India & Pakistan

Back to square one

Print edition : September 19, 2014

Kashmiri separatist leader Shabir Shah and Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit (right) after their meeting at in New Delhi on August 18. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj (left) and Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh at Hyderabad House in New Delhi on May 27. Photo: Shahbaz Khan/PTI

People of the border village Abdullian in Jammu take shelter in an Indian Army bunker during firing from the Pakistan side of the Line of Control on August 24. Photo: AFP

The Modi government’s decision to call off the scheduled talks between the Foreign Secretaries of Pakistan and India will for all practical purposes mean the suspension of meaningful peace talks between the countries for the duration of the NDA’s term in office.

EXPECTATIONS about an improvement in relations between India and Pakistan were buoyed after Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif accepted the newly elected Indian Prime Minister’s invitation to his swearing-in ceremony in May. Sharif came to New Delhi at short notice despite the misgivings expressed by many in Pakistan, including influential people close to the security establishment. On the campaign trail, Narendra Modi had targeted Pakistan and pledged to take a tough and uncompromising stand on the Kashmir issue. Sharif also come in for criticism after he failed to meet with the separatist Hurriyat leadership during his hurried visit to the Indian capital. Since the mid-1990s, it has been the norm for Pakistani Presidents and Prime Ministers visiting New Delhi to meet with the separatist leadership.

After Sharif’s formal meeting with Modi in May, it was agreed that the stalled dialogue process between the two countries should once again be restarted. A cautious beginning was to be made, with the Indian and Pakistani Foreign Secretaries scheduled to meet on August 25. The talks would have been the first between the Foreign Secretaries of the two countries in two years and were supposed to lay a road map for the dialogue to continue at the ministerial and prime ministerial levels. Tentative plans were even being drawn up for a meeting between Modi and Sharif in New York in September when they attend the annual United Nations General Assembly meet.

Sharif now probably has second thoughts on meeting Modi again any time soon. On August 18, the Indian government announced its surprise decision to scuttle the Foreign Secretary-level talks. According to reports, Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit was given just 10 minutes to call off talks with a visiting Hurriyat leader, Shabir Shah. Indian Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh told Basit that if the meeting went ahead she would not proceed to Islamabad for the scheduled talks. The Pakistani side said that the Indian authorities had been aware of the meeting with the Hurriyat leader for more than a week. The Indian government’s decision came at a time when Sharif’s political opponents, with the tacit support of influential sections of the Pakistani security establishment, were baying for his resignation.

Weakening hold on power

Indian commentators, mostly retired generals and diplomats close to the corridors of power in New Delhi, say that one factor which influenced the Indian government’s decision was Sharif’s weakening hold on power and the possibility of an impending regime change in Islamabad. It was being argued that Sharif would not be able to either make meaningful concessions or deliver on his pledges. But with the majority in Parliament backing him and public opinion too swinging in his favour, Sharif seems set to complete his five-year term.

Sharif was very keen to repair relations, especially economic ties, with India after he won the elections last year. He had told the media after being sworn in that there was an urgent need to “seriously address the fears” that had bedevilled bilateral ties. The Pakistan Prime Minister seems to be in broad agreement with many Pakistani economists and intellectuals who believe that economic integration in South Asia will help dissolve historical animosities and benefit the impoverished masses.

The Indian government continues to insist that the decision to postpone the Foreign Secretaries’ talks was solely triggered by the Pakistan High Commissioner’s meeting with a senior member of the Hurriyat Conference. It has been a routine practice for Pakistani diplomats based in New Delhi to ascertain the views of the separatist leaders on the situation in Kashmir before serious official-level talks begin.

Former President Pervez Musharraf also met with a separatist leader before proceeding for talks with the National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA) Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee during the Agra summit of July 2001. A durable peace deal was on the verge of being clinched then. It has been clear for a decade that the Pakistani establishment had given up hopes of physically detaching the disputed parts of Kashmir from the Indian Union. From Musharraf onwards, Pakistani leaders have wanted a solution to the Kashmir problem that did not entail any change in the de facto borders between the two countries.

But the latest avatar of the NDA government at the Centre apparently wants to shift the goalposts in its dealings with Pakistan on the Kashmir issue. The decision to cancel the meeting emanated from the Prime Minister’s Office. According to some reports, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and the Indian Foreign Office were not kept in the loop. The Modi government’s precipitate step will for all practical purposes mean the suspension of meaningful peace talks between the two countries for the duration of the NDA’s five-year term in office.

