India & Pakistan

Back to square one

Print edition : September 18, 2015

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj at a press conference in New Delhi on August 22. She said that India was willing to discuss all outstanding issues, including Kashmir, "but only when violence and terrorism end". Photo: V. Sudershan

Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan's National Security Adviser and de facto Foreign Minister. He said he would travel to New Delhi only if the Indian government recognised that no serious dialogue was possible if Kashmir was not on the agenda. Photo: Farooq NAEEM/AFP

Once again the two countries fail to see past their differences and resume the dialogue process, which alone will enable them to combat together the serious threat of terrorism.

INSTEAD of a resumption of the dialogue process, a blame game has begun between India and Pakistan. After the meeting between the Prime Ministers of the two countries in the Russian city of Ufa in July on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit, it was initially presumed that a diplomatic way had finally been found out of the logjam created by the cancellation of the Foreign Secretary-level talks last year. Most observers were pleasantly surprised when Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif actually sat down together in Ufa for an unscheduled one-on-one meeting, which may have been prompted by diplomatic pressure from diverse sources, including the United States.

In a joint statement after the meeting, the two sides said that they were prepared to discuss “all outstanding issues”. The Kashmir issue was not specifically mentioned. Instead the focus was on “issues related to terrorism”. The two leaders had agreed in Ufa that there should be an early meeting between the National Security Advisers (NSAs) of the two countries to be followed by a meeting between military commanders. Both sides had also agreed to discuss ways and means to expedite the trials relating to the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, including Pakistan providing additional information involving voice samples. The joint statement had concluded by stating that the Pakistani Prime Minister had extended an invitation to his Indian counterpart to attend the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit scheduled to be held in Islamabad in 2016 and that the Indian Prime Minister had accepted the invitation.

Sharif came in for criticism in the Pakistani media for his failure to highlight the Kashmir issue in the joint statement. There were accusations that in his eagerness to ensure the success of the SAARC summit Sharif had bent over backwards in his efforts to improve relations with India. New Delhi too wanted official-level talks restarted after the ham-handed way the Modi government called off the Foreign Secretary-level talks at the 11th hour last September. After those talks were called off, relations between the two countries deteriorated further. Exchanges of fire across the Line of Control (LoC) became more frequent and more intense, and the Indian side registered a marked increase in infiltration and the number of terror attacks.

A meeting between the NSAs of the two countries could have addressed all these issues, and other important issues such as Kashmir, Siachen and Sir Creek could also have figured in the talks. But as the countdown to the proposed NSA meet started, the Indian side started taking the position that “only issues relating to terrorism” would be discussed. The Indian government kept on insisting that the Ufa joint statement only talked about the terrorism issue. The Pakistani side’s interpretation of the Ufa statement was entirely different. Pakistani officials said that the joint statement talked about “outstanding” issues between the countries. All Pakistani governments have been consistent in their stand that the Kashmir issue remains the key unsolved problem between the two countries and the root cause of tensions.

Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan’s NSA, who is also the country’s de facto Foreign Minister, is many notches above Ajit Doval, his Indian counterpart, in rank and experience. Pakistan took its own sweet time to confirm the dates for the NSA meeting in New Delhi. Once the dates in late August were announced, Aziz said that the Kashmir issue was very much on the agenda. He also said that he would continue with the past practice of visiting Pakistani leaders meeting with the separatist Hurriyat leaders from Kashmir. Last September’s talks were cancelled at the express orders of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) when Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit met with a few Hurriyat leaders.

Red line

Aziz, already facing flak from domestic critics for the Ufa joint statement, could not have gone back to Islamabad without at least making an effort to meet representatives of the separatist leadership in Kashmir. It would have meant the jettisoning of a practice that had become a routine for Pakistani leaders since the formation of the Hurriyat Conference in 1993. It was only after Modi became the Prime Minister that a so-called red line was drawn to actively discourage the practice. The Pakistani government, on the other hand, has been reiterating that it will continue with its high-level personal contacts with the Hurriyat. Pakistani officials continue to claim that the Hurriyat is the true representative of the Kashmiri people. Before his aborted departure to New Delhi, Aziz told the media that “Kashmir is the most outstanding issue between India and Pakistan. No serious dialogue is possible if Kashmir is not on the agenda.” He said that he would travel to New Delhi only if the Indian government “recognises this reality”.

