Sherry Rehman, President Jinnah Institute on Modi’s Greta Garbo Moment on Kashmir

By Sherry Rehman

There is no crisis between India and Pakistan that has not been tried on for size.
The latest one, though, comes at a time that could have been pivotal for a sustainable thaw between the neuralgic neighbours. Instead, New Delhi’s unilateral cancellation of foreign secretary-level talks has not only triggered global alarm about nuclear-armed South Asia, but also signalled a hardening of policies.

While no one expected breakthroughs in bilateral talks, either blocked or desultory since 2009, prospects for change were part of the cautious hope in the air ever since Modi and Sharif met in Delhi in a  cloud of cold-peace warmth.

Yet after the cancellation of secretary level talks over standard operating procedure on all sides on Kashmiri inclusion, policy-makers in Islamabad waiting to see the new BJP’s Pakistan policy will draw an uneasy conclusion. Why? Because this hiatus is not a squabble over trade tarrifs or the failure to follow up on promises made on either side. This is a new leader in India telling Pakistan that its ambassador in New Delhi can no longer talk to the Kashmir’s Hurriyet leadership. Its not as if Pakistan’s envoy did anything new or unusual. This kind of conversation has been routinized by both sides for over two decades.  The damage, unfortunately, has already begun. The message from New Delhi has already been telegraphed in Pakistan as one stark headline: That Kashmir is no longer a matter for Pakistan to discuss. This has of course not been seen as  acceptable in Pakistan at multiple levels. The idea of posing equivalence between Indian leaders or envoys being allowed to talk to Baloch insurgents in Pakistan has also been dismissed as disingenuous simply because unlike Kashmir, the Baloch insurgency has not been internationalised by one or both parties to the conflict.

For Indian-held Kashmir, where all politics is as local as it is still about identity, the new policy, if indeed it is one, will only isolate the Hurriyet leadership further from New Delhi. Pakistan and India have been trying, often informally and not always unofficially, to create a space between parallel tracks and trilateral nodes for many decades. One of the successes of such conversations was the now-fragile cease-fire along the Line of Control in Kashmir from 2003. Even the 2004 four-point formula for Kashmir that got closest to all sides re-visiting orthodoxies worked from the bilateral framework as a starting point, but included the crucial prospect of Kashmiri and Hurriyet consent. All of that, including cross-LOC commerce, a measure of autonomy to Kashmir, demilitarization, ease of travel, like dispensable history seems up in the air now.

In fact, history may be an inconvenient guide but it is a fact that it was India that took Kashmir to the UN, not Pakistan in 1948. Since the late1960s, when the United States and Great Britain tried hard to broker a peace over Kashmir, and until the Simla agreement bilateralised the dispute, Kashmir has either been international or bilateral, but never India’s prerogative to seal off in dialogue.

The new move tells Pakistan, and  the Kashmiris, that a political door has been forcibly shut. And force, as anyone knows, especially someone usually as astute as NarenderModi, does not yield dividends anywhere. It hasn’t in Kashmir, it certainly won’t in the future.

Before Pakistan decides who the real Modi is, or that his India wants to be alone on the Kashmir issue, like Greta Garbo in her immortalized line, actions may well have begun their equal and opposite Newtonian outcomes. The September UNGA-sideline meeting between the two PMs may either be imperilled by strategic emptiness or an unlikely and unhelpful, but possible cancellation.

A broader but equally obvious fall-out of this diplomatic roadblock will be the reduction of oxygen for peace constituencies in Pakistan. As soon as the political stand-off between the government and opposition marchers abates in Islamabad, podiums for hard talk against India, that had lost ground, will re-emerge. Nawaz Sharif, already in a defensive corner in Pakistan when he yielded, perhaps rather naively, to Modi’s request not to meet the Hurriyet leadership when he visited New Delhi will be pilloried for being a concessionist if he makes any peace noises. Pakistan’s Generals, whom India sees as the real road-blocks to peace, will hardly be charmed by this policy reversal in Kashmir or the announcement that Pakistan is no longer able to fight conventional wars.

The only silver lining current to this crisis is the strong centrist course-correction recommended by many big voices in the Indian media. They too don’t see gains for India in going it alone in Kashmir. Their argument is equally embedded in realpolitik: Its not as if the Hurriyet talks had done anything more than bring advantage to two sides trying to get on with business, without prejudice to officially held positions. Clued-in Indians also understand that what India will lose here, is the bilateral latitude of a real conversation on terrorism with Pakistan. They were never seen as a trade-off, but in reality that is how it will work.

In any future gaming beyond tactical diplomacy, the going will only get bilaterally tougher.  Nor will it offer comfort for elite opinion in India that imagines Pakistan at an isolated strategic disadvantage through the internal terrorism bleed-out option. Because nothing is containable anymore, not even conflict. The Afghan security transition is enough reason for that mind-set to shift, not to mention India’s own swathes of insurgent terrain.

In this context, risking talks between India and Pakistan on Kashmir, as well as terrorism, for shutting down a pro-forma conversation to include Kashmiri voices from the valley is well, hard to fathom.

But then that’s typical India and Pakistan. One day biryanis and bonhomie, the other two days muscle and war-memes. Its too bad that instead of sorting the conflict vertical on the LOC, or avoiding a potential proxy war in Afghanistan both sides are studying their fine print. We all know how well that goes.