'War benefits neither side'

Print edition : January 05, 2002
Interview with Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar.

Pakistan Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar has, in the past, been seen as something of a 'hawk'. Sattar and Indian lawyer-scholar and commentator A.G. Noorani are friends of two decades. When Frontline's distinguished columnist called on Sattar on the first day of his current visit to Pakistan, he was received with warmth. When asked by the visitor during the course of a friendly conversation if he was prepared to go on record for Frontline, the Foreign Minister appeared surprised and almost taken aback, but his answer was firmly in the affirmative.

In the interview, Sattar speaks spontaneously and at length about the Agra process and how Pakistan perceives the current India-Pakistan face-off. Known for his precision, he provides new information and also insights about the action as it unfolded for the Pakistan side. Sattar's remarks suggest a keen desire on the part of Islamabad to revive the Agra process. He also speaks warmly of his close working relationship with Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh. Under precise, on-the-ball questioning by the interviewer, the Pakistan Foreign Minister goes into a candid, but well-prepared discussion of the problem of Pakistan-based extremist violence and terrorism as a domestic problem as well as a serious problem for India-Pakistan relations. He speaks of the steps General Musharraf's government has taken to rein in terrorism in Pakistan. He expresses cautious support for the idea of an extradition treaty between the two countries, qualifying this with significant observations on the territorial status of Kashmir. He emphasises the need for India to provide Pakistan with "evidence" from its investigation of the "reprehensible" terrorist act of December 13, so that Pakistan could act appropriately under its laws.


After expressing great concern over the "escalation of India-Pakistan tensions, belligerent and "imperious" statements, India's bringing up troops from "peace-time locations" to the Line of Control (LoC) and the international border - "movements... pregnant with grave dangers" - Sattar concludes that "war benefits neither side" and that "we need to stop the build-up and start the process of dialogue so that whatever problems are seen by one side or the other can be addressed with a cool mind." He highlights Pakistan's willingness to "cooperate fully" with India in efforts for "the prevention and eradication of terrorism" and, specifically, "in eradicating such outfits that indulge in terrorism." Paying tribute to Prime Minister Vajpayee's New Year's Day 2001 article ("Kumarakom Musings"), which "generated an atmosphere of hope that the two countries are inclined to address the issues that divide them," he calls for a return to the track of well-considered dialogue that produced the Agra Summit, which unfortunately "did not resolve any issue."

Indeed, Noorani notes, for all the understandable anxiety in India over the prevailing face-off, there is a lack of belligerence in intellectual and professional circles in the Pakistani capital. Regret is registered over what is perceived as India's 'overreaction' and 'stridency of posture' in the current context. This, in Noorani's opinion, has only revived in Pakistan the impression of a 'great power complex.' There is hope that the situation will be defused. Indian press comments are being fully reported in the Pakistani press, and sober opinion and analysis critical of official hawkishness and calling for a peaceful resolution of the crisis through diplomatic means and discussion are quoted admiringly. Sattar's remarks seem to reflect not only the Pakistan government's stand but also what is evidently the public mood in Pakistan.

The Foreign Minister met Noorani in his office in the Foreign Ministry on December 28 in the midst of a very crowded schedule. Excerpts from the hour-long, tape-recorded interview, exclusive to Frontline:

A.G. Noorani: Mr. Foreign Minister, it is kind of you to spare the time to meet me on this day, when there is so much tension in the air. There were such high hopes in Agra, after ages. I think we had reached an all-time high after the Simla Pact [of 1972]. But though there was a diplomatic debacle in Agra, the next day the Foreign Ministers of both countries sounded optimistic. It was said that it was not a termination but a postponement of the dialogue. There followed a sad decline in the tone of the rhetoric. Now we have reached an all-time low. I wish you would comment on two aspects. First, precisely what happened in Agra to lead to the failure. Secondly, why relations deteriorated gradually and then steeply after December 13 to create the present situation.

In Agra in July 2001 (from left) Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, (second row) Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh, Commerce Minister Murasoli Maran and Home Minister L.K. Advani. Abdul Sattar is behind Advani.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

Abdul Sattar: First of all, I agree with you that there was a sense of optimism before we went to Agra. The Prime Minister of India had specially made a promising statement on January 1, 2001 [in his "Kumarakom Musings"] when he said that he looked forward to a meeting between representatives of the two countries even at the highest level. It took the Prime Minister, I think, four months and 20 days to translate his vision of the New Year into an invitation to the President of Pakistan.

