Dr Ashok Behuria is a Fellow at Indian Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA).
The views expressed here are his own
“Analysts in India should stop taking the visit as a give-away and look at it as a sign of India emerging as a confident power, ready to walk the mile in its commitment to strengthen the process of regional integration under SAARC, as the dominant country in the neighbourhood.”
Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s visit to Islamabad to attend the 7th SAARC Interior and Home Ministers’ Conference on August 4, 2016 is being subjected to uncharitable analysis in India upon his return, especially because of the perceived coldness (bordering on hostility) with which he was treated. It is, however, necessary to look at the visit objectively and put things in the right perspective.
As much as the approach of the present government does not show any predictable trajectory towards Pakistan, the decision of the Indian government to send Mr Singh to Islamabad at this juncture was a rather sensible and mature move. There was a need for India to show its Interest in the SAARC and the whole idea of regional integration.
Despite the downturn in relations between the two countries during the post-Pathankot days, which even plummeted further in the aftermath of Burhan Wani killing in Jammu and Kashmir, it required real guts and gumption to visit Pakistan for a multilateral engagement with its neighbouring SAARC countries. That Bangladeshi Home Minister chose not to attend the meeting should not be seen as a responsible move which could have been imitated by the Indian Home Minister.
As the predominant country in terms of population, size, resources and security-spending, India has a critical role to play in enabling SAARC as a regional forum. India needs to work closely with all the sister countries of SAARC to address common issues of concern and lead the discussions on these issues and evolve collective approaches to them. Seen from this perspective, Indian Home Minister’s visit to the minister-level meet in Islamabad as a preparatory meeting for the upcoming summit in Islamabad in November this year, should not have been cancelled. Indian non-participation would have amounted to conveying a negative signal to other member countries and smacked of either highhandedness or diplomatic timidity, especially in the wake of the ongoing turmoil in Kashmir.
Therefore, Singh’s visit was apt, justified and quite a bold move. There was no attempt to have any bilateral discussions on the side-lines. It was well known that it would have been untimely and counter-productive. The Indian government must have had its ears to the ground and known that the anti-India constituency was clearly ascendant and the Pakistani interior minister, Chaudhury Nisar Ali Khan, known for his proximity to the deep state of Pakistan (read the military) would not have been the right person to have a dialogue with at the moment.
It was easy to predict therefore that the two ministers would not even shake hands or exchange greetings. The picture of SAARC home ministers with Nawaz Sharif in the media, says it all. If one can read the face of Nisar, it was stiff and unsure as ever, and Rajnath (and even Nawaz!) was struggling to hide his sense of embarrassment from the camera. And if Nisar went away after inviting the delegates for lunch, disregarding basic courtesy as a host, it did reflect badly on him and Pakistan, not on Rajnath. Other SAARC ministers must have taken due note of the poor taste of Pakistani hospitality. It did not show Pakistan in good light.
Similarly, the permission granted to jihadi leaders like Hafiz Saeed and Salahuddin to lead protest demonstrations against Rajnath Singh over the issue of Kashmir during his visit did not show Pakistani government in good light either. It proved the long-standing Indian contention once again that the government of Pakistan has been sponsoring and encouraging such terror groups while pretending to take action against terrorists of all hues—good and bad!
Moreover, the Indian Home Minister, without mentioning the name of Pakistan, as per the SAARC tradition, duly emphasised implementation of the SAARC Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism and its Additional Protocol, and held it “crucial” for the SAARC countries’ common fight against terrorism. If his speech was not transmitted live, there is no tradition within the SAARC ministerial meetings to be broadcast alive and the crib in the Indian media was not justified. The debate in India on whether it was deliberately ‘blacked out’ should better not have been there at all. The message from the Indian side was loud and clear. India will have a zero tolerance on terrorism and SAARC should do everything possible to stop terror.
Nisar might have brought in the Kashmir issue indirectly but his endorsement of terrorism as fight for freedom was not lost on ministers from other countries, even if he was basically playing to the gallery in his own country. Nawaz also parroted the usual Pakistani line. Could we have expected anything different?
Poor Nawaz is being hounded by the media in Pakistan for allegedly keeping mum on Kashmir issue for about four to five days after Burhan Wani’s killing. There is an oft-chanted slogan in Pakistan television against Nawaz thesedays which was given free run—Modi ka yaar, gaddar, gaddar. He was perhaps compensating for his silence with loaded espousal of the Kashmir cause while addressing the
SAARC ministers. Years of raising the bogey of India as an implacable enemy by the leadership of Pakistan is coming in the way of any idea of reconciliation with India. The narrative has become the consciousness. You cannot expect miracles to happen.
Rather, such exchange of carefully couched barbs between leaders of India and Pakistan is nothing new in SAARC meetings.
Analysts in India should stop taking the visit as a give-away and look at it as a sign of India emerging as a confident power, ready to walk the mile in its commitment to strengthen the process of regional integration under SAARC, as the dominant country in the neighbourhood. If Pakistan resists the idea of multilateral engagement, it will do so at the cost of isolating itself in the regional theatre.
Rather than subjecting such initiatives by the government to exaggerated critical attention, to fill prime-time hours, the media should better focus on myriad issues of social import that deserve greater scrutiny and imaginative intervention.