It was an eight-minute phone conversation between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistan counterpart Nawaz Sharif on June 16, before the start of Ramzan, which set the ball rolling for their meeting in the Russian city of Ufa on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit.
Sources told The Sunday Express that the idea of having an NSA-level dialogue mechanism was first suggested by Sharif in May 2014 when he had come for Modi’s swearing-in ceremony. While Pakistan suggested a more “top-down” approach in handling “crucial” issues, India preferred a “bottom-up” approach — and that’s why it was not pursued by South Block after Modi met Sharif on his first day in office.
But a year later, the Indian establishment felt a dialogue between the NSAs on “counter-terrorism” would be able to address New Delhi’s concerns on the issue in a “more effective” manner.
Also, sources said that keeping 26/11 attack accused Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi away from public gaze and on a tight leash, unlike Lashkar-e-Toiba founder Hafiz Saeed who keeps making provocative public statements against India, has been one of the key understandings reached between the two sides. This helped in smoothening matters between the two countries and holding a meeting of the two prime ministers.
The Sunday Express spoke to officials from both sides and a behind-the-scenes story emerged.
On June 16, Sharif was having a tough day in Parliament. During the budget debate, he had to also reply on the violent crime deaths in Karachi. Outside the House, Punjab’s farmers had poured gallons of milk on the Constitution Avenue, protesting against his government’s tax measures in the 2015-16 budget.
Around that time, Sharif was told that Modi wished to speak to him. That evening, the Indian Prime Minister called, wishing him ahead of the holy month ofRamzan.
As their eight-minute conversation drew to a close, Modi told him: “Aasha karta hoon ki hamaari jaldi bhet hogi (Hope we will meet soon).” Sharif replied, “Inshallah, zaroor mulaqat hogi” (God willing, we will surely meet).
They both knew they were going to be in Ufa for the SCO summit, and that would be an occasion to meet — their first face-to-face meeting after the SAARC summit in Kathmandu last November.
Sources said a few days later, Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar had a meeting with Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit to follow-up on the conversation between the prime ministers. Since Ramzan had started, Jaishankar’s office gave Basit the flexibility to choose the time — since the days were hot and the Pakistan envoy was fasting.
When they met in the third week of June, Basit came to South Block around 5 pm. They had a half-hour discussion on “how to take things forward”.
Since the NSA-level dialogue mechanism had been proposed a year ago, it was discussed between New Delhi and Islamabad at various levels over the next two weeks.
While Jaishankar kept his line of communication open with Basit, the Indian High Commissioner in Islamabad T C A Raghavan was in touch with Pakistan Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhary.
Basit was also in touch with NSA Ajit Doval and Raghavan kept his channels open with Pakistan NSA Sartaj Aziz.
While Pakistan wanted the NSA-level dialogue to take up “critical” issues “crucial” to the relationship, a suggestion was made if Kashmir could also be brought under the ambit. But the Indian side made it clear that the Indian NSA was best placed to discuss subjects like “counter-terrorism” — since all intelligence and security establishment report to him — and the Kashmir issue was being dealt by the foreign secretaries in the dialogue process.
“It was felt that if Pakistan needs to be engaged on counter-terrorism, NSA was the best person to lead the talks,” a government source said. So far, the home secretaries have spoken on counter-terrorism under the rubric of the composite dialogue process.
When it was settled that the NSAs will talk only on “counter-terrorism”, a protocol issue came up. That was of the disparity in rank of the two NSAs. While Sartaj Aziz — who is advisor to the PM on national security and foreign affairs — enjoys a cabinet minister’s rank, Doval is a secretary-rank official. In that sense, Aziz is both Pakistan’s Foreign Minister as well as its NSA, and therefore outranks Doval.
The Pakistan side, which was keen on the dialogue mechanism to be instituted, conveyed that they were willing to overlook this protocol issue, and the two NSAs could meet without glitches. They are now expected to meet in a month’s time.
Parallel to this conversation, the Indian side — through its intelligence agencies in Kashmir — learnt that Basit had invited Hurriyat leaders for an Iftar dinner on July 4, an annual feature where the Pakistan envoy invites notables from the Muslim community.
Since this could become an issue before a meeting between the two prime ministers, the Pakistan High Commission told the invitees, including the Hurriyat leaders, on June 25 that the Iftar has been “postponed” as there had been deaths in Karachi and it would not be proper to hold an Iftar party.
The Indian side moved in with a proposal for a meeting between the two prime ministers — Raghavan approached the Pakistan Foreign Ministry on July 3.
The Indian side conveyed that Lakhvi was a thorny issue, and the fact that he was “out on bail” made it difficult for the Indian political leadership to engage Pakistan. To assuage concerns, Islamabad told New Delhi that while he may be out of jail, Lakhvi has not been seen or heard in public.
Authenticating Pakistan’s claim, the Indian mission in Islamabad reported to New Delhi that Lakhvi had not made any TV or media or any public appearance, unlike Hafiz Saeed. This was one of the key understandings between the two sides, as both tried to create an atmosphere conducive to a possible meeting, leading to resumption of talks.
Since ceasefire violations had been plaguing ties, it was also felt that they should hold a meeting between the two DGMOs which had been pending for more than a year. They had last met in December 2013, and it was felt that they should have their first meeting after the Modi government came to power.
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