India’s neighbourhood-first policy is meaningless if it remains disengaged from Pakistan

Published: April 17, 2017
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India argues that Jadhav, who was sentenced to death by a military court, has not been given a fair trial.

The Kulbhushan Jadhav episode is no longer front-page news; it doesn’t even get air time on prime-time shows on various Indian and Pakistani channels anymore either. The issue once again brings to the fore how fragile the India -Pakistan relationship is. It shows how, in the absence of a mutual engagement, the subcontinent keeps careering from one flashpoint to another.

India argues that Jadhav, who was sentenced to death by a military court in Pakistan, has not been given a fair trial. Furthermore, Islamabad denied New Delhi’s counsellor access, despite repeated requests over the last couple of years. Pakistan says that he is a Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) agent and was caught inside Pakistan’s territory, therefore, he deserves the death penalty.

Spying is an ancient practice and each country deploys its intelligence operatives to keep a watch and create disturbances in enemy territories. But there is an international norm that governs how to treat an enemy agent. Citing the Vienna convention, many international affairs experts in India argue that India should have been given counsellor access to Jadav, and by denying that, the Islamic republic is violating international law and convention. Therefore, if the sentence is carried out, it would be premeditated murder.

Why has the Jadav issue become such a flash point between the two neighbours? The question is not about the life and death of an individual; it is about the larger politics of engagement and the absence of which puts the lives of millions of people in jeopardy.

There is no doubt that Pakistan draws a moral equivalence with India via this issue. New Delhi has always been holding the western neighbour responsible for spreading terrorism in India and outside, and therefore blames the Islamic nation for the downfall in the relationship. Pakistan presents the alleged Indian spy as a counter to India’s narrative. It wants the world to know that its eastern neighbour is not a saint but very much a sinner like me, and does not have the right to take the high moral ground when it comes to terrorism.

It is this one-upmanship which has been the stumbling block in talks between the two countries. A reflection of our history over the last three years will tell you how the relationship between the two countries has become a prisoner of political whims and jingoism, which has greatly damaged peace in the subcontinent.

When Narendra Modi assumed office, he started his tenure with a grand gesture of inviting the Pakistani leadership in his swearing-in ceremony in May 2014. This raised the hopes of the people on both sides of the border and it seemed like the new leader was guided by a novel vision for the subcontinent. Disappointment, however, came soon when India abruptly cancelled the secretary level talks, protesting against Pakistan’s bonhomie with the Hurriyat leadership of Kashmir. In 2015, hopes again soared high when Modi made an unscheduled stopover in Lahore to attend Nawaz Sharif’s granddaughter’s wedding. But the terror attack at Pathankot came as a spoiler and deafening jingoism in India snuffed out any hope of a dialogue. The lack of a dialogue process and the consequently deteriorating situation in Kashmir, along with the attack on Muslim minorities in India, further distanced the two neighbours from having any kind of peace talks.

In the absence of any long-term vision for engagement, the relationship between the two nations has been hurtling from one crisis to another. In order to refurbish his macho image, Modi has become a prisoner of jingoism; his government assumes a reactionary tone on the smallest irritants that come in its way. His regime wants Pakistan to contain terrorism and its terror network before any dialogue takes place. As a result, a ceasefire violation, a small terror attack becomes a flashpoint.

When the parameter has already been set so low, how can we expect the talks to make any substantial headway?

The Jadav episode has to be looked at from this prism. Had there been regular engagement between the two countries, perhaps Pakistan would not have used the alleged Indian spy as a stick to beat India.

It’s not Jadav who is in prison; it’s we, the people of the subcontinent, who are the real prisoners, the real sufferers.

This we can see in Kashmir today; how the deadlock between the two nations has delegitimised democracy in the valley, how innocent lives are being lost every day. The situation in the valley is such today that the writ of the Indian prime minister and the elected government in Srinagar do not carry any weight. A government, which should be benign and benevolent, has turned brutal. Mindless jingoism and nationalistic rhetoric have alienated a large section of India from Kashmir and honed an imperialistic mind-set towards the people of Kashmir. They demonstrate complete lack of empathy and sympathy for the masses who are at the receiving end of the government’s brutalities.

No doubt Pakistan plays a role in aggravating the problem and stoking anger among the people of the valley. The lack of interaction between New Delhi and Islamabad is essentially a recipe for disaster, as we see in Kashmir.

Stability in Afghanistan also suffers due to this bickering between India and Pakistan. A volatile Hindukush will not allow either of the two neighbours to live in peace. A visionary leadership either in Delhi or Islamabad would think of engaging the other to create greater opportunities for its masses. What is happening sadly is that both India and Pakistan are becoming camp followers of the western world to serve their geo strategic interests rather than catering to the interest of their own people, who elect them.

India thinks that it can isolate Pakistan at the international stage by raising the bogey of cross-border terrorism and the terror network inside the Islamic republic. The reality is different today. Islamabad has managed to court New Delhi’s traditional ally, Russia, and at the same time continues to be a hot favourite with the US, while China remains an all-weather friend. On the contrary, India is gasping for options. It’s a sad reality that India, which should have been playing a leadership role in the subcontinent, agrees to play second fiddle to the western world.

At the same time, it’s also a reality that the internal political dynamics between Islamabad and Rawalpindi continue to be intriguing. The question that comes up is whether the civilian government of Nawaz was kept in the loop about the military court ruling on Jadav or not? This fault line in Pakistan’s politics acts as a deterrent for any meaningful engagement between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.

India’s neighbourhood-first policy is meaningless if it remains disengaged from Pakistan. A nation which aspires to play big at the international arena cannot afford to be insular. The Jadav issue no doubt needs to be addressed but it can be done meaningfully only when there are talks between the two neighbours.

In my opinion, India needs to take the first step.

sanjay.kumar

Sanjay Kumar

The author is a New Delhi based journalist covering South Asian and international politics. He tweets as @destinydefier (twitter.com/destinydefier).

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.