Abdul Basit interview: ‘Not at each other, let us talk to each other,’ he says

Pakistan’s High Commissioner in India calls for serious sustained diplomacy between the two countries in this interview.

Written by Rakesh Sinha , Shubhajit Roy | Updated: October 7, 2016 1:08 pm
india pakistan, india pakistan border, indo pak, indo pak border, Abdul Basit, uri attack, surgical strikes, saarc, pakistan terroris, india terrorism, india news, indian express Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit at his office in New Delhi Monday. (Source: Express photo by Renuka Puri)

Why is Pakistan denying India’s surgical strikes?

Jammu and Kashmir continues to be the core dispute between the two countries and we strongly believe that these… can only be resolved through serious and sustained diplomacy. From UN resolutions to our joint statement, which our two countries have issued in Islamabad on December 10 last year. Jammu and Kashmir remains the core issue, and both countries recognise that this dispute needs to be resolved, and I think you may also appreciate that both our countries have fought three wars because of this dispute, in 1948, 1965, 71 and the Kargil conflict, and all these wars/ conflicts preceded the Samjhauta Express blast, the Mumbai attack, and so on and so forth. So, from our viewpoint both countries must bring diplomacy to centrestage. Now, coming to your question, I think three things have happened. You ask me as to why Pakistan is denying… Firstly, this is for the first time that India has publicly acknowledged to have breached the 2003 ceasefire understanding, so this is quite significant. Secondly, what I see is the commonly acceptable definition of surgical strike has been modulated unilaterally by India… which also means cross-LoC firing… Why I am saying this… the official statement issued by India, your DGMO, very clearly suggests that the action took place along the Line of Control, not across… Now, as far as Pakistan is concerned, we haven’t seen any activity on September 29, other than usual cross-LoC firing… and you know what our stance is, we have also taken both Pakistani and foreign journalists to the locations… There is no sign of any activity in those areas, other than the cross-LoC firing in which two Pakistani soldiers have been martyred.

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Denying the strikes, experts say, is a smart move by Pakistan so that the situation is not allowed to escalate…

I don’t think so, because I can assure you that, God forbid, if any action takes place, that will be retaliated immediately…We are confident that our deterrence is working… It is important to avoid drawing wrong conclusions and raising false expectations, because it is not in our mutual interest to push ourselves to the precipice…

Last night’s Baramulla strike…was that part of retaliation?

Not at all…[A] surgical strike… did not take place at all. So Baramulla, or before that Uri, and before that so many other things happening in Kashmir clearly tell us that the J&K dispute needs to be resolved, cannot be brushed under the carpet… in accordance with the aspirations of people of J&K… That continues to be our position.

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How do you explain the attacks in Uri and Baramulla?

It is for your government to tell this… not for me to jump the gun… But what bothers us is whenever attacks occur in India, immediately fingers are pointed at Pakistan. We saw that post-Uri, followed during the attack and we are seeing in Baramulla, so my sincere advice to Indian friends and people that this is very very unhelpful. You know the problems in J&K, you know what is happening since July 8.

Are you linking the attacks to the protests in Kashmir?

No, I am not saying anything, because it is for you to determine, for you to find out what your investigations tell you. And since you haven’t shared your findings with us, as to what happened, indeed happened there, so it is not for me to comment on the Uri attack.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in his UNGA speech, referred to Burhan Wani knowing very well how it would be received in India. Do you think it derailed almost a decade of work?

I don’t think so. If hundreds and thousands of people come out on the streets to attend Burhan Wani’s funeral… It is important not to be in denial mode. What is happening clearly shows as to what exactly people of J&K are thinking, what do they want. So as I said earlier, both our countries need to give diplomacy centre-stage and rather than talking at each other, it is important to talk to each other and that appears the best possible way forward.

So, what are the three things that you think will take it forward?

It is not a matter of one or two or three things, frankly speaking. We need to have, I said earlier, serious and sustained diplomacy. And result-oriented engagement. And I can tell you that in Pakistan, we do not see dialogue as a favour by one country to another country, dialogue is in our mutual interest. If India is ready, Pakistan will be willing, if India is not ready then we can always wait for India to make up its mind. At the end of the day, I would say both our countries need to work for peace and prosperity, as the Indian PM very rightly said in his address in Kerala, we need to fight against poverty. If we were to fight against poverty, I think we need to work together.

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How do you justify statements by your own defence minister when he threatens the use of nuclear weapons?

Such statements we have seen here in India also. Both our countries understand war is not really a solution to our problems
and there is simply no room for a conflict in a nuclear environment… It is important to avoid raising false expectations, as happened after the cross-LoC firing [which India calls a surgical strike] on September 29. We cannot afford to go down that route. Statements are made, but I think both countries do understand serious implications of escalating the situation either horizontally or vertically.

Would the return of the Indian soldier in Pakistan’s custody be helpful?

I do not know if we have made any arrest… I think this was raised by your DGMO with our DGMO this morning, but so far at least I do not know if a soldier has been arrested by Pakistan.

Are you saying that he’s not in your custody?

Not to my knowledge.

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Post-Pathankot, there was much more cooperation seen from both sides at the highest level… There was unprecedented access to your investigators to the Indian Air Force base, but post-Uri, it is denial, even to the extent of saying it is a false flag operation. Why is this?