Important stakeholder

The Pakistan government has reiterated that it will continue to interact with the Hurriyat Conference as it considers the separatist organisation an important stakeholder in the Kashmir conflict. Basit has defended his right to meet with the separatist leaders. He told the media in New Delhi that “the only way to find a lasting peace” was to include the separatists in the dialogue process as the “bottom line” was to engage with all stakeholders in the conflict. The Hurriyat leadership stated that it was always in favour of peace talks between the two countries in order to resolve the Kashmir issue peacefully. The Pakistani Foreign Office issued a statement that said that the decision of the Indian government had dealt a blow “to efforts by our leadership to promote good neighbourly relations”.

Announcing the postponement of the talks, the Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesman, Syed Akbaruddin, said that the Pakistan High Commissioner’s invitation to the separatist leaders on the eve of the resumption of bilateral talks had raised questions about the Pakistani leadership’s sincerity in normalising bilateral relations.

He said that the Indian government had conveyed to the Pakistan High Commissioner “in clear and unambiguous terms that Pakistan’s continued efforts to interfere in India’s internal affairs were unacceptable”. He specifically stated that the Pakistan High Commissioner’s meeting with separatist leaders “undermines the constructive diplomatic engagement initiated by the Prime Minister in May on his very first day in office”. Akbaruddin added that under the terms of the Simla Agreement there were only two stakeholders in the Kashmir dispute: the governments of India and Pakistan. New Delhi sticking to its stance that Kashmir is an “internal” issue of India, coupled with the pronouncements made by leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) during the election campaign on abrogating Article 370, has perturbed the people of Kashmir and the international community. It is Article 370 that gives Kashmir its special status. Besides, Kashmir is the oldest international dispute on the U.N.’s files.

There is a growing belief that the Modi government’s “own goal”, that is, its decision to stop meaningfully engaging with Islamabad, was taken to cater to its domestic political agenda. The BJP, after Amit Shah was made its president, has repeatedly stated that Kashmir needs a “nationalistic” leadership. Amit Shah’s “Mission 44+” for Jammu and Kashmir aims at winning the next elections in the State. This will be anathema to the majority Muslim community there. If the BJP and its allies get a majority in the Jammu and Kashmir legislature, abrogating Article 370, a long-standing demand of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, could be realised. Modi, the loyal pracharak, will try his best to implement this cherished right-wing nationalist goal.

New Delhi and Islamabad now seem intent on resorting to political gamesmanship and military brinkmanship. The Line of Control (LoC) after months of relative calm is once again witnessing heavy exchanges of fire. A few soldiers and civilians on both sides of the LoC have been killed in the daily exchanges of artillery fire which escalated soon after New Delhi called off the Foreign Secretary-level talks. The Directors General of Military Operations of India and Pakistan spoke to each other on the hotline on August 26 and announced an agreement to de-escalate tensions along the LoC with immediate effect.

Insurgent activity in the valley, too, is showing signs of revival. With the United States occupation forces all set to leave Afghanistan, Pakistan may soon have the upper hand there. If the Taliban comes back to power in Kabul, the Pakistan Army and security services will be able to focus on Kashmir. The “jehadis” and the “Pakistani Taliban” could be encouraged to turn their attention to Kashmir once again. The Pakistani security establishment, which is once again creeping to the centre stage, may be tempted to exercise the option of “asymmetrical warfare” by using proxy “jehadi” forces against India as it did in the late 1980s and in the 1990s.

Pakistan has once again toughened its stance on the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) dispute. During talks with their Indian counterparts in Lahore in the fourth week of August, Pakistani officials expressed “serious concerns” over the construction of the Kishenganga dam on the Jhelum river and four other small dams on the Chenab river. They termed the construction a “clear violation” of the IWT. Pakistan has said that it is proposing to take the dispute to the International Court of Justice at The Hague. Trade talks between India and Pakistan were suspended last year when violence across the LoC escalated. A cloud now hangs over the resumption of the trade dialogue. The Commerce Secretaries of the two countries were scheduled to meet after the Foreign Secretaries. In 2012, Pakistan had committed itself to giving India the most favoured nation status.

Modi’s “own goal” has come in for scathing criticism from opposition parties. The Congress party accused the NDA government of indulging in “knee-jerk diplomacy” and questioned whether the government had formulated a coherent policy on Pakistan in the first place. Communist Party of India (Marxist) Polit Bureau member Sitaram Yechury said that the decision to call off the meeting was “inexplicable”.