Be to Pakistan as its Posture Warrants
Amb Kanwal Sibal

Our international relations experts are divided on how to deal with Pakistan, with a section always advocating moderation in reaction to Pakistani provocations and others favouring more robust responses to Pakistani belligerence.

This lack of consensus makes our Pakistan policy look vacillating and irresolute.

It is easy to wear the mantle of moderation as the accompanying vocabulary of peace, engagement, dialogue and restraint sounds mature and wise. Those wanting firmer treatment of Pakistan slip into talk of retaliation, force, reprisal, imposing costs, which sounds aggressive and war-like. Public opinion on the whole is more indulgent towards “doves” even when their judgments are skewed than towards “hawks” even when their views are sounder. Dovish views are less unsettling than hawkish ones in a country that still lacks self-confidence and is more comfortable with caution than with risk-taking even when provoked.


The complexity of our problems with Pakistan would justify a degree of prudence in our reactions. What is less justified is our posture of helplessness. We say meekly that we have no choice but to have a dialogue with Pakistan. Some on our side actually advocate “an uninterrupted and uninterruptible” dialogue. Such thinking is pernicious for our interests but serves those of Pakistan, which is why its foreign minister has made this catchy phraseology her own. She has thrown it in our face while berating us for creating tensions over the recent beheading incident. She is hoisting us with our own petard!

We were against negotiations with Pakistan with the gun of terrorism pointed at our head. We therefore linked resumption of dialogue with Pakistan’s commitment to end terrorism. Politically cornered when Pakistan failed to honour its commitment, instead of interrupting the dialogue we gave ourselves a way out by agreeing that both countries were victims of terrorism, which implied that terrorist incidents in India were the handiwork of non-state actors with no official connivance. Later, we formally delinked dialogue and terrorism and continued our parleys with Pakistan despite a spate of terrorist attacks, until the enormity of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks made such a position politically untenable. After a short interregnum we again resumed the dialogue because our decision-makers have convinced themselves that a “no-dialogue option” in not available to us.

Between not having a dialogue and a composite dialogue covering all contentious issues, there is considerable space for talking to each other, but we have straight-jacketed ourselves into a structured dialogue that in fact reduces the centrality of terrorism and allows Pakistan to put in all elements of its political agenda where it wants territorial and other concessions from us, whether it is Kashmir, Siachen, Sir Creek or the Tulbul project. In fact this composite dialogue exposes us to Pakistani demands that we cannot satisfy, with the result that even Pakistani peaceniks express their disappointment at India’s rigidity, especially on Siachen.

What this superficial formula of “an uniterrupted and uninterruptable dialogue” means is that even if another Mumbai-like attack takes place, India’s hands must remain tied and the dialogue must continue, ruling out any retaliatory action.


The perspective of such a draconian restraint on India provides no incentive to Pakistan to take any step to weed out terrorists targetting India, as any future attack would neither mean an end to bilateral engagement nor retaliation. Pakistan will thus retain the freedom to keep India under pressure with the threat of terrorism- as China does by not settling the border issue- and compel India to temporize, “buy” off Pakistani hostility with friendly gestures, including not taking advantage of its increasing internal difficulties and international isolation. What can suit Pakistani strategy better?

Some diehard apologists of Pakistan in India claim that there is a change in the Pakistani mindset towards India and none in India’s mindset towards Pakistan? Pakistan has supposedly moved away from communal hostility towards India to national hostility? Why the latter should re-assure us more is not clear. By the same logic, a nationalist but more politically open China would be better for its neighbours than the exisiting authoritarian version. Facts would suggest that Pakistan is becoming more “communal” or sectarian in character by becoming more intolerant towards the Shias and other minorities, that religiosity in society is increasing and extremism is on the rise.


It can hardly be that the internal mayhem being caused by the spread of extremist ideologies in Pakistan implies a more tolerant religious attitude towards India. Our policies towards Pakistan in the last 8 years both under the NDA and UPA governments show, on the contrary, how far our attitudes towards Pakistan have changed

In any case, if the Pakistani mindset towards India has changed, in what positive way has it expressed itself? On Kashmir, Pakistan has reverted to UN resolutions as a solution, on Siachen it feels wronged and on Sir Creek it rejects international principles. It will not permit Tulbul and will obstruct any power project in J&K, it is creating a new water issue despite the generous Indus Waters Treaty, it is expanding its nuclear arsenal by distorting the intent and purpose of the India-US nuclear deal and it is treating our terrorism concerns with contempt. If it has moved away from its irrational position of not trading with India and giving us MFN treatment, we do not need to feel grateful. Pakistan will benefit from this as well as the visa agreement more than we will, though any progress in these areas should be welcomed by us.

We should treat Pakistan as a friend when it is friendly and as a foe when it is inimical. We should be doves or hawks as the situation demands.

Published Date: 23th January 2013

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