by Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra

India canceling the scheduled foreign secretary level meeting with Pakistan has raised doubts and intensified debates about the future of the India-Pakistan peace process. The meeting was to be held after a gap of one and a half years as India had cancelled after Pakistani forces allegedly beheaded one of India’s soldiers at the disputed border. This time India pointed out that Pakistani High Commissioner in New Delhi decided to meet the separatists from Kashmir despite its objection.

Will the bilateral relations reach a nadir after the cancellation of the meeting, giving rise to fears of a military confrontation, or is the cancellation just another strategic move by one of the rivals?

Pakistan called the Indian move unwarranted. Pakistan’s argument revolved around two points: First, Pakistan has been meeting separatists in its embassy in New Delhi since long. It is almost customary that Pakistan engages in this act before any bilateral level meeting. Second, though Indian officials earlier peeved at this action of Pakistan, they never cancelled a scheduled meeting.

The new government in New Delhi adopted a different strategy. Unlike the previous two governments, led by a coalition called United Progressive Alliance, the current government enjoys absolute majority in the parliament. The earlier two governments were perceived weak. Bharatiya Janata Party, the political party that won the elections in May this year, exploited the weakness of the Alliance and formed the government. The current government is also perceived to be more nationalist in its orientation that the earlier government.

When the incumbent Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, took the oath of office in May this year, he invited his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, to his swearing-in ceremony in the forecourt of the presidential palace in New Delhi. Modi and Sharif developed personal rapport and promised to take the peace process forward. Sharif broke the tradition followed by former leaders of Pakistan by refusing to meet the separatists during his stay in New Delhi. The common elements that one can find in Modi and Sharif are: they are young and dynamic, pro-business, and democratically elected leaders. The Modi government had handed over a list of demands from Sharif, including reining in India-centric radical groups in Pakistan, bringing to book the minds behind the Mumbai terror attack in 2008, etc.

Sharif’s refusal to meet the separatists was considered by the new government as a positive step by the Pakistani leadership to boost the peace process. Modi during his Independence Day speech on 15 August deliberately refrained from Pakistan-baiting, almost a customary practice by Indian leaders on such occasions. Rather, he called the nations of South Asia to get together to fight common enemies like poverty.

While the Pakistani government’s response to India’s cancellation was on expected lines, the very cancellation by India was an unexpected development. This is perhaps the first time that India cancelled an official meeting because Pakistani officials met the separatists. Pakistan has long held that it is a key player in the dispute over Kashmir, and the bilateral talks must factor the Kashmir issue. It is, hence, necessary that Pakistan must consult the separatists to know their views and perceptions of the conflict and formulate policies accordingly.

India’s argument in cancelling the meeting is mainly three-fold: First, Pakistan should either talk to India or to Kashmiri separatists, but not to both. As Kashmir is a conflict between India and Pakistan, Pakistan should be engaged with India, not with the separatists. Second, the decision to meet the separatists was a break from the development displayed during the visit of Sharif, who refused to meet separatists to appease Indian leaders and to strengthen bilateral relations. Third, the new government was perhaps keen to display a hard line posture to Pakistan that it cannot simultaneously engage with the Indian government and the separatists, who are at odds with the India’s policy in Kashmir.

The fallouts of the cancellation will be contingent on how the two rivals perceive and act. The Pakistani High Commissioner went ahead in meeting the separatists. India did not disclose its next step. It is certain that the peace process will receive a setback, even if temporarily.

The internal dynamics of a nation-state affect its foreign policy. This rule applies well to the relations between India and Pakistan. Pakistan’s decision to meet the separatists was guided by internal turmoil. Massive protest rallies were organized by an opposition political party and a religious group against the Sharif government. The Pakistani army, which plays a key role in policy making in Pakistan, did not appear to be happy at Sharif’s overture towards India. It may not be a surprise that the Sharif government decided to meet the separatists as an appeasement to hardliners. In India, too, the Modi government was interested to boost its image as a strong and nationalist government, not a weak one as the previous government was widely perceived. Modi visited Kashmir twice within three months of coming to power to showcase his government’s seriousness over the Kashmir issue.

Whatever may be the national calculations, peace is the ultimate casualty. It is difficult to say whether the two countries will revive dialogue soon, but it is not difficult to predict that unless dialogue is revived the relations will go further sour.

Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra is a PhD student in the Global Governance and Human Security Program at UMass Boston. He is also a center fellow at the Center for Peace, Development and Democracy.