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7 December 2015, Gateway House

Bangkok breakthrough

The brief interaction between Modi and Sharif in Paris paved way for a meeting between the NSAs of the two states in Bangkok on 6 December. It is these unobtrusive talks by empowered envoys in neutral venues which will achieve real results

Fellow, International Security Studies Programme

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After a much-discussed handshake in Paris on 30 November between the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif, it appears that both countries have made a well-calculated beginning to resume their stalled bilateral dialogue. Accordingly, on 6 December, the National Security Advisors (NSAs) of the two countries- Ajit Doval and Lt. Gen. (R) Naseer Khan Janjua met in Bangkok for four hours, exciting prospects of a thaw in the tortured bilateral.

This is a change from India’s one-point anti-terrorism agenda with Pakistan. In terms of the security challenges, the situation on the ground has not changed much. Anti-India terrorist groups in Pakistan persist in their activities including planning for a spectacular attack in India as was revealed over the weekend[1], while the Indian Army continues to intercept groups of militants attempting to sneak in the Kashmir Valley from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. But the Modi government’s willingness to engage one more time with Pakistan, despite these threats, indicates that it is disposed to looking beyond the ISI’s ‘deep state’ India strategy, to a broader view of the Pakistani establishment.

The Bangkok meeting is important for three reasons:

  • It provides India a direct line of engagement with the Pakistani Army, the widespread belief being that Lt. Gen. Janjua is Army chief General Raheel Sharif’s appointee. So any deliberations in this meeting will have the Army’s sanction, and hopefully will not be repudiated.
  • It demonstrates that after the debacle of the NSA-level talks in August this year, there has been much introspection within the policy establishments of both sides. The outcome: a decision to hold bilateral meetings sans the media glare, which often forces governments of both countries to grandstand for the domestic constituency. Bangkok provided a convenient venue, away from the prying eyes of the Indian and Pakistani media. It is a lesson the Modi government is learning from its predecessors when several meetings took place between India and Pakistan, including of the intelligence chiefs, for backchannel talks at neutral venues. It is these unobtrusive talks by empowered envoys in neutral venues which will achieve real results.
  • It helps Modi and Doval to deny public space to the Kashmiri separatists led by the Hurriyat Conference. It appears that Pakistan did not consult the separatists prior to the meeting. This is Advantage Modi government, which has blocked public outreach to the Hurriyat and made it sort-of India’s ‘red line’ by calling off the Foreign Secretary-level talks last year.

A joint press statement[2] released after the Bangkok meeting mentioned that discussions between the two NSAs covered “peace and security, terrorism, Jammu and Kashmir, and other issues, including tranquility along the Line of Control.” This is Advantage Pakistan, which will surely tout India’s willingness to discuss issues other than terrorism and J&K, in its effort to generate domestic support for the resumption of the dialogue.

Interestingly, among attendees from the Indian side was Syed Asif Ibrahim, Prime Minister Modi’s Special envoy on “Countering Terrorism and Extremism,” reporting to Doval. It is Ibrahim who keeps a tab on India’s counter-terrorism operations and evolving terrorist threats to India. The evidence that Ibrahim may have brought to the table would have been a big gain for India.

What next?

The Bangkok engagement will move to the next level when External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj travels to Islamabad on Tuesday 8 December for the ‘Heart of Asia’ donor conference on Afghanistan. Unlike the Doval-Janjua meeting, however, Swaraj’s visit will be subject to intense media scrutiny and speculation about whether she will meet PM Sharif or Foreign Affairs Advisor Sartaj Aziz, now divested of the national security portfolio by Janjua. And if everything goes as planned, then the stage may be set for Modi’s first visit to Pakistan next year for the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation Summit.

Will the Bangkok breakthrough in India-Pakistan relations be sustainable in the long run? It is necessary to be cautious about recent developments since India-Pakistan relations have been a story of many false starts. Obviously saboteur elements on both sides will be out to derail this engagement. Therefore, on its part, India must design a pragmatic, long term Pakistan policy[3] to ensure that the current bilateral engagement is a step forward.

Sameer Patil is Fellow, National Security, Ethnic Conflict and Terrorism, at Gateway House.

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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References

[1] Biswas, Tanima, ‘Lashkar Operatives May Be Planning Terror Strikes in Delhi: Police’, NDTV, 5 December 2015, <http://www.ndtv.com/delhi-news/lashkar-operatives-mat-be-planning-terror-strikes-in-delhi-delhi-police-1251294>

[2] Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, Joint Press Release on meeting of National Security Advisers of India and Pakistan in Bangkok, 6 December 2015, <http://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/26127/Joint_Press_Release_on_meeting_of_National_Security_Advisers_of_India_and_Pakistan_in_Bangkok>

[3] Patil, Sameer, ‘Gurdaspur: Advantage Pakistan’, Gateway House, 30 July 2015, <https://www.gatewayhouse.in/gurdaspur-advantage-pakistan/>

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