The meeting between the National Security Advisers (NSAs) of India and Pakistan on December 26 in Bangkok (reported by The Sunday Express on December 31) came at the end of a year that saw relations hit the nadir. Ceasefire violations on the Line of Control (LoC) spiked sharply — more than 825 incidents in 2017, compared to 228 in 2016. The Army lost 32 soldiers on the LoC last year; the casualties on the Pakistani side are a secret kept from even that country’s Parliament. Pakistan announced the arrest of retired Naval officer Kulbhushan Jadhav — alleging that he was an R&AW agent who had been arrested in Balochistan — and denied India consular access. After India went to the International Court of Justice, the death penalty awarded to him by a Pak military court was kept in abeyance.
The Pak army has refused to offer DGMO-level talks to bring the temperature down, probably fearing that it would be perceived as a sign of weakness. The DGMOs last met in December 2013, after a gap of 14 years.
The two armies, however, continue to engage through weekly telephone calls between the two Military Operations (MO) directorates. A Brigadier from the Indian MO directorate and a Colonel from the Pakistani MO directorate usually talk on Tuesday mornings. The two DGMOs, too, can talk by telephone, on request, if there is an urgent requirement. The two sides have used the emergency hotline mechanism in recent months to complain about particular incidents on the LoC.
While the armies are responsible for the LoC, the BSF and Pak Rangers man the International Border. The two DGs meet annually, alternately in the two countries. The last meeting was in November in New Delhi.
Diplomatic channels continue to function through the High Commissioners and foreign offices. Despite increased tensions, this formal engagement — which is not limited to the publicly-issued demarches — remains the most reliable and time-tested channel available to the two governments.
Track-2 engagement, mainly involving retired diplomats, military officials and commentators, mostly takes place in third countries. But as the controversy over the dinner attended by former Pakistani foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri at the New Delhi residence of Mani Shankar Aiyar showed, these meetings have limited value and scope, unless blessed by the respective governments.
People-to-people engagement between the two countries has been limited, except for some medical cases of Pakistani nationals taken up on Twitter by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj.
Public pronouncements by ministers and officials about Pakistan have been aggressive. Three days after the controversial December 25 meeting between Jadhav and his wife and mother, Swaraj made a fiery statement in Parliament, which gave no inkling of the Bangkok engagement between the two NSAs.
The meeting was not the first of its kind — the chiefs of R&AW and ISI, A K Verma and Hamid Gul, famously met in a third country in 1988, and junior diplomats have had meetings at their levels. In December 2015, NSAs Ajit Doval and Lt Gen (retd) Nasir Khan Janjua, accompanied by the two foreign secretaries, had met in Bangkok. Days later, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a surprise stopover in Lahore to wish then Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif on his birthday. While Sharif is no longer PM and Gen Raheel Sharif, who was Pakistan’s army chief when Janjua was appointed to his post, has retired, the current chief, Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, has made some promising noises on India-Pakistan engagement. It is unclear whether Janjua has the confidence of Gen Bajwa, however.
The tensions in the Middle East and the role of Saudi Arabia in Pakistani domestic politics further complicates the situation. Nawaz Sharif and his brother and Chief Minister of Pakistan’s Punjab province, Shahbaz Sharif, are both in Riyadh — and Pakistan is rife with rumours. Add to this Pakistan’s hostile relations with Afghanistan, and its parliamentary elections this year — and the picture appears increasingly more complex.
Controversy aside, the visit of Jadhav’s mother and wife to Islamabad was facilitated by diplomatic engagements between the two countries. The political rhetoric for public consumption and outrage of TV news anchors notwithstanding, the two nuclear-armed neighbours need to keep all possible channels of communication open. Talks may not always lead to a positive outcome, but not talking is guaranteed to lead nowhere.
The talks between the NSAs demonstrate that the government, to use an American phrase, is not drinking its own Kool-aid about Pakistan. As demonstrated by Modi’s visit to Lahore and the invitation to Pak officials to Pathankot airbase, the government is willing to engage with Pakistan, even at the cost of upsetting its hawkish constituency.