Meetings were held in Delhi between the President of Pakistan and the President of India, and a very warm luncheon was hosted by the Prime Minister of India in Delhi on July 14. Then the President and the Prime Minister went into bilateral meetings, almost all one-to-one meetings, in order to achieve a meeting of minds. We were kept generally informed. The meetings in Agra on July 15 and 16 were basically one-to-one meetings with a note-taker on each side.

On July 16, just around noon, the two leaders called in the Foreign Ministers and we were told that the two leaders had reached an understanding and that a joint statement, which had previously been attempted by high officials of the two countries, should be converted into a declaration format. Mr. Jaswant Singh and I were then given the task of ensuring the conversion, and I am glad to say that we worked quite fast in an atmosphere of mutual understanding and were able to remove all the square brackets on which there were differences.

How many square brackets were there?

There were, maybe, a dozen square brackets, only some of which were important. We succeeded in resolving them and agreed on a draft for submission to the principals. I think it was ready at 2-30 p.m.

Our President approved the agreed draft around 2-45 p.m. I came out in a very optimistic mood and, as you may recall, when a question was asked of me I expressed a hope that a joint declaration would be signed. This was around 3-30 p.m. We informed the Indian side around 3 p.m. that the draft on which we had worked was acceptable to the President.

A Border Security Force soldier fires at Pakistani positions in the Pallanwalla sector, near the Line of Control, on December 24.-TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP

We waited for the Prime Minister's response till 6 p.m., when we were told that the Indian Foreign Minister wished to have another meeting. So we met again. One paragraph in the Declaration had met with objections from the Indian side. Therefore the two Foreign Ministers met again and once again we were able to redraft that paragraph so that it became acceptable at the level of the Foreign Ministers. I was told by Mr. Jaswant Singh that he would need some time to get the revised paragraph approved by his side. So far as I remember, he said it would take him 15 minutes. Anyway, we waited. Our President approved the revision.

We waited for the response from the Indian side; that did not come until after 9 p.m. We were very sorry and sad to hear that even the second draft was not acceptable. Apparently these decisions were being made in the Indian Cabinet's Committee on Security, and not only was the second draft turned down, but there was no suggestion for a further meeting in order to revise the text to meet the objections which, apparently, someone in the Cabinet Committee had raised. It was quite clear that we were now being told that no further progress could be made at that time.

This time the two leaders met one-to-one without even the note-takers. So I do not wish to say anything about it. But even then we ended in the hope that there would be a further meeting between the leaders and that whatever problems were perceived by the Indian side in the draft could be sorted out later. The President issued a statement that a further meeting between the two sides would be able to reach an agreement. He extended an invitation to the Prime Minister of India to visit Pakistan. I also extended an invitation to the Foreign Minister of India. Thereafter, unfortunately the threads that were supposed to be picked up were not picked up.

Slogans on the Indian side at the Wagah border check-post on December 28.-AMAN SHARMA/AP

What is your perception of how the decline in the relationship between the two countries set in later?

I think the statements made by both sides on July 17 were not only restrained but held out the promise that the two sides would meet again and pick up the threads. Subsequently, we noticed statements by the Indian side that there was no closure in Agra and that therefore there was no agreement, implying that the entire text would be reopened by the Indian side. We were disappointed that once again we came close and yet we were too far and, secondly, there was backsliding on the part of India. They had reservations which were not disclosed to us in Agra with regard to the other parts of the agreement. Once again we retained the hope that these statements made at the level of spokesmen did not really reflect the vision of the Prime Minister, which envisaged starting a structured process of dialogue between the two countries.

A few days later there was another statement by the Indian side to the effect that Pakistan had an obsession with only one issue, namely Kashmir. Once again the President of Pakistan clarified that anyone who read the draft of the declaration would see that the Government of Pakistan was prepared to address each and every issue that stood in the way of normal relations between the two sides. All that the President of Pakistan had emphasised in Agra and later on was that any realistic observer of Pakistan-India relations, which had been strained over a long time, would recognise that Kashmir was the central issue, the central difference between the two sides, and therefore, if we wanted to achieve the aims that we professed, namely the establishment of normal good-neighbourly relations, this issue had to be discussed. So not only was it on the agenda but on top of the agenda. But the agenda was not limited to Kashmir; it included all other differences that the two sides had mutually listed in the declaration.

I realise that the Indian and Pakistani positions on Kashmir differ. But there is one Indian concern, which I am sure you will recognise has also received considerable international sympathy, namely the jehadi outfits in Pakistan and their support to militancy in Kashmir. How is Pakistan responding to this concern?

There are two aspects to this question that I would like to address. First, we need to examine objectively how militancy started in Kashmir. From 1989, for two or three years the agitation in Indian-held Kashmir was entirely political and peaceful. In order to suppress that agitation, the Indian government decided to bring in a large force of military and paramilitary and police. They succeeded in repressing the movement, but in the process they also drove it underground into militant channels.