The Modi government was no doubt aware that Aziz could not have returned to Islamabad without bringing up the Kashmir issue and going through the motions of a meeting with the Hurriyat leadership. But again, Modi redrew the red line at the 11th hour despite earlier indications that the government would look the other way if Aziz met with the Hurriyat leadership after the NSA talks. As the date of the scheduled talks drew nearer, many in Modi’s own party reminded him of the red line. A former External Affairs Minister, Yashwant Sinha, who served under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was among the Bharatiya Janata Party’s leaders vociferously demanding that India call off the talks. He said that under no circumstances should a visiting Pakistani dignitary be allowed to meet with Kashmiri separatist groups. (When Vajpayee was Prime Minister during the first National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, he did not bother too much when former President Pervez Musharraf met with separatist leaders in New Delhi.)

House arrest

The main opposition party, the Congress, joined in the criticism. Ghulam Nabi Azad seemed to support Modi’s assertion that it was improper for visiting Pakistani leaders to meet with separatists on Indian territory. Hurriyat leaders who were planning to come to New Delhi to meet Aziz were briefly put under house arrest in Srinagar. The Indian government could have anyway prevented them from boarding a plane to New Delhi. Hurriyat leader Shabbir Shah was put under house arrest in a Delhi guest house. The message was clear: Hurriyat leaders would not be allowed to meet with Aziz in New Delhi. Aziz told the media in Pakistan that the Government of India had introduced new conditions that did not figure in the Ufa Declaration, including the “advice” that Pakistani representatives should not meet Hurriyat leaders, “thus assuming the right to determine the guest list for the High Commissioner’s reception”.

Then, as it became clear that the talks were a non-starter, the Indian government further hardened its stance by stating that only terrorism-related issues would be on the agenda of the NSA talks. “The Pakistani NSA is welcome if they don’t expand the talks beyond terror and if they don’t involve a third party. The Hurriyat cannot be made a stakeholder,” External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said in a statement. She went on to add that “some forces” in Pakistan, alluding to the military establishment, did not want “the talks to go ahead”. She said that India was willing to discuss all outstanding issues, including Kashmir, “but only when violence and terrorism end”. It was after Sushma Swaraj’s statement that Pakistan formally withdrew from the NSA talks. There were indications that Aziz was willing to make the trip even if he was prevented from meeting with the Hurriyat leadership, but the Indian government’s insistence that it would under no circumstances deviate from the terror agenda sounded the death knell for the talks.

The Pakistani Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that the “proposed talks would not serve any purpose” and that talks “cannot be held on the basis of preconditions set by India”. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs rejected this assertion and stated that it was Pakistan that had failed to “respect the spirit” of the Ufa agreement. The Pakistani side has since toughened its rhetoric. A few days after the cancellation of the NSA-level talks, Sharif said: “Kashmiri leaders are not the third party but an important party to the issue. Any decision on their future cannot be [taken] without consulting them or seeking their opinion.” Aziz told Dawn, the newspaper, that “Modi’s India acts like it is a superpower. We are a nuclear power and we know how to defend ourselves.”

Foreign policy from PMO

Since Modi took office, the country’s foreign policy has mainly been conducted from the PMO. It is no secret that the mandarins of South Block are unhappy with this. The charge of the opposition parties that the NSA meeting was set up in haste without adequate groundwork has found resonance in South Block. The Prime Ministers’ meeting in Ufa apparently happened without much planning.

