Updated: March 18, 2015 12:00:33 am
India called off former Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh’s visit to Islamabad last August as it was no longer willing for Pakistan to project the Hurriyat as a “party” in the bilateral dialogue. The implication: Pakistan should not consult Hurriyat leaders before bilateral engagements or brief them afterwards. Pakistani officials did not meet Hurriyat leaders before Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar’s visit to Islamabad earlier this month. However, Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit called on Syed Ali Shah Geelani in Delhi a few days after Jaishankar’s trip and apparently briefed him on the discussions in Islamabad. It is obvious that Basit wanted to project the impression that his country’s approach to the Hurriyat had not changed.
Previous Indian governments had adopted a laissez faire attitude to Pakistan’s continuing Hurriyat provocation, which was against all international conventions on official inter-state interaction — states do not publicly engage with separatists before a dialogue. Besides, the Simla Agreement mandates that all India-Pakistan issues be resolved bilaterally. There is simply no place for a reference to the “will of the Kashmiri people”. It is to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s credit that he stood up against this. But now that Pakistan has crossed the red line again, what will he do? If this provocation is allowed to pass, Pakistani generals, who actually control the country’s India policy, will get the impression that Modi is a paper tiger, no different from the UPA leadership. On the other hand, if he adopts a firm position, he puts at risk the process begun with Jaishankar’s trip to Pakistan.
After the cancellation of Sujatha Singh’s visit, Pakistan had said that since India had called off the talks, it was for New Delhi to take steps to resume them. Modi called up Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in February to inform him of Jaishankar’s Saarc yatra. Pakistan naturally considered this as vindication of its stand — though it was careful not to rub it in. At the same time, through the visit of its army chief, General Raheel Sharif, to the border areas on the eve of Jaishankar’s trip, it sought to project that it would stand up to any Indian action along the International Border and the Line of Control. Raheel Sharif said, “let there be no doubt that any provocation along the LoC and the Working Boundary will meet a befitting response”.
On his trip, Jaishankar met the diplomatic and political leadership of Pakistan, including Nawaz Sharif. The Pakistani media emphasised that the two countries should continue their engagement. This is in keeping with Pakistan’s position on the need for uninterrupted dialogue even if there are grave cross-border terrorist incidents in India.
In view of the realities of Pakistan, should visiting Indian foreign secretaries take the initiative to seek a meeting with the Pakistan army chief? This would obviously be a departure from the present practice. It is also possible that the Pakistani political class may interpret this as Delhi’s lack of confidence in it. However, after it acquiesced to Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani visiting General Headquarters in Rawalpindi, it cannot credibly deny such a request. The Pakistan army chief may be unwilling to meet, but that should not stop India from trying. The fact is that a way has to be found to make the Pakistan army an interlocutor in order to better assess Pakistani approaches and attitudes.
The atmospherics of the visit were good. Pakistani spokespersons avoided abrasive comments — though they reiterated Pakistan’s position on various issues. Predictably, they stressed on the centrality of the Jammu and Kashmir issue and the need to resolve it as well as other outstanding problems, such as Siachen and Sir Creek. They also raised the question of so-called Indian interference in Balochistan. What was new — and significant — was that they formally raised the issue of Indian involvement in the troubled tribal region of FATA, where the Pakistan army is locked in a struggle with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. Pakistani leaders have publicly made such claims for a while, but this is the first time that it was put on the table.
Pakistan’s national security advisor, Sartaj Aziz, said that no breakthrough was achieved during the visit. Clearly, Pakistan wants to resume the composite dialogue without any modifications. Jaishankar did not give any indication of whether this would happen. Modi will now have to decide if the dialogue is to be resumed and if so, what its structure would be. The present indication is that, despite the risks, he does not want to shut the door on the process of engagement and talks.
Pakistan has never given importance to the establishment of cooperative relations with India. It is unlikely to change this approach. Although its economy will gain immensely, it is refusing to move effectively on trade liberalisation. It has remained focused on divisive issues and has a special interest in the withdrawal of Indian forces from Siachen. But no Indian government will accept Indian soldiers leaving their positions in the region, particularly with the Chinese active in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. It is, therefore, necessary to drop Siachen from the dialogue process altogether and restructure it with greater emphasis on issues that are directly relevant to the lives of the two peoples.
The writer is a retired diplomat.
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