After intense and often hysterical debate over the last few days, the utterly pointless controversy surrounding the meeting between Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Saeed and senior Indian journalist Ved Pratap Vaidik shows no signs of abating.
The Congress party has accused the Narendra Modi government of using Vaidik as an emissary for establishing back-channel contacts with the LeT chief, a charge External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj rejected in Parliament on Tuesday. Senior Congress leaders have demanded that Vaidik be arrested and interrogated for meeting Saeed and that his passport be impounded, as has at least one junior BJP leader, Subramanian Swamy.
Some BJP spokespersons and hypernationalist TV channels have also sought to link Vaidik’s meeting to a Track-II conference held in Islamabad by the Regional Peace Institute on June 14 which brought together individuals from India and Pakistan to discuss the state of the bilateral relationship.
Vaidik was one of those who attended. So was I, alongside well-known public personalities, including senior Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar, who headed the Indian delegation, former External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, Ambassador N.N. Jha from the BJP’s foreign affairs department, and Sudheendra Kulkarni, a former adviser to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani.
Each participant took part in the conference in his or her individual capacity and not as the representative of any party or organisation, let alone government.
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After the event ended, we all dispersed. Vaidik had managed to get a three-week visa, so he stayed behind. What he chose to do during that time was his own business.
During the conference, Vaidik often advertised his proximity to the Sangh Parivar and Prime Minister Modi, about whom there is a lot of curiosity in Pakistan. I have no knowledge about the validity of his claims but it was perhaps for this reason that many Pakistani interlocutors — among and beyond the participants of the Track-II conference — sought him out and were eager to hear his views. Rightly or wrongly, they thought they would get an insight into Modi’s thinking.
At some stage during his stay in Pakistan, he chose to meet Hafiz Saeed. He says he met the LeT chief in his capacity as a journalist. One can question the wisdom of such a meeting but certainly not his right as a journalist to have done so.
By all accounts, Hafiz Saeed is not all that easy to meet. He is a prime asset of the ISI and is closely monitored by the agency. Vaidik’s movements would also have been tracked by the ISI.
So if the two men met, it is reasonable to conclude that people within the Pakistani intelligence establishment did not object to their meeting. One reason may be that they too were curious about why a man who has excellent contacts within the Sangh Parivar wanted to meet India’s Public Enemy No. 1.
It is worth noting that news of the meeting came not from the ISI or the LeT but from Vaidik himself. This suggests that the two organisations themselves did not seek to brag about the encounter. This may also mean they were not particularly enthused by it either.
The press note Vaidik prepared was odd, to say the least, because it “normalised” an individual who is considered a terrorist by Indians and many Pakistanis too and seemed devoid of intrinsic journalistic value. But again, the choice to meet Saeed and write about the meeting in this manner was Vaidik’s alone. Though he is a seasoned and respected journalist of long standing and must have had his reasons, most journalists would have approached the subject in a very different manner.
Vaidik’s proximity to Baba Ramdev — and the fact that he has actively campaigned for Modi during the past two years — allowed the Congress party to paint the meeting in political colours. In doing so, of course, the party has gone totally overboard.
Why on earth would the Modi government — or any Indian government — be interested in a back-channel approach to the LeT? If at all a back-channel is to be mounted with a view to ending the activities of the LeT, the approach would likely have been to the Pakistan army chief or ISI chief, who “handles” Saeed, and not to the LeT supremo himself.
Second, the whole logic of a back-channel rests on the contacts themselves staying out of public view. Anybody who knows Vaidik well enough to pick him for such an assignment would also know that he is not exactly given to secrecy.
Thanks to the Congress attack and BJP counter-attack, what began as an assault on the rights and dignity of Vaidik has morphed into an attack on the Track-II mechanism as a whole. Everyone knows by now that his meeting with Saeed was an event distinct from the conference that took him to Pakistan in the first place but attempts are being made to lay the blame for the fiasco on the Track-II process itself.
There has been, for example, a lot of ignorant chatter about two former chiefs of the Pakistani ISI being on the Regional Peace Institute’s board and participating in the Track-II conference. How dare participants from India sit in the same room as them, one TV anchor frothed.
The fact is that several retired intelligence chiefs and retired army generals from both Pakistan and India have regularly taken part in Track-II interactions over the past two decades.
Indeed, virtually every Track-II initiative tends to consist of a mixture of retired spooks, diplomats and military men, as well as politicians, journalists and academics. There have even been “Track I-and-a-half” events, such as the Oman South Asia Security Conference organised by the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies, which included serving intelligence officers from Pakistan and India.
These sorts of events are not always “junkets”, though some of them can turn into those. Track-II meetings often generate valuable ideas that the governments of India and Pakistan are able to pick up for implementation. The Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus is one such idea. The push for expanded trade is another. It would be a real tragedy if the controversy over Vaidik’s personal meeting with Saeed were allowed to derail a valuable and essential element in the fraught bilateral relationship between the two countries.
The writer is senior fellow, Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, Shiv Nadar University, Delhi