April 04, 2020
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Poetic Overtures

With the proposed working groups, India and Pakistan set in motion a structured dialogue

Poetic Overtures
Guftagu band no ho
Baat se baat chale

(Let the conversation never stop, Let one thing lead to another)
-Faiz Ahmed Faiz

THAT'S how Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral characterised the emerging India-Pakistan dialogue when he met his counterpart Nawaz Sharif in Male on May 12. Urdu poetry is close to his heart and he was not going to let go of the occasion without some flourishes. Quite appropriately, he picked a couplet from Faiz, the most famous modern poet of Pakistan. As a poetic prescription of what is needed to be done as far as bilateral dialogue is concerned, it hit the nail on the head.

The prime ministers of the two countries were meeting after several years. The last time, Sharif had met the then Indian prime minister, PV. Narasimha Rao. This time, the ninth SAARC summit at Male was virtually overshadowed by the bilateral meeting between Gujral and Sharif. It was the high point of the summit, but none of the other leaders was complaining.

The atmospherics were right, except for a brief irritant--a statement by Pakistan Foreign Minister Gohar Ayub Khan. He accused the Indian armed forces of going berserk since the last foreign secretary-level talks, killing people, gangraping women, burning down houses. And demanded that there must be troop reduction before any progress could take place on the bilateral front. This was vintage Gohar Ayub; and it was dismissed as posturing by even some Pakistanis.

Gujral did not let this affect his meeting with Sharif. And both prime ministers emerged from it in a positive vein. The personal rapport between the two was umnis-takable and journalists guffawed when Sharif pointed towards Gujral and said "I like this man very much". The meeting, Sharif said, was "constructive and meaningful", and he emphasised the need to "talk more on outstanding issues". Gujral described the meeting as "warm and friendly", adding "both of us have tried to reiterate the prospects and desirability of good relations between our two countries".

The most important offshoot of the meeting was announced by Sharif--that he and Gujral had instructed the two foreign secretaries to meet in Islamabad before the end of June and set up working groups on various issues which were to be identified by them. As often happens between India and Pakistan, the differences emerged immediately afterwards when the two foreign secretaries addressed the international media separately. The differences were over the subjects to be covered by the working groups.

Pakistan Foreign Secretary Shamshad Ahmed stated that they had been directed to evolve a "comprehensive mechanism to address all outstanding issues between the two nations, including, I emphasise, the core issue of Jammu and Kashmir". On the other hand, Indian Foreign Secretary Salman Haider, in his usual clipped fashion, pointed out that they had received an "open directive" to set up working groups to "accelerate their work of contact and communication and to identify the subjects to be covered".

Asked if there would be a separate working group on Kashmir, Ahmed responded: "This is a question of modalities, but eventually we will have one". Haider, however, stuck to his formulation, only adding: "We are at a certain stage in the process. Ahmed may wish to have a working group on Kashmir. That would be one of his preoccupations". Clearly the foreign secretaries differed. One was certain that the comprehensive mechanism would cover all outstanding issues, including Kashmir, the other was avoiding a direct answer merely emphasising that the subjects had yet to be identified.

The Pakistani delegation definitely appeared happy. The decision on the working groups almost seemed like a concession. Sharif's domestic compulsions are such that he has to show some gains to push over the deeply entrenched anti-India lobby in Pakistan. At Male, the Pakistanis wanted this 'gain' conveyed immediately after the two leaders met.

The journalists who were walking away after the brief remarks by Gujral and Sharif, were called back. And amidst a setting of bemused Western tourists--women in bikinis and men in swimming trunks--at the poolside of the Kurumba island resort, Ahmed held forth on the intricacies of Indo-Pak relations: the core issue of Kashmir, release of civilian prisoners, the hotline between the two prime ministers and so on.

Mushahid Hussain, information advisor to Sharif, confirmed the Pakistani assessment on the issue of Kashmir. Hussain, who contributes considerably to Sharif's thinking on foreign affairs and had sat in on the Gujral-Sharif meeting, told Outlook that the "positions of the two countries on Kashmir are clear and recognised. In that context, the Indian side was willing to focus on the core issue of Kashmir". He was happy that Kashmir will not be pushed aside now.

But which aspects of the issue will be discussed? "All aspects--human rights violations, atrocities by the Indian army and troop reduction," replied Mushahid. But what of Pakistani aid to Kashmiri militants? "Indians have never given us any evidence and we have never accepted this contention," argued Mushahid. What if India puts it on the table for discussion? Mushahid evaded the question, except to say that the Kashmir uprising was indigenous and Pakistan had nothing to do with it.

This, then, could be a serious hurdle. There are certain immutable factors in India-Pakistan relations. What is being seen now is simply a change of style of approaching some of the existing problems. But neither side seems to be clear on what a working group would do or how it would address a given problem. The six non-papers presented by India in 1994 reflect India's areas of interest. India would want people-to-people and other contacts to improve, so that over time Kashmir gets de-emphasised. The two non-papers by Pakistan reflect their interests and Kashmir is the centerpiece of this.

Therefore, the definitional aspect of the working groups--what to call it, who would be part of it, how to format it--is going to be a major exercise. It's not as if the lack of clarity is only on the Indian side. Pakistani officials want a separate working group on Kashmir. But would such a group's mandate include the Siachen and Tulbul barrage issues? They are not sure. So far it appears that each issue may have a separate working group.

Salman Haider's caution and signals from other Indian bureaucrats suggest the Indian side is unsure of the kind of public and political reaction that the proposed groups will receive. While India has discussed Kashmir in the past, this time it is going to be a much more structured format of discussions.

THE BJP, however, is not averse to the I idea. Says Brajesh Mishra, convenor of its external affairs cell: "So far as Kashmir is concerned, the issues should be dealt with at a sufficiently high level". And what would that be? "It should continue to be at the foreign secretary level," adds Mishra. He feels that Kashmir has to be discussed because "we have a stake in discussing it. Parliament has passed a unanimous resolution enjoining the government to take back Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Then there is the issue of Pakistani-sponsored terrorism in Kashmir".

There are other indications of what the political reaction may be. In the Rajya Sabha discussion on the External Affairs Ministry on May 15, there was hardly any mention of the working groups. But, on the other hand, the Opposition in India will be energised if the discussions in the working groups go beyond what is acceptable domestically. For instance, question ing the status of Kashmir.

For Sharif, the decision on the working groups is being interpreted as a gain. On returning to Pakistan, he termed his meeting with Gujral a breakthrough. This need not be interpreted as a loss to India. Sharif has taken considerable chances in pushing the dialogue with India and faces much flak domestically on the issue. Hilal, a magazine brought out by the Pakistani armed forces, has poured scorn-in strong language-on those promoting friendly ties with India.

As Mishra says, mixed signals are coming from Pakistan: "One section says if Kashmir is discussed, other issues can also be discussed. Another says that there should be some progress on Kashmir before there can be progress on other issues. And the third group says unless Kashmir is settled, nothing else will move". Therefore, the working groups allow Sharif some leeway. He can show that talks are going on with India even on Kashmir, which not many of his predecessors have been able to do. It is in the interest of both that progress is made in the working groups. But on Kashmir, which now seems intractable, the progress may take longer.

It is too early and in the case of India and Pakistan, foolish, to predict how things will go in the future. But other SAARC members were pleased about the bilateral meeting. President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom of Maldives, at the concluding session of the summit, graciously put on record the SAARC nations' "great happiness and satisfaction" at the Gujral-Sharif meeting. For, as they all realise, as long as the Indo-Pak hostility exists, the SAARC region will not progress.

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