A BSF officer points towards positions across the LoC at the Ramgard sector.-TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP

The other aspect with regard to the organisations in Pakistan is that this has been a domestic phenomenon of increasing sectarian militancy, of increasing militancy also as a consequence of a proliferation of weapons in Pakistan following the decade of 1980s. Most of these weapons are of Soviet origin, which came via Afghanistan. President Musharraf's government decided that we need to deal with this kind of extremism and terrorism. Long before September 11, the Government of Pakistan announced a ban on two groups in Pakistan. One was a Sunni [group] Lashkar, the other was a Shia [group], Sipahe Mohammad. At the same time, the government put on warning or watch-list two other groups.

Then we started in the middle of 2000 a campaign of de-weaponisation. First, we prohibited the public flaunting of weapons. Then we embarked upon a campaign to collect illicitly held weapons in the country. To the best of my recollection, more than 120,000 such weapons were actually collected by the government.

Then we started prosecuting persons who held unlicensed weapons. That campaign succeeded. Thousands of such cases were registered. Hundreds of people were prosecuted and sentenced. We have thus engaged in that process in the domestic context because these outfits were engaged in violence and acts of terrorism. Terrorism has been a problem for Pakistan for quite some years following the events in Afghanistan. We froze the accounts of at least three such organisations. One was Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, the other was the Jaish-e-Mohammad and the third was the Lashkar-e-Toiba. Our state, in pursuit of a responsible policy aimed at the restoration of domestic peace, has continued to follow that path.

India's exploitation of incidents of terrorism and ascribing them not only to irresponsible individuals but even to the state of Pakistan has constrained our own pursuit of our domestic agenda for the restoration of a peaceful environment - an environment in which people would not use violence in pursuit of their own agendas, which are sometimes sectarian and sometimes political in nature. We are pursuing in a determined manner a policy which is conceived in the context of our domestic peace, and we continue to pursue it.

As for India's demands, India should be both considerate and conscious rather than make demands. For demands smack of a certain attitude - if we do not meet those demands, India would do something. These are attitudes which are unacceptable between two sovereign states. We have to learn to cooperate and to pursue objectives on the basis of principles of justice and international law.

We know that we have some organisations which are extremist and even terrorist in nature. Some of our very distinguished people have been assassinated. I was very depressed when I heard the news of the assassination of Hakeem Muhammad Saeed of the Hamdard Foundation. He was one of the noblest of persons. A few days ago, the brother of our Minister of Interior was assassinated in Karachi. We are therefore very sensitive to acts of terrorism. Pursuing a policy of containing and eliminating these tendencies in the country is bound to take some time. But we are determined and we will pursue this policy.

Would you comment on the Lashkar-e-Toiba shifting its base to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir?

The Government of Pakistan's policy must be clearly understood. We denounce and condemn and do everything possible to contain groups that carry out acts of terrorism. The government has openly, publicly, repeatedly condemned acts of terrorism, including the one that took place on October 1 in Srinagar, and similarly the reprehensible act that took place on the December 13 in New Delhi. No civilised state can possibly tolerate such acts, and I can assure you that the government of Pakistan is absolutely clear in its mind that such acts have not only to be denounced but the people who engage in them, their sponsors and so on should be identified and brought to justice.

Vijay K. Nambiar, India's High Commissioner to Pakistan, who has been recalled.-RAJEEV BHATT

The problem is that in order to bring somebody to justice, there has to be a body of evidence that can be produced in court. The U.S. in dealing with Osama bin Laden compiled large dossiers and brought these to the notice of members of the United Nations Security Council, which passed a Resolution on October 15, 1999 in which it called for him to be brought to justice. Another Resolution was passed on December 2000 and a third on September 12, 2001.

Did the U.S. give Pakistan a dossier?

Well, they showed it to us. It was quite a thick file. But we could not pronounce a judgment on it. That is not the task of a government, but I recall that when the information was shown to us I publicly said that it was an impressive body of information and evidence. But weighing it is not a political but a judicial task. Were Osama to surrender, he surely would have been presented in an appropriate court of law, which would have pronounced its verdict.

As a person known to be precise, what would you define [on] this day, December 28, as an issue that diplomatically divides India and Pakistan in regard to the demarche India delivered on December 14?

