In the decade since the Mumbai terrorist attack, commonly known as 26/11 in which 166 people were killed, India has failed to get any of the conspirators responsible brought to justice. Nor has it been able to come up with an effective and consistent policy to counter Pakistan-sponsored cross-border terrorism.

These failures have been part of India’s inability to frame a realistic approach towards Pakistan, which is rooted in an understanding of its enduring anti-Indian impulses. These, in turn, derive from its founding principles.

Indian leaders have tried, again and again, to establish peaceful, stable and cooperative ties with Pakistan through periodic phases of comprehensive engagements. But these attempts have always run into Pakistani negativity and a determined persistence to calibrate but never abandon support for the activities of anti-Indian terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM).

Unending hostility

A look at the India-Pakistan engagement process over the past decade illustrates how politically impossible it is to sustain warm ties in the shadow of Pakistani terror. However, we must first look at the different kinds of bilateral engagement that have taken place over the past two decades, as there is great confusion about this.

In September 1998, India and Pakistan agreed on a Composite Dialogue format to develop bilateral ties. The Composite Dialogue envisaged a comprehensive engagement to address outstanding issues, foster cooperation and also focus on humanitarian and people-to-people issues.

Within this framework, terrorism, Kashmir, Siachen, Sir Creek, the Tulbul Navigation project, commercial and economic cooperation, culture and immigration and other people-connected issues were formally put on the table.

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Indian security forces scrambled to neutralize the Pakistani terrorists who attacked Mumbai on November 26, 2008. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Pakistan sought that all these areas of discussion be integrated so that simultaneous progress could be made. The primary focus was on “disputes” and it was wary of the establishment of robust cooperation in trade and other areas without “progress” in resolving “disputes.”

India, on the other hand, has always held that cooperative ties and people-to-people exchanges would provide better ground to address outstanding issues. Hence, there should be no artificial attempts to hold back on cooperation.

In the India-Pakistan context, the word “dialogue” is actually a code word for this kind of comprehensive engagement, which was worked out in 1998. It took place that year but its progress was stymied by Pakistan’s Kargil intrusion in 1999 and has remained the conceptual structure of bilateral engagement.

Indeed, during Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj trip to Islamabad in December 2015 both countries decided to revive this structure although under the new name of a Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue. The Foreign Secretaries were to meet to flesh out its contours but that never happened because of the Pakistani terrorist attack on the Pathankot Indian air-force base in January 2016.

While dialogue remains suspended, the two countries are in contact. Diplomatic missions are open. From December 2015 to the middle of this year the National Security Advisors’ channel was working, the directors-general of Military Operations have weekly phone calls, the Border Security Force and its counterpart, the Pakistani Rangers, are in communication and the Indus Waters Commissioners have met as required under the Indus Waters Treaty.

In addition, diplomatic courtesies are regularly exchanged and commitments flowing from nuclear-related confidence-building are adhered to. Thus, the distinction between “dialogue” and “contact” is not merely semantic, though the loose use of the words “dialogue’ or “talks” in the India-Pakistan context obscure reality.

While dialogue is required to take the bilateral relationship forward, the experience of the past two decades has shown that uninterrupted dialogue which Pakistan seeks, and which some Indians want too, is impossible because of Pakistan’s reliance on terror. Why is this so?

Pakistan’s proxies

Pakistan has used proxies against India since the conflict over Kashmir in 1947. In 1965, it tried to raise the Kashmir population by sending in infiltrators and failed. In the 1980s, it aided the Khalistani terrorist groups; it took a decade to eliminate them. Pakistan decided in 1990 to apply the lessons it learnt in the Afghan jihad in Kashmir.

Accordingly, it began to actively and materially support separatist groups that had adopted terrorist methods. Later, it encouraged extremist Pakistani Deobandi and Wahhabi groups to seriously launch sustained operations in Kashmir.

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The Taj Hotel in Mumbai was restored after the attack by Pakistani terrorists on November 26, 2008. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

India’s strategic environment deteriorated in the early 1990s on account of global changes because of the end of the Cold War, plus a faltering economy which necessitated fundamental systemic changes and the problems in Kashmir.

The Indian security establishment had vast experience in dealing with insurgencies but it took a few years to gain confidence in the apparatus put in place to meet a Kashmir terrorist challenge backed by full Pakistani men and material support.

By the time the Comprehensive Dialogue began in 1998 both countries had become declared nuclear powers and Kashmiri terrorism, while draining, was no longer looked upon as a strategic challenge. It could not impact India’s territorial integrity.

It became relegated to an issue of political management. The attack on Parliament in New Delhi in December 2001 had threatened a large part of the country’s political leadership and led to mobilization of the army, but not war.

Pakistani terror has limited the space for diplomatic initiatives especially the Composite Dialogue because an incident enrages passions and the only concrete step available to India is to declare that dialogue or talks and terror cannot go together.

An attempt was made in 2006 to insulate the larger relationship from Pakistani terror through the creation of the Joint Anti-Terrorism Mechanism, which met four times. It was unable to achieve its objective, and finally, it withered away after the Mumbai attack.

Pakistani Army, the final arbiter

The Pakistan army, the ultimate arbiter of Pakistan’s India policy has not made the crucial decision to abandon terror as an instrument against India. As long as that remains dialogue cannot be meaningfully sustained though contacts will continue and some movement in specific areas may be witnessed.

Despite the Mumbai attack Prime Minister Manmohan Singh tried to revive full engagement with Pakistan. However, its continued reliance on terror made it politically impossible for him to do so. The conduct of Pakistani forces on the border further complicated relations. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was committed to an improvement in India-Pakistani ties and engaged his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif, but again, Pakistani support for terrorism came in his way.

Indeed, Modi made concessions to the Pakistani generals by not insisting on the prescriptions of the Ufa Joint Statement of July 2015 and made a dramatic visit to Lahore on Christmas Day of that year. But the promise of full engagement in the Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue was stalled by the Pathankot attack. It embarrassed Modi but he kept the promise alive by letting a Pakistani investigating team, which included an ISI officer, visit Pathankot.

Later that year, the Uri attack and the subsequent surgical strikes made the dialogue process impossible though contacts continued. This position has continued over the past two years and Prime Minister Imran Khan’s coming has made no difference.

  • Ambassador Vivek Katju retired from the Indian Foreign Service where he handled the Pakistan desk for nearly a decade. The opinion expressed here are personal.