Pakistan high commissioner to India Abdul Basit returns home after an eventful tenure during which the relationship reached some highs, topped by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Lahore on his then counterpart Nawaz Sharif’s birthday on December 25, 2015, and some abysmal lows led by the Pathankot and Uri attacks.
After Sharif recently ordered that Basit be superseded to the Foreign Secretary’s post, in favour of an officer several years his junior, Basit took early retirement from. But less than a week before he was to leave New Delhi, Nawaz Sharif was himself disqualified.
Excerpts from an interview with Jyoti Malhotra.
What do you make of Sharif’s disqualification?
Due process was followed. The National Assembly will be meeting (Tuesday) to elect an interim prime minister. Some people calling this a judicial coup… I would not like to comment. Due process was pursued, followed. As a result of this we have a new prime minister. Some are saying that the Army did not want Sharif because of its old antagonisms with him… This not only passé, but has no basis. It was a judicial process so whatever the judgement given by the Supreme Court, we should accept that. Imran Khan also has a case in the Supreme Court. Do you think he may also be charged similarly? I would not like to jump the gun. Let the law take its course.
Is this a deepening of democracy in Pakistan?
I think so. I am confident that democracy is indeed taking root. The way our civil society, media judiciary etc have been behaving, we have very high hopes that, inshallah, things getting better in the years ahead.
Where does that lead the India-Pakistan relationship. You have said often that dialogue must go on
Yes, governments come and go..
.and High Commissioners come and go..
Yes.we are talking about two states. Both Pakistan and India need to see how they can put a dialogue process in place which should be uninterrupted and uninterruptible. We hope in some opportune time this will happen. We do have a dialogue mechanism in place which was agreed in December 2015 when External Affairs minister Sushma Swaraj visited Pakistan.
…the bilateral dialogue was called off after 18 soldiers were killed in the Uri attack. How do you expect there to be a dialogue after that?
…about 10 days after the Pathankot attacks in the first week of January 2016, the Indian Foreign Secretary was scheduled to visit Pakistan on January 15. But after Pathankot, we realized that this was too soon. Still, both sides maintained a spirit of cooperation to get to the bottom of the Pathankot incident. We could understand that the Indian side would have delayed this by a fortnight or a month, but delaying it indefinitely was not acceptable to Pakistan.
Terror attacks have been going on since the Mumbai attacks nine years ago and Pakistan has not done very much against the masterminds of those attacks.
You have to understand that trials are very complex things. In the Mumbai case, the crime scene was in India, the trial was taking place in Pakistan. In order to complete the trial, take it to its logical conclusion, both countries need to cooperate sincerely. Samjhauta attacks took place in 2008, but we still do not have closure. To say that Pakistan is not interested in concluding the Mumbai trial after nine years is not fair. I will give you an example. Last year, our foreign secretary wrote to his Indian counterpart for information in the Mumbai attacks.
What kind of information did he want?
It was about some kind of equipment used, deposition made in the court, one or two other things. But your side took one year to respond to that letter. They did propose a few things, which we are working on. But if you think Pakistan should be concluding this trial on its own, that won’t happen. We need active Indian cooperation to move forward. And we should not prejudge the outcome of the trial. It is for the court to decide on merit.
The India-Pakistan relationship has been littered with terror attacks, whether in Pathankot or Uri, but in the middle of all this, good things have also happened. Such as the visit of Modi…
Yes, good things have happened as well. The comprehensive dialogue mechanism in 2013, for example. But the problem continues to be, as the two countries decided in Sharm el-Sheikh in 2009, how to separate talks from terrorism.
You think we should continue to talk, including talking on terrorism?
Yes of course. Pakistan has never shied away from talking about terrorism. We are very concerned about that, and the conviction of Kulbhushan Jadhav shows that.
…two national security advisors, Ajit Doval and Nasser Khan Janjua, who met in 2015 in Bangkok, and now there are reports that they have met…
I believe they are in touch with each other. I do not know if they met, I cannot comment on that. Let us hope this will help both countries to come to the negotiating table and discuss all the issues that we have agreed in 2015. I believe they met recently in Moscow… I think you may like to ask your NSA to confirm or not.
But when they are in “touch”, what would be on the agenda? Jammu and Kashmir, terrorism, what?
We do not expect them to discuss Jammu and Kashmir as we have a separate stream on that as was decided in Ufa. We would expect the two FSs to meet as soon as possible to discuss all issues which are important and whose solutions are important to build new bridges of trust and cooperation. But without resolving the Jammu and Kashmir dispute, I do not see how the two countries can put their relations on a solid footing.
But the conversation between the two NSAs… what was that about?
It is not a structured dialogue – they meet informally as they did in Bangkok – but no structured dialogue as such. For that we need the two foreign secretaries to meet.