The demarche suggested that the offices of two impugned organisations should be closed and that their leaders should be placed under arrest. Our response to this demarche was 'please provide us with some evidence'. We cannot act arbitrarily at the request of a foreign government. Our agencies conduct their own investigations. When a body of evidence is available, then our government makes a judgment as to what action it should take. Let me say we have taken action against a number of organisations in Pakistan - the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, the Laskhar-e-Toiba and the Umma Taameer-e-Nau. And some of the persons in the Umma were placed in detention. We have placed under detention 50 persons connected with the Jaish.

What does the Government of India want you to do?

The Government of India has been escalating its demands. We need evidence against individuals who, according to the Government of India, are implicated in the reprehensible attack on the Indian Parliament. We cannot act just because India makes a demand. We need evidence that is sustainable in the eyes of law in Pakistan, just as the action we have taken has to be justified before our courts. The evidence we have collected will be presented to courts. We are proceeding in the context of our system of laws in Pakistan.

Do you see India and Pakistan concluding an extradition treaty?

Surely, that would be desirable. But let us also remember the pitfalls, and that is with regard to the definition of the territories of the two countries. Pakistan cannot accept the Indian claim that Kashmir is a part of India. This is quite obvious. The United Nations recognises Jammu and Kashmir as disputed territory. The two countries accepted at one time resolutions of the Security Council. According to our view, India cannot renounce the agreement contained in U.N. resolutions. India needs to read Article 25 of the Charter of the United Nations, which makes it obligatory for all U.N. members to carry out the decisions of the Security Council.

Extradition treaties are desirable in order to address commission of crimes by individuals belonging to one country in another country. These are standard procedures accepted by a civilised community of states. As a lawyer, you know that before extradition of a person can be sought there has to be a proceeding within the country seeking extradition in order to establish that there is prima facie evidence against that person of having committed a crime cognisable in law which should be tried in the state and that it wants extradition to take place. We are prepared to look at any draft. We need to consider in that draft the definition of the territories of the two countries.

Would Pakistan propose an extradition treaty at this point?

I do not know whether India is prepared at this point of time to take up this matter. Unfortunately, their statements have become increasingly imperious in nature, and the atmosphere is, therefore, vitiated. Let me say we are doing our utmost to prevent escalation of the tension. When the Government of India decided to recall its High Commissioner, we considered that in classic diplomacy the need for diplomats is greater when tension is on the rise.

The Government of India has in a sense abrogated the agreement on air links.

What do you think of some persons' comments on the abrogation of the Indus Waters Treaty?

That Treaty of over 40 years ago was considered by third countries as a matter of life and death and peace or war. Therefore, any such attempt by India to interrupt the flow of waters in the rivers which have been accepted by India under the Treaty as rivers which have been allocated to Pakistan would be a very grave act and will entail consequences neither side desires.

What could be the possible means now of defusing the tense situation?

I want to share with you my deep concern at the escalation that has taken place. The Government of India has taken not only the steps publicly announced, but of greater concern is the movement of the troops. India has moved its corps and divisions from peace-time locations to the Line of Control (LoC) and to the international border. Indian Ministers have made statements that its forces are on alert. These movements on the ground, to the front lines, are pregnant with grave dangers. Even an unintended act can lead to a chain of action and reaction leading to conflict, which neither side desires. It is a high-risk decision by the Government of India to deploy them in a threatening posture.

On our side, we did not initiate this process. We are now forced to make appropriate preparations for our defence. This has serious consequences for us. We have to deploy our forces also on the border with Afghanistan in order to prevent the entry of terrorists and Al Qaeda forces.

We need to stop the build-up and start the process of dialogue so that whatever problems are seen by one side or the other can be addressed with a cool mind. War benefits neither side. India appears to have made the assessment that its forces are very strong. One of its Ministers said that there are "punitive" measures. If people think they can take unilateral "punitive" measures, they should take into account the consequences and the fact that Pakistan is in a position to defend itself.

Is Pakistan prepared to take some measures in a calmer setting with regard to India's concerns about terrorist violence?

Of course, Pakistan will be prepared to cooperate fully in any efforts for the prevention and eradication of terrorism. There should be no doubt about that. We condemn terrorism. Many of the bomb explosions in Pakistan have been ascribed by our police authorities to forces across the border. We must stop this game. We must cooperate in eradicating and liquidating such outfits that indulge in terrorism.

Is the Agra Declaration still on the table, still on offer, according to Pakistan?

It would be a great tragedy if the progress that was made in a very considered manner by the leaders of the two countries and their governments should now be set aside and wasted. We did not resolve any issue. What we did was to set up a structured dialogue at the level of the leadership, at the level of Foreign Ministers and senior officials, so that all the issues could be tackled. Compliments should be paid to the Prime Minister of India for his article on New Year's Day 2001, for that generated an atmosphere of hope that the two countries are inclined to address the issues that divide them.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor