The government’s recent statement about the Hurriyat Conference has been criticised as yet another U-turn.

By explicitly conceding that there was “no bar” on Hurriyat leaders meeting Pakistani officials in India, New Delhi has erased the “red line” that it had drawn in August 2014. But a U-turn is not necessarily a bad thing — especially if it gets you moving in the right direction. The real question is whether the government knows where it wants to go from here.

The decision to make the India-Pakistan dialogue contingent on the latter avoiding contact with the Hurriyat was taken in the exuberant aftermath of the 2014 electoral victory. Not only was Prime Minister Narendra Modi the object of international adulation, but his decision to invite regional leaders for his swearing-in had seemingly pole-vaulted him to a position of unassailable strength. The “my way or the highway” stance adopted on Pakistan’s dealings with the Hurriyat was a product of this over-confident milieu.

It took well over a year for the government to realise that calling off talks did not help isolate Pakistan. On the contrary, New Delhi found that all its significant international interlocutors — big and small — were pressing for a resumption of engagement with Islamabad. Even after the government decided to move in this direction, the “red line” drawn under the Hurriyat tripped it up. With the subsequent resumption of full-fledged dialogue with Pakistan, however, it was clear that the precondition about contact with the Hurriyat was no longer operative.

Representational image of Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Pakistani High Commissioner to India Abdul Basit. AFP

Representational image of Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Pakistani High Commissioner to India Abdul Basit. AFP

There are at least a couple lessons to be learnt from this episode.

First, the terms of engagement with Pakistan cannot be reset easily or whimsically. There was good reason why the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government had allowed these contacts in the first place. Understanding the history of this relationship is crucial to navigating its contours. This is equally true of another trap into which the government has fallen: Assuming that calling off diplomatic engagement will somehow help tackle terrorism emanating from Pakistan. Wisdom lies in learning from the mistakes made by others.

Second, reputation and credibility do matter in foreign policy — especially in longstanding adversarial relationships like those between India and Pakistan. But contrary to what some critics have said, this does not mean persisting with patently futile and self-defeating policies like the “red line” about the Hurriyat. Rather, because credibility does count, New Delhi should be careful about the kinds of issues on which it stakes its reputation. Otherwise, it risks creating and discerning interests where none really lie. Drawing and erasing arbitrary red lines is problematic from this perspective rather just amounting to a U-turn.

The formal retraction of this policy comes in the specific context of both external and internal developments.

Events in the past month have confirmed — if ever there was a doubt — that the Pakistan Army is not happy with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s embrace of Modi. Against this backdrop, the old conundrum of how, if at all, to link talks with terror continues to confound New Delhi. Given that all other alternatives have been exhausted, it is perhaps time the government decided to press ahead with continuous diplomatic engagement irrespective of the where things stand with terrorism. This will, of course, require Modi to use his bully pulpit to make the case for such an engagement. The fundamental point is that terrorism can only be tackled by other means and engagement has certain advantages in itself. The recent statement by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) on Kashmir should remind the government that disengaging with Pakistan only gives the latter the room to mobilise support in its favour — even from those countries that might be better disposed towards India.

The internal context is equally important.

The latest round of popular mobilisation in the Kashmir Valley highlighted the rampant dissatisfaction not just with the coalition government, but the political status quo. The summer ahead is likely to pose further challenges for the PDP-BJP coalition. Unless Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti is given the latitude to kickstart political engagement within the state, it is unlikely that the coalition will hold together for very long. Bottling up the Hurriyat would only have exacerbated the swirling anger in the Valley. By contrast, adopting a stance of benign neglect may well bring to the fore the cleavages that separate the “separatists” from one another. The responses of Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq to the government statements are a good indicator of this.

Still, New Delhi will have to do more.

It is worth recalling that significant improvements in political climate of Jammu and Kashmir have only occurred when New Delhi has simultaneously sought to improve ties with Srinagar and Islamabad. Perhaps the most striking example of this came during Indira Gandhi’s tenure. A strong critic of her father’s policy of imprisoning Sheikh Abdullah, Indira Gandhi began reaching out to him soon after she took over as prime minister in 1966.

Against the backdrop of Pakistan’s aggression in 1965, she shrewdly understood that the demand for plebiscite was dead as a dodo. Her main interlocutor during this period was the then foreign secretary TN Kaul. It took Kaul almost five years to get to the point where the Sheikh was willing to trust Indira Gandhi. The Shimla Accord of 1972 ensured that India-Pakistan relations were formally insulated from external interference, but it also created a conducive environment in which Abdullah could return to power. This happened in the wake of the 1975 accord between the representatives of Indira Gandhi and Abdullah. His subsequent installation as chief minister was the mother of all U-turns in our Kashmir policy.

Whatever the flaws of the accord and the subsequent failures, this episode underlines the point that New Delhi must move simultaneously on the internal and external tracks.

This calls for coherence and consistency in policy-making, political judgment, and nimbleness in exploiting opportunities. Whatever the missteps of the past two years, it’s time to get moving in the right direction.

The author is Senior Fellow at Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. He is the author of India’s War: The Making of Modern South Asia, 1939-1945.

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Govt U-turn on Hurriyat is not a bad thing, if it sets us on the right path