Pathankot terror attack is exactly why India should talk to Pakistan

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The big terror attack in Pathankot threatens to derail a renewed India-Pakistan peace process. For now, the government and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party are saying that the talks will go on. But it is possible that they may not be able to work against public opinion for long.

Here are five reasons why India must continue the process of talks announced after Bangkok, and reaffirmed by prime minister Narendra Modi in his meeting with his Pakistani counterpart in Raiwind.

Now is the time to talk

If there were no terror strikes emanating from Pakistan, why would India need to talk to Pakistan anyway? India must confront Pakistan with evidence of the use of its soil, perhaps even the support of its state institutions, in terror attacks on India. Sit on the table, and ask them, what about this? How can we normalise relations when you do this? To call off talks would be to walk away just when you need to confront, talk, engage, and seek answers.

Pakistan won’t talk terrorism until India talks Kashmir, and that is why we had a “composite dialogue” process, whose name the Modi government has changed to “comprehensive dialogue.” Since Kashmir has a Line of Control that’s often on fire, and a source of terrorist infiltration, India has a need to talk about Kashmir, too.

India has no interest even in gaining Pakistan-administered Jammu & Kashmir, although India talks about it when Pakistan ratchets up its protestations on Kashmir. Truth is, India is happy to convert the Line of Control into an international border. It is Pakistan that has made gaining Indian-administered Kashmir an article of faith. Pakistan’s support to terrorism comes from this desire for the Kashmir Valley, which it has not been able to gain militarily. Talking Kashmir and terrorism, along with trade and visas and everything else, can bring India long-term gains.

Be seen as the one that wants peace

We may never get to hear the details, but there has been much commentary in the press about the international pressure brought on India to talk to Pakistan. Washington and other world capitals want India to talk to Pakistan because not talking often only escalates tensions, on the border and between the foreign offices in New Delhi and Islamabad. They fear this not only because it has serious implications for Washington’s efforts to contain Pakistan in Afghanistan, but also because both India and Pakistan are nuclear-armed.

When India is not talking to Pakistan, it comes across as the country that does not want to talk peace. Pakistan keeps saying it wants to talk to India without pre-conditions, India keeps saying what about terrorism, and Pakistan says let’s talk terrorism too.

Instead of allowing itself to be seen as the one that doesn’t want to sit down and talk to resolve issues, India should sit down and talk and let Pakistan be seen as the one that is up to terror strikes to derail talks. Talking to Pakistan is an opportunity to put the spotlight on its India-centric terrorism infrastructure, not a way of forgetting terrorism.

Lack of military options

War is not an option for nuclear-armed neighbours, but even a short confrontation is out of question. Limited military action could easily escalate, and even if it doesn’t, what will it achieve other than making India look like the aggressor? An air strike or two may not finish the terror infrastructure in Pakistan, but will definitely create more anti-India jihadis. As Pakistan will continue to pretend it harbours no such elements, India will be the one the world will look at for restraint. This is assuming that India has the capability to mount a “cold start” attack on Pakistan. It would be far easier to secure our borders from terrorist infiltration instead.

India’s lack of military options and absence of sub-conventional warfare abilities (read terrorists willing to die) mean that India has only one option left: diplomacy. Not talking is not diplomacy. Pakistan loses nothing by India not talking to it. It is only by talking and engaging that India can perhaps build some pressure on Pakistan. This is why “strategic restraint” has been key to India’s Pakistan policy.

End the blackmail

If terror strikes are aimed at halting India-Pakistan talks, then why give the terrorists what they want? Why give in to the blackmail? The bully is emboldened every time you show him you were affected by the bullying. India appears stronger—not weaker—if it continues to talk despite terrorism. If India continues talking despite imploding jihadis, their bosses will know the trick isn’t working anymore. By linking talks to incidents of terrorism, India only incentivises terror attacks from across the border.

Work on public opinion in both India and Pakistan

Now that a hardline prime minister has been forced to talk to Pakistan and face the ignominy of terror strikes in response, it is time to build broad political consensus that talking to Pakistan is in India’s national self-interest, and not some munificence towards Pakistan.

Talks with Pakistan should be used as an opportunity by both sides to build public opinion for peace in both countries. Doing so would be vital to isolating those who do not want normalisation of relations, such as terrorists and their supporters.

Increased trade ties, for instance, can build a new constituency of peace backers with economic interest. Greater people to people contacts can help change perceptions, once people see the other country as a living reality and not the security monster of the news headlines. Similarly, a long-drawn out process of talks could be used to seek and shape public opinion on out-of-the-box win-win solutions to issues such as Siachen and Kashmir.

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