April 04, 2020
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Hurtling Forward Into The Past

Indo-Pak talks stall yet again. But pressure from the global community may force further dialogue

Hurtling Forward Into The Past

FROM day one there was this inescapable sense of deja vu. The process of dialogue looked doomed even before it started. And the two prime ministers, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif, did not help matters either. Instead of providing the required political push, they simply announced the resumption of bilateral dialogue, leaving it to their respective foreign secretaries to sort out the troublesome question of modalities. It was all back to square one. Or rather, back to June 23, 1997, when the eight subjects of concern to the two sides were identified in Islamabad.

But even the most seasoned observers of Indo-Pakistan diplomatic skirmishes were taken aback by what happened on the last day of the tenth SAARC summit on July 31.

Not because of the failure of the talks but because of the harsh words exchanged. With the diplomatic gloves off, the two nations descended to somewhat less than diplomatic terminology against each other.

The first salvo came from Pakistani officials. Announcing that the talks between the countries had broken down or "stalemated", Pakistani foreign office spokesman Tariq Altaf accused Vajpayee of "unilaterally" announcing that the two sides had agreed on the resumption of talks. He asserted that Sharif, in his statement on July 29, had only said "the two sides had agreed to continue the talks at the next available opportunity". This was unnecessary quibbling and an avoidable accusation against the prime minister of a neighbouring country. Especially when neither Sharif, who met newspersons after Vajpayee on July 29, nor any Pakistani official had bothered to challenge Vajpayee's assertion for two days.

Indian officials—who, unlike their Pakistani counterparts, had kept shut right through the negotiations, much to the annoyance of the media—had no choice but to shoot straight from the hip on this occasion. A normally taciturn Indian foreign secretary, K. Raghunath, minced no words in describing Islamabad's behaviour as "neurotic" for its "obsessive focus on a single issue or a one-point agenda", i.e. Kashmir.

Pakistan's delegation then issued a non-paper, copies of which were distributed to the press, proposing eight confidence building measures (CBMs) for reducing tensions in Jammu and Kashmir. A cheeky step considering the dialogue had completely broken down and the two foreign secretaries hadn't met since the night of July 29. They called for strengthening of the UN military observers group to patrol both sides of the LOC (India has not recognised the authority of this UN mission since the Shimla Agreement when the ceasefire line was turned into the LOC); release of Kashmiri detenues; removal of Indian army pickets in Srinagar and other Kashmiri towns and villages; phased reduction of Indian troops in the Valley; cessation of search/arrest operations; transmission of information about missing persons; stationing of the ICRC and UN human rights monitors in Kashmir and recognition of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference as legitimate Kashmiri representatives.

 Needless to say, Raghunath outright rejected these, reiterating the Indian stand that Kashmir was an integral part of India and New Delhi would brook no outside interference. But the real purpose of releasing this non-paper, and it was fulfilled, had more to do with the international media's presence in Colombo.

That is how the meetings between New Delhi and Islamabad ended in Colombo—failing to resolve the question of modalities of restarting the stalled bilateral dialogue. It was a predictable scenario.

Asked if the whole process in Colombo was an exercise in futility, Altaf said: "You can call it anything you want to, but no progress has taken place." This statement by the Pakistan foreign office spokesman came after Sharif told a local newspaper on July 30 that Vajpayee was not willing to focus on Kashmir prominently or mention Kashmir prominently in a joint communique. "If that is the position, what is the point in having these talks? Because Kashmir is the root cause of all conflict between India and Pakistan. We did not want to hold talks for the sake of talks".

Where do things go from here? Both Raghunath and Altaf announced that the two countries will be in touch with each other through diplomatic channels. Pakistani foreign minister Gohar Ayub Khan told Outlook that the two prime ministers are expected to meet on the sidelines of the NAM summit in South Africa at the end of August. There will be another opportunity when they both go to New York for the UN General Assembly in September. And again at the Commonwealth summit in South Africa in November. Raghunath was more guarded. Vajpayee would go to South Africa, he admitted, and participating heads of government and states normally meet on such occasions. Certainly a meeting merely between the foreign secretaries is unlikely to resolve this issue.

BOTH countries are under pressure from the international community to get the dialogue going. Neither wants to be seen to be backing out of this process. The Indian assessment is that it can hold out for the moment because the West, particularly the US, is concentrating more on nuclear non-proliferation issues. They do not see Islamabad succeeding in linking the signing of the CTBT to a solution of the Kashmir problem. New Delhi would have perhaps preferred to see the dialogue restarted before the Jaswant Singh-Strobe Talbott talks, the next round of which takes place in the last week of August. But they wouldn't get too stressed on that account. As for Pakistan, it has lived with pressures for a long time, except that it is presently saddled with an extremely fragile economy, making it that much more vulnerable.

