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Dialogue of the deaf

Within a few days after China’s unilateral cease-fire in the 1962 War,the United States and Britain had “arm-twisted” Jawaharlal...

Written by Inder Malhotra |
January 22, 2010 2:40:12 am

Within a few days after China’s unilateral cease-fire in the 1962 War,the United States and Britain had “arm-twisted” Jawaharlal Nehru to agree to negotiate with Pakistan for a settlement of the Kashmir question. There were repeated hitches,of course. For instance,Nehru and his officials insisted that the bilateral discussions could not be confined to Kashmir but must cover “all related problems”. The Pakistanis objected to this. However,Duncan Sandys,Britain’s secretary for Commonwealth shuttled between New Delhi and Rawalpindi (then capital of Pakistan while Islamabad was under construction) and hectored the two sides to agree to the terms of discourse.

The first round of what were to turn into a tedious,often frustrating,and eventually fruitless talks — these were not always bereft of humour and courtesy,however — between Swaran Singh and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto began as early as December 27,1962 at Rawalpindi,the Indian delegation having reached there the previous evening. It was a minor miracle that these talks did not break down even before they had begun. For,as the Indian delegation sat down to a sumptuous dinner at a government guesthouse where it was lodged (there were no hotels worth the name in the garrison town then),Radio Pakistan announced that Pakistan and China had reached an agreement “in principle” to settle their boundary,as part of which Pakistan had given a part of Kashmir to China.

There was an instant outburst of anger around the dinner table. All Indian delegates knew that their temporary abode was bugged but they thought that rulers of Pakistan should “better learn first hand” how strongly offended the Indian side felt. There was a virtual chorus that the delegation should return home early next morning. But the cool and imperturbable Swaran Singh,together with Commonwealth Secretary Gundevia and G. Parathasarthi,high commissioner to Pakistan,decided to keep the talks going even though neither Bhutto nor President Ayub,on whom the leader of the Indian delegation had called,had said a word about the agreement with China.

Nothing would be more foolhardy on my part than to attempt summarising the bilateral talks that,as I have said before,were often like the playing of two cracked gramophone records with needles stuck in both. To give even the briefest indication of the highlights of the talkathon in different cities would also need at least two articles.

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At Rawalpindi,the plenary session between the two countries had hardly begun when it was ended. In an obviously pre-planned plot,Bhutto interrupted Swaran Singh’s speech reproving Pakistan for signing away Kashmir’s territory and waved a piece of paper to announce that President Ayub wanted to see the Indian minister immediately. The Field-Marshal most courteously assured “Sardar Saheb” that the press release on the agreement with China was no affront,and the “mistiming” of the announcement was inadvertent. Thereafter,there was no plenary session. The two ministers had a long talk by themselves while their officials sparred separately. This was to become the pattern for all subsequent rounds.

After three “freezing and provocative” days,the Indian team returned to Delhi where the second round of talks was scheduled for mid-January. It was at Rashtrapati Bhavan that Bhutto was put up,and the talks also took place there — minister to minister and officials to officials. As at Rawalpindi,so in New Delhi there was no meeting ground. Consequently,there is nothing much to report except for a lively diversion when an Indian delegate — B. L. Sharma who had obviously mastered hundreds of files — was reading,to controvert the Pakistani delegation’s claim that the Kashmir cease-fire line was not defensible,a “top secret” Pakistani document,penned by the British commander-in-chief of the Pakistani Army during the first Kashmir War 1947-48. Astounded and angry,Pakistani foreign secretary Dehlavi demanded how had India laid its hand on “our classified papers”.

“Very simple”,replied Sharma,“senior British officers on the two sides…were honest enough to exchange their reports mutually…and this happens to be one of the listed documents in our archives”.

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Before the talks began,India had decided to seek a settlement of the Kashmir issue by ceding to Pakistan a part of the Kashmir valley by modifying the cease-fire line to Pakistan’s advantage all along. The only question was whether the maximum concessions India could offer would meet the minimum aspirations of Pakistan. The Pakistani side knew this well before Swaran Singh mentioned it to Bhutto because the US and the UK,through their ambassadors in both countries,to say nothing of the ineluctable Sandys and other Anglo-American stalwarts constantly descending on the subcontinent,were keeping their protégés in Rawalpindi informed. Sometimes they floated strange proposals of their own,more often than not to favour Pakistan. With this country their argument was that as long as India and Pakistan were perceived to be engaged in solving their disputes,it would be easier to get Congressional approval for military aid to India.

Before leaving Delhi Bhutto wanted “principles” for “dividing” Kashmir to be settled. He and his delegation wanted that territorial division should take into account the “composition of the population of the state”,the control of the rivers,requirements of defence and other “relevant considerations” for the determination of an international boundary “acceptable to the people of the state”. The Indian side urged that any “territorial readjustments” should be on a rational basis,taking into account geographical,administrative and other considerations and causing the least possible disturbance to the life and welfare of the people. The gap between the two positions could not have been wider. Yet,mercifully,the two delegations agreed that the final settlement,when reached,should embody some sort of a declaration that the two countries wanted to live in “peace and friendship forever”.

For the rest,the only thing the two delegations could do was the resort to the diplomatic subterfuge of announcing that the “frank and cordial” second round of India-Pakistan talks was over,and the third one would take place in Karachi in the first fortnight of February.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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First published on: 22-01-2010 at 02:40:12 am
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