Modi’s remarks in Bangladesh during his recent visit there highlighting India’s role in its liberation did not go down well in Pakistan. Modi made veiled references to Pakistan’s hand in terrorism during his visit to the United Arab Emirates. The Pakistani establishment is of the view that Modi timed his visit there after a rift erupted between the UAE and Pakistan over the war in Yemen. Pakistan had refused to join the Gulf countries in the war. The UAE and Saudi Arabia have long been considered Pakistan’s close political and military allies. Only the Saudis and the UAE, along with Pakistan, had recognised the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

Both sides have issued statements saying that they want the dialogue process to be revived. “There are no full stops in diplomacy,” Sushma Swaraj said, repeating an old cliche. Aziz said that he would be willing to visit Delhi “without preconditions”. The Director-level talks between India’s Border Security Force and Pakistan’s Rangers are to be held on schedule in the second week of September. After that the Directors General of Military Operations of both Armies will meet.

Villages on both sides of the border are bearing the brunt of the firing along the LoC that is happening on a daily basis. The terror attack from across the border in Punjab and the capture of an alleged Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) militant in the Kashmir valley may be portents. The appeal of the Islamic State (I.S.) has already spread beyond Afghanistan. The Pakistani Taliban has more or less aligned itself with the I.S.

If India and Pakistan do not meaningfully cooperate in combating terrorism, the entire subcontinent could be caught up in a vortex of sectarian and religious violence. Many countries in the region are worried that India and Pakistan instead of talking seriously on jointly combating terror are exchanging weighty dossiers about each others’ complicity in fomenting violence. The dossiers India was supposed to hand over to Aziz contained evidence of, among other things, anti-India terror training camps belonging to the LeT, Hizbul Mujahideen and the Jaish-e-Mohammad. The Indian side has claimed that it has proof of Dawood Ibrahim’s presence in Karachi under the patronage of the Pakistani security services. Pakistan was ready with dossiers claiming that it has proof of India’s involvement in the unrest and violence in Balochistan and Karachi.

As things stand today, it is Pakistan that is facing a bigger threat from terrorism. In a way, it is a case of “the chickens coming home to roost” for the Pakistani security establishment. The terror groups Pakistan had earlier funded and trained, many with the support of the U.S., have now morphed into lethal killing machines that have turned their guns on their erstwhile paymasters. The Home Minister of Pakistan’s Punjab province, Shuja Khanzada, is among the latest high-profile casualties. The South Asian chapter of the I.S., known as the ISIL Khorasan, has announced a military alliance with the Pakistani Taliban and other insurgent groups. Khorasan is a historical term used by militants to describe a region that includes Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India.

The region and the international community want India and Pakistan to restore the stalled dialogue process. This is all the more urgent as the situation in Afghanistan is getting more unpredictable. Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif was in India in the third week of August. He said that the I.S. posed a serious threat to the region. Peace on the subcontinent will help India and Pakistan, both energy-deficient countries, access oil and gas from Iran and Turkmenistan. Work on the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline is already under way.

U.S. reaction

The Barack Obama administration expressed its disappointment at the collapse of the NSA-level talks. The United States State Department spokesperson said: “The tensions in the region are significant. We recognise that, and we believe it is important for leaders of both countries to resume this dialogue [process] and to try to come to some resolution.” The U.S. wants an orderly pull out of its troops from Afghanistan and needs the help of the Pakistan Army to ensure this. A resurgent Taliban is making life more difficult for the U.S. The Obama administration recently faulted the Pakistani government for its lack of progress in the fight against the Haqqani faction of the Afghan Taliban in northern Waziristan. There are reports that the U.S. is withholding military aid disbursement to Pakistan on account of this failure. If the reports are true, it could damage Pakistan’s claims that it takes action against all terrorist groups. It also gives credence to Afghan and Indian claims that Pakistan provides militants a safe haven.

To signal the U.S.’ growing closeness to India, a hotline has been established between the White House and the PMO.

Pakistan is looking for new friends. It has started buying military helicopters and other sophisticated weaponry from Russia. China continues to be the country’s main military supplier.