The nub of the present impasse goes back to June 1997 when the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan identified eight "issues of concern" to be addressed by the two countries "in an integrated manner". These subjects were: peace and security, including CBMs; Jammu and Kashmir; Siachen; Wullar barrage project; Sir Creek; terrorism and drug trafficking; economic and commercial cooperation; and promotion of friendly exchanges in various fields. The foreign secretaries were left to determine the mechanism, including working groups, at appropriate levels. And it was decided that the first two of these issues would be discussed at the foreign secretary level. Since then, the foreign secretaries have met several times, and so have the prime ministers of the two countries. But a solution remains elusive. Kashmir is the cul de sac in the bilateral dialogue of the two countries. And it is going to be tough to find a way out anytime soon.

The nuclear tests of May have transformed and complicated the situation further. From a point where it wanted exclusive working groups and a more focused look at peace and security and Kashmir, Pakistan's position has evolved to demanding that the bilateral dialogue should first address only these two issues and take up the other issues later. The first time this stand was articulated by Pakistan was on June 11. India has flatly refused to entertain this.

Islamabad, Indian officials concede, has been emboldened into making this claim because of the greater international attention on Kashmir. As Gohar Ayub Khan told Outlook, Kashmir is the flashpoint and with both the countries being nuclear weapon powers, it can erupt anytime. "These issues must take priority," said another Pakistani official. "We have been telling the Indians that the situation has changed since May. Let us discuss these two issues. We can work out a timeframe for the discussion on the other six issues and take them up later." Concurs Gohar: "The other issues can be taken up some weeks after these matters. But India refuses to give them the exclusivity that they deserve."

 India sees this formal separation of the bilateral agenda, as agreed to by the two sides last year, as a trap. It favours what Raghunath termed "a composite and broad-based approach" to the dialogue because a "narrow segmented approach is inherently flawed" and can't sustain the dialogue.

But this is diplomatese. The fact is that New Delhi is apprehensive that Pakistan wants to discuss only these issues, so that if there is no progress on them—which is most likely—it can discredit the bilateral process and seek third party mediation. "It is a recipe for international mediation," said an Indian source. In fact, Sharif reiterated this stand immediately after meeting Vajpayee. New Delhi, on its part, is determined to keep any third party out. For, as Raghunath says, an outsider will never understand the complexities of the situation and will just add to the confusion.

NEW Delhi is believed to have suggested to Islamabad that while delinking these two items from the agenda was not acceptable, what could be done was to take them up on one day, take up a couple of other issues the next day and the remaining on yet another day. This way all the issues can be dealt with in the same period. But Gohar avers this will mean taking the whole of the Government of India to Islamabad and vice versa when the venue shifts to New Delhi. This, say Pakistani officials, is impractical.

 The dialogue stalemated soon after the two prime ministers directed their foreign secretaries to meet to sort out the problem of its modality. Raghunath and his Pakistani counterpart, Shamshad Ahmed, met from midnight to 1.30 am on the nights of July 29 and 30. The next day was the retreat, where there was no substantial advancement. According to Pakistani sources, after the prime ministers' meeting it was understood that a joint statement would be issued on the last day, putting down the modalities for the resumption of the talks. But by the time the SAARC leaders went for the retreat to Bentota on July 30, both Indian and Pakistani officials admitted that the talks had once again stalled.

By evening, Gohar declared there would be no more talks with the Indians on the last day of the summit. Pakistani officials were not entirely unhappy about this. As a senior Pakistani official said: "It's a dialogue of the deaf and we've been telling the world as much. What has happened over the last two days simply reinforces our stand."

The battle between the two South Asian neighbours had begun as soon as the delegations arrived in Colombo for the meetings leading up to the SAARC summit. Pakistan wanted the final declaration of the summit to reflect the fact that there could no economic cooperation without 'peace and security'. The Indians saw red. They objected, saying that economic cooperation would lead to peace and security. And in private argued that peace and security, as articulated by Pakistan, was a euphemism for Jammu and Kashmir—Pakistan's favourite theme in the bilateral dialogue.

This was Islamabad's way of getting political issues into SAARC via the back door. And was recognised as such by other delegations too. The issue became so contentious that the foreign secretaries of the member countries, who work on the first draft of the SAARC declaration couldn't decide the matter, delaying the convening of the meeting of the SAARC council of ministers by nearly six hours on July 28.

 India held to the stand that political issues couldn't be brought into the declaration as it was prohibited by the SAARC charter. But Pakistan was persistent. At the retreat on Thursday, there was a lively debate on inclusion of the peace and security clause in the final declaration. But, a Lankan source said, finally Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga simply shrugged off this Pakistani attempt. Earlier, at the inauguration, she had skillfully handled Sharif's suggestion of a peace, security and development initiative for South Asia. After Sharif's speech, she said: "We have heard your innovative suggestion and noted it." The Pakistani delegation was satisfied with this. As one of them said: "This will at least sow the seeds of the idea of discussing issues related to peace and security." To that extent, Islamabad feels that it has had a qualified success even though it did not get much backing this time on pushing political matters into SAARC. The Indians, on their part, were happy because Chandrika stood her ground that contentious issues could not be brought up in SAARC. She seemed to have sent both sides back satisfied.

 But this is likely to be a shortlived feeling. More is going to be heard on these issues in the days to come. And judging from the Colombo summit, relations between India and Pakistan may get a lot worse before they have a chance to get any better.

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