So you think that the old comprehensive dialogue in which both sides discussed both Kashmir as well as terrorism would work?
Yes we need a comprehensive approach, the document that we agreed upon is a most balanced document – covers J&K, terror, Siachen, everything.
…the SAARC summit that was supposed to take place last year but was cancelled. Is it expected to take place this year in Islamabad?
We are in touch with the SAARC secretariat in Kathmandu. Let us hope when all the members find it convenient to come to the SAARC summit, if not this year then perhaps next year. We are in July and August, these summits need preparation, my personal feeling is that it will be convened next year.
To return to Kulbhushan Jadhav. India has been asking for consular access to him for some time and you have not provided it.
We have not provided consular access to Jadhav because as you know we have a 2008 consular access agreement, whose paragraph 5 clearly says that matters related to security will be decided on merit. Now Commander Jadhav’s case is a sensitive one.
Why is it sensitive?
It is sensitive because he was involved in not only espionage but also subversion. His mother has requested that she would like to go to Pakistan, but you’re not giving her a visa. As you know the matter is sub judice at the International Court of Justice at India’s behest. So we will see what the outcome there at The Hague.
So until that is resolved at the ICJ, you won’t take a decision?
I am not saying that. We will see what is outcome at the Hague… since the matter is being considered at the ICJ. Will be more appropriate till ICJ takes a verdict.
But what about the humanitarian view.
His mercy petitions are still pending. There is no decision by the Army chief yet. If the Army chief rejects mercy petition, another chance to submit appeal to the president. The process is not over. We can talk about issuing a visa to his mother when the time comes.
Do you think Jadhav could be a subject of conversation between the two countries and that the case would depend on an improvement of relations between the two countries.
I do not think Jadhav can be a subject of conversation between two countries. He was tried and convicted on very serious charges so there is no space for conversation. India says he was kidnapped, lured into Pakistan.. What else would India say.
But he was kidnapped.
Not at all. He was arrested in Balochistan. There is no truth in these things. He was travelling under the fake name of Mubarak Hussein Patel. We found two passports in his possession. The evidence is so clear. He has been travelling to Pakistan, this was not the first time. He has been involved in serious terror activities, including funding. Since his arrest we have arrested so many foot-soldiers and operatives inside Pakistan.
How many have you arrested..
More than a hundred, the numbers are in hundreds. We have been able to bust many sleeper cells as well, on the basis of information provided by him. So it is not as simple as it looks. This is quite a serious case. He has been convicted and now his mercy petition is underway.
There is talk that a retired colonel of the ISI, who had apparently come to Lumbini on the India-Nepal border for a job interview, has disappeared..
That is correct. And we have sought India’s assistance on the matter.
What have you asked India to do?
To locate him. To locate his whereabouts.
But why India.
There are apprehensions that he may be in India’s custody, we do not know. So we thought we would approach India to ask if they know about the gentleman. These are apprehensions, there is no harm in asking India.
What are these apprehensions…?
That he may have strayed into Indian territory. We do not know the exact details.
And have the Indian authorities responded to your request?
No, not yet.
So is there any equivalence between the Jadhav case and Habib Zahir?
Not at all. He was seeking a job. You are mixing apples and oranges,
Are in touch with Nepal authorities?
Yes, but they are saying that they do not know.
…where do India and Pakistan take their relationship from here?
We have to make a fundamental decision, which is that no matter what happens the dialogue process should not discontinue or get disrupted. …I can tell you that we genuinely want relations to improve, to normalize. But you cannot put issues on the back-burner like Jammu &Kashmir, or terrorism.all these issues are important. We need to discuss these issues seriously. Second, we strongly feel that the situation in Jammu & Kashmir needs to be improved. Meanwhile, the CBMs that are in place must continue, as we have invested so much in them. Those should not be allowed to fall apart.
The External Affairs minister has said that medical treatment will require a letter from Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan’s foreign affairs advisor…
That was unfortunate. So now we are looking at sending those medical cases to Turkey and other places. As for the letter, it does not happen that way.
Were you upset by this?
Definitely. These things are not done. If the patients are paying for their treatment, if all their medical documents are in place, then why should India require a letter from the advisor’s office? This is simply incomprehensible.
One last question on Afghanistan. This seems to have become another contested area…
Afghanistan is a very important country for us. We would like our neighbours to stop interfering so that we can promote intra-Afghan reconciliation can take place, which should be left to themselves.
But the Afghans want to improve and enhance their relationship with India…
As a sovereign country, Afghanistan has the full right to have relations with all countries. But their bilateral relations should not be at the expense of a third country.
Should India and Pakistan talk about Afghanistan in a potential dialogue?
I do not know, I don’t think we have reached that stage yet.