In the last two years that the composite dialogue remained more or less suspended, Pakistan has changed. Unfortunately, for the worse. Its civilian government lacks authority, its sectarian and sub-national problems have deepend. Continuing the old dialogue now would be an exercise in futility
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Yekaterinburg meeting with Pakistan President Asif Zardari has set the stage for the resumption of the paused composite dialogue between New Delhi and Islamabad. Pakistan is uncommonly keen on restarting the talks which cover a number of outstanding issues, as well as Kashmir and terrorism. India is of two minds on this, but seems to be getting ready to agree.
Actually the composite dialogue has become obsolete to the India-Pakistan dynamic. In part this irrelevance is a result of its success, but in greater measure a result of the dramatic, and sadly negative, changes taking place within Pakistan.
The composite dialogue got its name from the outcome of a set of negotiations between India and Pakistan in the mid-1990s. New Delhi wanted Islamabad to discuss the end of cross-border terrorism, while the latter insisted that nothing could be done without movement on Jammu & Kashmir. In 1998 when talks resumed after the Indo-Pak nuclear tests, it was decided to take up these issues and lump the other outstanding subjects held-over from the 1980s —Siachen, Wullar Barrage and so on —under the rubric of what began to be called “composite dialogue.”
The period 2004-2007 saw the most intense and rewarding phase of this dialogue. India and Pakistan have more or less resolved the Siachen and Sir Creek disputes. But, because of the larger gridlock arising out of the Mumbai attack and the political meltdown in Pakistan, the two sides are not able to declare their success and move ahead.
The talks have also aided in opening up the India-Pakistan border, both across the Line of Control in Kashmir, as well as the international border. Even on Jammu & Kashmir, the two countries had arrived at a formulation that India could live with. But on terrorism, there remained a tentativeness which has manifested itself in the manner in which Islamabad has dealt with the Mumbai episode.
The question now is whether Pakistan can move ahead because the man with whom we were on the verge of finalising the formula, Pervez Musharraf, has been ejected from Pakistani polity.
There are two issues of immediate concern. First, is it worthwhile to discuss the Kashmir issue with the Pakistan government? Mr Zardari has displayed a positive approach towards relations with India. But his authority in Pakistan rests on very shaky foundations indeed. Mr Nawaz Sharif is already being spoken of as the most popular politician in the country. The Pakistan Army has given no indication that they are for a continuation of Musharraf’s initiatives with India.
Second, will continuing the dialogue help in the project of getting Pakistan to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure? There is every indication that it won’t. The infrastructure came up to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan and later to push the GHQ’s policy of strategic depth in Afghanistan vis-à-vis New Delhi, as well as the policy of bleeding India through proxy war. But today it has taken on a life of its own and parts of it have gone rogue.
The United States, and, somewhat more reluctantly, Pakistan, may convince the world that the Pakhtun Taliban is the main threat to the world via the al Qaeda, but India has to focus sharply on terror groups that have arisen from the radicalisation of Punjab, such as the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba. When there were rumours of a possible Indian strike after 26/11, Lashkar leaders including Hafiz Saeed declared they would fight alongside the Pakistan Army against India. That was expected of an organisation which was set up by the Inter Services Intelligence.
Somewhat surprising was the outpouring of patriotism from Tehreek Taliban Pakistan leader Baitullah Mehsud, Maulana Fazlullah of Swat, top TTP figures like Faqir Mohammed and Maulvi Omar, as well as other Taliban commanders who are today fighting the Pakistan Army in the NWFP. Such feelings, no doubt, create a sense of ambivalence in the minds of many Pakistani military officials: Pakistan has to be foolish not to use their enthusiasm and manpower to fight the ‘big’ Satan — India.
The issue, however, is just what does patriotism mean in Pakistan? When the chips are down it could well be confined to Sunni Punjabis. The Taliban with their larger Pakhtun loyalties are suspect. Other emerging faultlines question the very basic founding idea of Pakistan, Islam. This is evident from the rising tide of sectarianism. The recent assassination of Mufti Sarfraz Naeemi by a suicide-bomber in Jamia Naeemi in Lahore was not because he had condemned suicide bombing as “unIslamic”, but because he was probably the most influential scholar of the Ahle Sunnat or Barelvi school in Pakistan.
It is no secret that the Barelvis and the militant Deobandis have been on a confrontation course ever since General Zia-ul-Haq sought to privilege the Deboandi Sunnis above all other sects in Pakistan. As the Daily Times of Pakistan has put it, “The hardness of the Deobandi school of thought springs also from non-acceptance of the Shia community as true Muslims. One bone of contention between the Barelvis and Deobandis is that the former don’t apostatise the Shias.”
The attack on the Shias have been a feature of Pakistani polity since the 1990s. Shias have been killed at prayer, during religious observances and even during funerals. But in recent years, the Barelvis who represent the grass-roots religious tradition of Islam in South Asia, have been attacked as well. In 2006, a Barelvi congregration in Karachi was attacked during Id-e-Milad un Nabi by a suicide bomber resulting in the death of 57 and injuries to 100.
The ideological battle is being fought out by maulanas in Pakistan’s Punjab backed by suicide bombers and gunmen. In this battle, the joker in the pack is the Jamaat-ud-Dawa with its fanatical army, the Lashkar-e-Tayebba. This organisation owes allegiance to the Ahle Hadis school, which is a replica of the Wahabi school of Saudi Arabia. Hafiz Sayeed is right when he terms the Jamaat a charity grouping, which it is. But its sinew comes from the Lashkar.
The banned Jamaat’s charity prowess has become a byword in Pakistan. It beat the state in providing relief and rehabilitation after the 2005 earthquake in the Pakistan-held areas of Kashmir. It has been active in providing relief to people displaced by the Swat operation. The Wahabi Saudis are a major source of funds for the Jammat/Lashkar, but Hafiz Sayeed also gets money through the zakat, of wealthy Pakistanis as well as money through the donation of hides on Bakrid.
The Army has begun to battle the Pakhtun Taliban, but when will it go down the wire and take on the Sunni Punjabi extremists of the Deobandi and Ahle Hadis persuasion? This is the question that we need to ask ourselves before rushing in for talks.
There are other faultlines widening in Pakistan — Sindhi, Pakhtun, and Baloch nationalism against the domineering Punjabis has not dimmed. The Pakistan army continues to fight a low-level insurgency in Balochistan, even as it takes up the gun against the Pakhtun Pakistani Taliban. In recent months, there have been reports of posters appearing in parts of the NWFP calling for a greater Pakhtunistan.
In the past two years in which the composite dialogue has run out of steam, the situation in Pakistan has deteriorated qualitatively. Only the US defibrillator has kept the system alive. Though there have been signs of hope — the civil society movement against Musharraf — the situation is grim. This is what has put the whole composite dialogue process into question.
The issue is not that India should not resolve its problems with Pakistan through dialogue, but whether we have an interlocutor state which we can dialogue with. An inelegant way of putting it, but there it is.
This appeared first in Mail Today June 18, 2009