THE initial belief that the meeting between the Indian and Pakistani Prime Ministers on July 16 in the Egyptian resort city of Sharm-el-Sheikh, on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit, had broken the diplomatic stalemate between the two countries seems to have been premature.
The joint statement that came out of the meeting between Manmohan Singh and Yusuf Raza Gilani sparked a political furore in India, and the Congress party even gave the impression of distancing itself from the statement. The Indian government, bowing to domestic criticism, signalled that there would be no early resumption of the composite dialogue process, which India had suspended after the terror attacks in Mumbai in November last year.
There is a precedent to Manmohan Singh agreeing in principle to restart the dialogue process with Pakistan. The two sides resumed the process, which had been suspended following the terror attacks on the Mumbai suburban train network in July 2006, after the Prime Minister met Pakistans President, Pervez Musharraf, at the NAM Summit in Havana. The joint statement in Havana agreed not to link terrorism concerns to other key issues that were part of the designated composite dialogue process. The statement also announced the creation of an India-Pakistan institutional anti-terror mechanism to identify and implement counter-terrorism measures and initiatives.
The peace process started in September 2004 and came to a halt after four rounds of talks. Both sides claimed substantial progress on the eight subjects that came under the ambit of the composite dialogue, including Kashmir, Siachen Glacier, confidence-building measures, Sir Creek, Wullar Barrage and terrorism and related subjects. Both sides admit that the dialogue process, which came to a halt yet again, in November 2008, has helped make a lot of progress towards resolving the contentious issues of Sir Creek and Siachen.
The Sharm-el-Sheikh joint statement once again talks of delinking terrorism from the broader issues the two countries are facing. The short statement said: Action on terrorism should not be linked to the composite dialogue process and these should not be bracketed. It concurred with the view that terrorism is the main threat to both countries. But one sentence in the statement ignited much of the furore in India. It read: Prime Minister Gilani mentioned that Pakistan has some information on threats in Balochistan and other areas.
In principle, the two countries can restart talks on issues relating to Kashmir, demilitarisation and water resources. Both countries acknowledged that terrorism was the major threat they faced and agreed to share real-time intelligence on terrorist threats. The Pakistan Prime Minister pledged to bring quickly the perpetrators of the Mumbai terror attacks to justice. Almost immediately after the release of the joint statement, Gilani handed over a 36-page dossier on the action Islamabad has taken to bring those behind the Mumbai attacks to justice.
The dossier reportedly admits that the Mumbai attacks were carried out by the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the mastermind was the groups operations chief, Zakiur Rahman Lakhvi. It also formally admitted that Ajmal Amir Kasab, the lone surviving gunman from the terror gang that attacked Mumbai, was a Pakistani citizen. All those arrested in the case so far are LeT members. India had accused the LeT of masterminding the Mumbai attacks and Pakistan of providing a safe haven for the group.
Manmohan Singh, sensing the unease in the political establishment back home, was quick to distance himself from the central theme in the joint statement the delinking of action taken on terrorist attacks on India and the composite dialogue process. Speaking a few hours after the release of the statement, he said the peace talks would remain on hold until Islamabad took action against the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks. If acts of terrorism continue to be perpetrated, there is no question of dialogue, let alone a composite dialogue, Manmohan Singh told the Indian media in Sharm-el-Sheikh.
He reiterated this stance in Parliament. The starting point for any meaningful dialogue with Pakistan is a fulfilment of their commitment not to allow their territory to be used in any manner for terrorist activities against India, he said.
New Delhi indicated that only the Foreign Secretaries of the two countries would meet as often as necessary. Indian officials insist that they will talk only on terrorism-related issues with their Pakistani counterparts despite the joint statement clearly saying that the entire gamut of bilateral relations will be dealt with.
The next high-level meeting is scheduled to be held on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in September. Despite Prime Minister Gilanis assertion that the joint statement was an illustration of New Delhis desire to revive the composite dialogue, the reaction from New Delhi is a clear indication that the reset button on bilateral ties is not on. Even before the ink dried on the joint statement, Manmohan Singh virtually ruled out a speedy resumption of the dialogue process. Unless and until terrorism is tackled and the terror infrastructure dismantled, I will not be able to carry public opinion with me, the Prime Minster told reporters at Sharm-el-Sheikh.
The criticism from the non-Left opposition parties and the Congress partys lukewarm reception to the joint statement do not bode well for an early resumption of the dialogue process. Senior Congress functionaries sniped at the Prime Minster for agreeing to sign on to the statement. While the Congress formally supported the Prime Ministers statement in Parliament, off-the-record leaks by senior Congressmen were critical of the alleged concessions given to Pakistan.
The Bharatiya Janata Party was strident in its criticism of the Sharm-el-Sheikh statement just as it was of the Havana statement. Leader of the Opposition L.K. Advani was among the most vociferous critics of the Sharm-el-Sheikh statement. He led a noisy walkout of BJP members in Parliament after describing the statement as capitulation. He later said the statement evoked intense disquiet and concern among all thinking Indians, including sections of the Congress party. He accused the Prime Minister of having surrendered Indias diplomatic advantage over Pakistan by delinking acts of terrorism from the composite dialogue process and the mention of the Balochistan issue.
On his return to Islamabad from Sharm-el-Sheikh Gilani said Pakistan had proof of Indian involvement in Balochistan and that a dossier on Indias covert activities had been presented to the Indian Prime Minister. Going by reports in the American media, the Pakistani side had shared the contents of the dossier with the Americans.
