groups opposing the dialogue have gathered pace. However, the military presence has also triggered criticism and discontent because of the excesses and brutality against the civilian population.

Developments in Kashmir, within the framework of the dialogue process, are particularly delicate for Pakistan, and very especially for President Musharraf, who next year will stand for re-election. Any significant progress on this issue could boost his credibility and popularity, and could impact on the way the elections are conducted, which for now presents few guarantees for the opposition. The dialogue process with India is, for the President, a major political trump card, which is perhaps why he is so impatient to reach an agreement, as well as the fact that it is becoming increasingly difficult for him to keep his and the army’s hold on power.

Conclusions: The process of dialogue between India and Pakistan is continuing, despite the crisis unleashed by the Mumbai bombings, which indicates that communication and negotiation channels must be kept open between the two countries. Although this is positive, there is still uncertainty about the future direction of the process, especially given the way certain events are unfolding in the region. Generation of a regional climate of mistrust, relating to the very nature of the nuclear issue (in this case the perception of insecurity by Pakistan), but also other issues such as terrorism, could negatively impact on the way talks develop, especially in regard to the degree of commitment of both parties in these areas.

Furthermore, there are specific reasons to assert that the talks are beginning to stall, in view of the absence of agreement on lesser matters –such as the Siachen and Sir Creek disputes– whose solutions could be acceptable for both parties and which would pave the way for tackling thornier issues. During the third round of talks there has been some headway with the opening of new communication channels and the application of economic measures to boost bilateral trade. Although these agreements strengthen confidence-building and social diplomacy already in place, they do not seem to have a significant impact in more political terms, in other words, on both countries’ leaderships.

Processes to resolve disputes between two countries, in the absence of mediation, risk being lengthy and must reach a stage of maturity wherein both parties decide to submit a possible solution to the controversy. However, in the case of relations between India and Pakistan, the unresolved disputes, including Kashmir, which have been tackled jointly for decades now, are being prolonged indefinitely, at a high cost for both parties while maintaining a rivalry which jeopardises the future prosperity of both countries.

Antía Mato Bouzas
Analyst at the Instituto Universitario General Gutiérrez Mellado