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Wednesday, January 26, 2022

From Ufa to square one

How will the India-Pak stakeholders pick up the pieces now? Even back-channel talks will only work if the political leaderships of both countries are prepared to give clear direction

Written by Wajahat Habibullah |
Updated: August 25, 2015 12:00:13 am
NSA-level talks, Indian Minister for External Affairs, Sushma Sawaraj, India army, Pakistan army, terrorism, pakistan occupied Kashmir, Siachen and Sir Creek, india news, news Secretary-level talks in August last year had been called off because of India’s objection to the simultaneous engagement of Pakistan’s high commissioner with the Hurriyat leadership.

The dramatic events played up over the past week, in varying degrees by a media in overdrive, give a depressing sense of déjà vu. On this occasion, it seems only obvious to turn to what today looks like the heroic initiative of then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to reach out to Pakistan and bring to an end the hateful legacy of Partition. Although rudely rebuffed in its sincere outreach by the assault in Kargil, the Vajpayee government turned to establishing direct communication with the separatist leadership. R.K. Mishra, Vajpayee’s point man for back-channel communication with Niaz Naik, Pakistan’s former foreign secretary and special emissary of its then PM, who is also its present PM, Nawaz Sharif, focused on engaging the separatist leadership of Kashmir. I was part of that initiative and found that although there were amongst the separatist groups differing views on Pakistan’s role, everyone agreed that there could be no resolution independent of Pakistan, although the promise of resolution had seemed so tantalisingly close independently of Pakistan in the 1970s. The NDA initiative, no doubt erratic, concluded with the acceptance of the Hurriyat leadership’s visit to Pakistan and opening of their dialogue with the highest levels of the Indian government. And this dialogue continued with the successor UPA government so as to allow then PM Manmohan Singh to announce in his 2009 Independence Day speech that separatism in Kashmir was an issue all but dead. This comment was greeted with scepticism. But, in fact, the Hurriyat and the mainstream leadership of J&K were at the time actively involved in discussing degrees of autonomy for J&K within the Indian Union. General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan had also produced his four-point formula, which in essence conceded this very principle.

Today then, with the fading relevance of the Hurriyat and Pakistan itself reeling under terror, the situation is once again rife with opportunity for resolution. But the touchstone for normalisation must indeed lie in defeating terrorism. Skirted around in earlier discussions, Ufa sought to confront the issue head-on with the proposed meeting between security advisors, a bold step by both PMs. Hence, the results of the now-aborted NSA-level talks could have been the essential element in determining a roadmap for the future of both countries. It goes without saying that there can be no productive talks in the shadow of terror.

The failure to engage is a failure on all fronts. Secretary-level talks in August last year had been called off because of India’s objection to the simultaneous engagement of Pakistan’s high commissioner with the Hurriyat leadership. Surely, in arranging for the NSA-level talks, such a glitch should have been foreseen and accounted for. Yet, the government’s position on the issue remained obscure almost to the time of the external affairs minister’s last-minute ultimatum.

On the other hand, the larger Kashmir issue was not on the agenda for discussion. Why did Pakistan have to make a social meeting with the Hurriyat leadership so compelling a need as to sabotage the talks? And why should the separatists, who support the dialogue as they have repeatedly proclaimed, simply not agree, in light of the Indian objections, to talk to the Pakistani leadership another day? This tendency to show off has in turn led to their marginalisation in the minds of Kashmiri youth.

For those who doubt the very efficacy of such dialogue, let us recall that in November 2003, India and Pakistan agreed to observe ceasefire all along the 740-km Line of Control. This was the first major confidence-building measure (CBM) that restored a sense of security to the communities living along both sides of the LoC, the most deeply impacted citizens of both countries by the conflict, and set off a fitful India-Pakistan peace process in February 2004. A limited number of military and political CBMs were put in place to defuse tension arising from ceasefire violations.

There has, without doubt, been a steady increase in the number of ceasefire violations since 2008, both according to Pakistani official sources and Indian. A series of skirmishes in January and February 2013 led to the killing of four Pakistani and two Indian soldiers, with the brutal beheading of an Indian soldier in the Krishna Ghati sector of Poonch. And the cause? According to the Pakistani media, the confrontation was precipitated by Reshma, a 70-year-old grandmother from Charonda village near Uri, on the Indian side of the LoC, crossing into the Pakistani side in September 2012 to be with her sons and grandchildren.

In response to stern warnings from India’s PM as well as defence and home ministers, Pakistan’s interior minister even warned that New Delhi should realise that Pakistan was a nuclear power. But despite this rhetoric, the ceasefire had restored a welcome sense of security in the villages along the LoC in India and Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. An example is a recent field survey in Neelam, a lush green valley in PoK through which flows the Kishanganga. Rich in flora and fauna, the valley had suffered heavy environmental damage during the preceding period. The survey revealed that 89.2 per cent of the people felt very secure after the 2003 ceasefire, while 10.8 per cent observed that they feel fairly secure. Most migrants had returned to their homes, which they were rebuilding.

It had been hoped, with good reason, that with India and Pakistan addressing the issue of terror at the highest level of national security advisor, citizens of both countries, even those worst hit, could look forward to a future of relative calm. To this was added weight by the fact that both advisors are consummate experts with a full grasp on political ramifications. But after the present imbroglio, are we back to square one? How will the stakeholders pick up the pieces? The activation of back channels has been suggested. But these will be fruitful only if the political leaderships of both countries, as indeed that of J&K, are prepared to give clear direction. This can come only from clarity of thought, a feature missing in the build-up to the present debacle.

Habibullah, a former chief information commissioner and chairperson, National Commission for Minorities, is author of
‘My Kashmir: The Dying of the Light’

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