Pakistan has been questioning for some time the need for India to run a string of consulates along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The Pakistani establishment has also been wary of the growing Indian presence in Afghanistan. Many Pakistani commentators have said that the United States has encouraged the growing Indian presence in their backyard and in the process jeopardised Pakistans legitimate security needs. The Pakistani establishment fears that once the Americans leave Afghanistan, Pakistan will be encircled by forces hostile to its national interests.
Many former Indian Intelligence officials and right-wing commentators have called for an independent Balochistan. Covert Indian support for the Baloch secessionists is no doubt meant to be retribution for Islamabads considerable help to the militants and other separatist elements in Kashmir since the late 1980s. Manmohan Singh told reporters in Sharm-el-Sheikh that India had nothing to hide. He said he told his Pakistani counterpart that if there was any evidence, New Delhi was willing to look into it.
Sections of the Indian foreign policy establishment are playing down the importance of the Sharm-el-Sheikh statement. Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon virtually conceded that the statement was badly drafted. He was reacting after the muted criticism from within the ruling party. He, however, reiterated that India would not start the composite dialogue unless there is progress in Pakistans actions against terrorism. We have asked Pakistan to take action against terrorism. One can argue on the drafting but the message is clear, he said.
Minister of State for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor went a step further and said the joint statement was only a diplomatic paper and not a legal paper. He said that ultimately what mattered was the conduct of the government.
If these statements are any indication, it seems that the Indian foreign office was not kept fully in the loop in the drafting of the joint statement.
The Left Parties have been supportive of the peace initiative in Sharm-el-Sheikh. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) said in a statement that both countries would have to take bold steps to fight terrorism and resolve all outstanding issues, including Kashmir.
But many observers are suspicious about the timing of it all. Manmohan Singh has adopted a markedly hawkish stance vis-a-vis Islamabad since November 2008. During his first official interaction with President Asif Ali Zardari, on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Yekaterinburg, Russia, in June, Manmohan Singh brusquely declared in front of the assembled media that he had a one-point mandate: [T]o ensure that Islamabad does not use its soil for terrorism in India. Zardari was upset at the Indian Prime Minister issuing diktats in front of the media. This diplomatic snub reportedly prompted the Pakistan President to skip the NAM Summit and dispatch his Prime Minister instead.
The sudden change of attitude on the Indian side on the issue of restarting the dialogue is attributed to behind-the-scenes diplomatic pressure from the U.S. The joint statement came just before the visit to India by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Top U.S. administration officials have said that the Kashmir problem is connected with the Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak) issue. At the G-8 summit in July, U.S. President Barack Obama said Kashmir remained a global hot spot. Since assuming the presidency six months ago he has repeatedly urged India and Pakistan to start talking again.
The Obama administration wants to see progress on resolving the Kashmir issue. Recent statements from the President and his key advisers are strong signals that Washington views this as essential for the success on the global war on terror. Senior Obama administration officials such as Richard Holbrooke, the Presidents special envoy to South Asia, and Admiral Michael Mullen, head of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, have been to India in recent months as part of the ongoing efforts to make New Delhi adopt a flexible attitude towards Islamabad.
Holbrooke, during his visit to New Delhi in April, told reporters that making the two neighbours talk again was going to be difficult, but emphasised that the national security of the U.S. was also at stake. We cant settle issues like Afghanistan and many other issues without Indias full involvement, he said.
Holbrooke was in Pakistan in the third week of July. His priority was to ensure that Pakistan focussed on the existential threat posed by Al Qaeda and the Taliban and did not get distracted by India and the Kashmir issue. During her visit to India, Hillary Clinton talked a lot about Pakistans good intentions and commitment to the fight against terrorism.
Holbrooke, on the other hand, will have to convince Pakistan about Indias good intentions towards Pakistan. In the third week of July, The New York Times quoted senior officials of Pakistans Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) as saying that they considered India as the most serious threat to the security of the country. They also objected to the U.S. military surge in southern Afghanistan. The ISI officials said the Afghan Taliban would be forced to cross into Balochistan, creating more problems for the Pakistani state in the volatile area.
With the Pakistani side harping on alleged acts of Indian skulduggery in Balochistan and the Indian government trying to distance itself from the Sharm-el-Sheikh joint statement, the prospects of the composite dialogue process taking off any time soon look bleak.
If the statements of the Prime Minister and his Cabinet colleagues are any indication, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government has already started backtracking on the commitments made in the joint statement. The latest to question the Pakistan governments sincerity is External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna, who said Pakistan should use against terrorists targeting India the same kind of force it was using against militants in the Swat valley. We expect Pakistan to go after the terrorists, who are targeting India, with the same force, the External Affairs Minister said.
Pakistan also seems to have hardened its stance in the week following the Sharm-el-Sheikh statement. Despite U.S. pressure the bulk of the Pakistan Army remains stationed on the borders with India. Unless the peace process moves forward, indications are that the Pakistan Army will remain stationed on its eastern borders. Washington wants the Pakistan Army to focus entirely on the war against the Taliban.
In the coming months, there is bound to be increasing pressure from the U.S. on both India and Pakistan to start talking seriously again. India had to use all its influence with the U.S. to get the Kashmir issue out of the Af-Pak mix. The Obama administrations original idea was to put Holbrooke in charge of Af-Pak-Kashmir. It was only at the 11th hour that Kashmir was dropped from the agenda.