Because, if you immediately start saying that Pakistan is a terrorist state, or done by Pakistan, you do not leave any room for cooperation, so that’s why I said it is important for our two countries, and especially, you know when anything happens in India, Pakistan is immediately blamed for it. So obviously, while the attack was under way, you started airing accusations from the Indian side, which was very unfortunate. If you vitiate the atmosphere right at the outset, obviously you do not leave any room for subsequent cooperation.

India believes Pakistan did not respond adequately enough even after India allowed them to the Pathankot base… Earlier, Mr Modi travelled to Lahore.

Optics are important, especially in Pakistan and India context, but you cannot rest your entire engagement on optics, optics should lead to substance… Our PM came here to attend [Modi’s] oath-taking ceremony, all these were optics, useful optics I would say. Those optics did help to break the ice, provided us space to move forward, but then unfortunately in the last two-and-a-half years, we haven’t been able to engage in a substantive dialogue process.

Is the back channel functioning, are the NSAs talking again?

I am not aware of such contacts… no, there is no back-channel.

Has Pakistan discussed the escalation with China?

We are in touch with all major powers, key countries, through diplomatic channels, I would not rule out our engagement, contacts, with other countries… to brief them about what is happening on the ground.

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There is disappointment here, especially on the veto of Masood Azhar. How does it help in a situation like this?

We need to move beyond the usual whining and whinging. Masood Azhar, if there is any solid evidence against him, he would have been on the list by now. I think China is always very correct on these matters, so I do not see any problem. If India does have any evidence then they should share [it] with us and China. Things can be taken forward, but simply on the basis of allegations, you cannot achieve results.

Do you share the pessimism on both sides about the relationship?
No, I can never be pessimistic, as a diplomat I am always optimistic about things. From our perspective, J&K remains the core dispute, I am not suggesting that other issues are not important, we have arrested as you know Kulbhushan Yadav. We have serious concerns and we would like these issues also be addressed, I am sure if we gave diplomacy a chance, things can be taken care of.

Have you reached out to political parties here in the current situation?

I am in touch with politicians of all hues.

Post surgical strikes?

I have been in touch with… that is my job.

From the BJP?

All, of all…

What is the initial response?

You know, politicians, whether they are [of] Pakistan or India, they all want a good relationship… Pakistan policy should not be driven by domestic political compulsion. When that happens, you see too many ups and downs, so we need also to get out of this.

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The SAARC summit stands postponed. It wasn’t just India, four more countries joined the boycott. Do you see this as an unprecedented isolation of Pakistan?

First of all, this is not the first time a SAARC summit has been postponed, I can give you many examples… You know Pakistan is
too big a country to be isolated, so we are not worried about that, and I am sure good sense will prevail and [we] will host the 19th SAARC summit at an appropriate time. So we are also positive that it has been postponed, but Pakistan will be able to host it… if not this year, hopefully next year.

Pakistan loses out more because India is already engaging with other neighbours…

We also engage with number of countries through different channels…We also engage with ASEAN, we have China… Pakistan’s strategic location is such that one likes it or not, Pakistan is destined to become a regional economic hub in times to come. We are the natural bridge between Central and South Asia. Now with CPEC, Pakistan will automatically become the centre of economic activity.

Do you feel that the situation could slide further? If these attacks were to continue…

I do not know but there are huge stakes involved for both Pakistan and India, and there is no reason for us to be thinking along these terms. We should be positive… we need to have serious and sustained diplomacy. If that is allowed to happen then perhaps things may improve, but the problem is still there, the J&K problem is still there, as I said, that needs to be resolved… I do not know how long you can deny that, deny this right to the people of J&K.

So, what can Pakistan do at this time in reaching out to India?

Reaching out, I am sitting here.

When you mention serious sustained diplomacy, what is the first step?

First step is to talk to each other, break the ice.

And you think that needs to be done immediately?

Let’s hope, how it is done I do not know, let us not discuss it now, in my view. We will find a way out, how to go about it.

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Are there any any plans for you to set up a call between the two principals, the two prime ministers, the NSAs?

It has to be done step by step, it is an incremental process, let’s see how we get out.

Why doesn’t Pakistan accord MFN [most favoured nation] status to India?

Whenever we have talks in place, that will be one of the areas that will be discussed because Pakistan would like to have a level playing field. There are issues… the balance of trade continues to be in your favour… Pakistan is not averse to giving that status to India, but that has to be done rationally and fairly so that Pakistan’s economic interests are not hurt.

Prime Minister Modi, in his Kozhikode speech, said India exports software and Pakistan exports terror, and that people of Pakistan should seek answers from their leadership. What do you think?

It won’t be appropriate for me to comment on what Prime Minister Modi sahab said. But I can tell you Pakistan has one of the leading software export industries, our software exports are increasing by the day and we are very proud of the youth of Pakistan… We do have problems… but most of our problems stem from our regional environment… the rest of the world, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, left Pakistan high and dry to do the heavy lifting, left Pakistan to fight the terrible legacy of the long conflict in Afghanistan… In 9/11, not a single Pakistani was involved in that horrendous terror act, yet Pakistan faced the brunt… We have lost close to 70,000 of our people, including more than 5,000 security personnel, in the war against terrorism… Pakistan is on its way to eliminate this scourge. And we are confident we will succeed.

Has this been the most testing time of your 30 months here?

These are difficult times… But I am always hopeful. There is no room for the two countries to keep in this phase indefinitely, they will have to come out of this. Then the question will be how do we ensure we are on a trajectory which will take us forward, and that will be a challenge — for diplomats, for politicians, for the leadership, on both sides of the border.

Interview transcribed by Asad Rehman.