In an interview to Al Arabiya news channel in the UAE, Shehbaz Sharif, Pakistan’s PM, stating that Pakistan has learnt its lesson from past wars, mentioned, ‘My message to the Indian leadership and PM Modi is that let us sit down on the table and have serious and sincere talks to resolve our burning issues like Kashmir.’ He added, ‘We want to alleviate poverty, achieve prosperity, provide education, health facilities and employment to our people and not waste our resources on bombs and ammunition.’ Placing no preconditions, Shehbaz requested the UAE to facilitate talks.
Subsequently, in panic, the Pak PMO issued a clarification. It stated, ‘the prime minister has repeatedly stated on record that talks can only take place after India has reversed its illegal action of August 5, 2019. Without India’s revocation of this step, negotiations are not possible.’ It added that Shehbaz Sharif has ‘consistently maintained that Pakistan and India must resolve their bilateral issues through dialogue and peaceful means. The settlement must be in accordance with UN resolutions and aspirations of the people of J and K.’ Suddenly placing unrealistic preconditions, conveys that the offer is either insincere or was made under duress or there was a realization that it could be politically damaging within.
Shehbaz Sharif’s visit to the UAE and Saudi Arabia followed that of Pakistan’s army chief, General Asim Munir. Both the visits were to request for a bailout to prevent Pakistan’s economic collapse. In all probability, Pakistan would have been advised by the UAE and Saudi leadership that they must restore peace with India in case they need to get over their economic mess and bank on their support. This would have been initially conveyed to the army chief, following which Shehbaz made the offer.
The fact that it was made on their soil only reinforces it. Another indication is that there was no mention of Kashmir in joint statements during any of the visits, implying that none of these nations consider Kashmir as disputed. The UAE is already investing in Kashmir. It could also have been a suggestion from the US as Pakistan has repeatedly been requesting for third party mediation.
The IMF has hinted that Pak reduce strength of its armed forces as also budget amongst its terms for continuance of loans. Financial support offered to Pakistan either for flood victims or its economic meltdown would be scrutinized to ensure they are not diverted for military purposes.This will impact Pak’s sustenance of military capabilities.
There were reports that a near-peace agreement was arrived at between General Bajwa and the Indian NSA which would have placed Kashmir on the backburner for 20 years, enabling moving forward in other spheres. However, Imran and Qureshi played spoilsport. For Pakistan, raising the Kashmir bogey as also claiming human rights abuses in the region while accusing India for all terrorist attacks on its soil is a daily affair so also are calls for dialogue.
Imran had stated, soon after being nominated as PM, ‘If India takes one step forward, Pakistan will take two.’ Bilawal made a strong pitch for engaging with India after becoming the foreign minister last year. However, Imran stalled after revocation of article 370 and Bilawal and Shehbaz placed similar unacceptable preconditions. Such has been the level of hatred built within Pakistan that it refuses to import cheaper wheat from India nor accept Indian aid for flood victims.
Kashmir binds Pakistan, especially during any crisis, hence, offers for talks have little value. Within India, there are politicians, including from Kashmir, who demand that the government accepts Pakistan’s invitation for talks claiming that it remains the only solution for curbing terrorism in the valley. Farooq Abdullah stated recently, ‘I am going to give you in writing with my blood that terrorism is alive, and it will not end till you start talking to Pakistan.’
Pak defence establishments project only India as an adversary, hence from the day an individual joins the Pak army, hatred for India is enforced. Every Pak student is taught that India is an eternal enemy, and Kashmir rightfully belongs to Pak. They are made to believe that the raison d’etre for Pakistan’s existence is regaining Kashmir. Hence, while mentioning talks, Shehbaz raised Kashmir stating, ‘Pakistan wants peace but what is happening in Kashmir should be stopped.’
India expectedly countered mentioning that it desires a conducive atmosphere free from terror for any meaningful dialogue. The political and economic instability in Pakistan, with the army chief yet to display his India stance, implies that talks could flounder at any stage. Further, it is unlikely that Pak would stop support to terrorism though for once there has been no accusation of India supporting anti-Pak terrorist groups.
The terrorist infrastructure created by the Pak deep state cannot be shut overnight, though Pak has been severely constrained by the FATF and India’s anti-terrorism diplomacy. Hence, Pak could bring nothing of value onto the dialogue table, which could be of interest to India.
For India, a Pak compelled to expend large sums on defence, while facing an economic meltdown is beneficial. Pak, which was punching well above its weight, during the US involvement in Afghanistan, is now struggling to obtain diplomatic support, while India is the global voice especially as it heads the G20. Conduct of preliminary meetings in Srinagar would blow the lid of Pakistan’s claims on human rights abuses.
Finally, the bogey of talks has been raised by Pakistan time and again. Earlier progress in talks was scuttled by the deep state, which could lose control in case the Kashmir dispute landed on the backburner. Currently, it is the politicians who assume that talks with India could impact their national standing.
Pakistan is well aware that India will never reverse its decision on Article 370 or merger of Ladakh with J and K. However, India could consider statehood as a sop. Talks and peace would benefit Pak more than India as it desperately needs to concentrate on its economy and exploding western provinces. In such a scenario it is ideal to wait till Pakistan has something more substantial to offer and drops its preconditions.
The author is Major General (Retd)
Pakistan’s offer for talks