The day before Aziz Ahmed Khan left for Islamabad, he granted V. Sudarshan an interview, his last as High Commissioner to India. He explained Pakistan's difficulty in authenticating Indian troop positions in Siachen but indicated the issue is poised for a breakthrough.
What are the challenges in working in the "enemy country"?
Well, first of all I think one should say a country where the relationship is not yet normal...but I think I wouldn't like to use the word "enemy". We are on a road...
But Musharraf used the word in his book
Well, I would say that, at the moment, the way the relationship is, I wouldn't use the word "enemy", but a country where we are attempting to normalise relations and have good relations. It has been professionally challenging but at the same time quite rewarding. It has been quite rewarding for me for the last three years and five months. In fact, tomorrow it will be three years and five months..
So you have been counting the days?
No, it is easy to count, because I arrived here on the 30th of June of 2003. Tomorrow it is the 30th of November. So it is very easy to calculate. It has been a very rewarding experience. We have had three successful rounds of secretary level talks of composite dialogue. A lot of forward movement has taken place—particularly CBMs, and people to people contacts and also discussions of various issues. As the foreign secretary said in his press conference, never before in the history of our relations have we had such focussed discussions on Kashmir, which is the core issue between the two countries. We have had very foccused discussions on Siachen and on all other subjects.
Was this your first posting here?
No, I have been the deputy chief of mission here during 1985-1987. That was the first experience.
Is it difficult dealing with us Indians?
No. I mean, as I said, it is a professionally challenging assignment. Because there are so many problems and so on, but on a personal level there were never any difficulty at all.
Not with anybody?
Not with anybody. Even professionally. Even if one differed in points of view, one had a good and healthy discussion.
Any memorable differences that you might want to recollect?
I mean, differences are the subjects of everyday talk anyway. Not that there were "differences" as one would normally use the term "differences". It was just points of view that we have about the way to tackle issues, the way to resolve issues. It was always good to have a good and intense discussion and people were always co-operative and available.
How did the media treat you?
The media has been very kind. It is a vibrant media, it is a huge media, so they were always, sort of, interested. And there was good encounters, good interactions, interviews, particularly in the electronic media and even the print media. Including Page 3. (laughs)
Could you describe the fundamental changes that have happened under your watch in the last three years and five months?
Well, what I would like to say is that my coming here coincided with the famous extension of hand of friendship and the decision to restore the relationship to the ambassadorial level. Mr Menon went to Pakistan and I came here for the posting. And this was followed up by the restoration of air links and so on, and after that Mr Vajpayee went to Pakistan for the SAARC summit and the joint press statement followed that summit, and the dialogue process was resumed. Since then, we've had three rounds of composite dialogue. A lot of progress has taken place, and a lot of discussion has taken place, and the process is moving forward. The atmosphere is very positive between the two countries. At the people's level, it is full of hope and expectation and anticipation that things are going to be resolved. As President Musharraf has mentioned, the process is irreversible, and, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has said, the process is irreversible — so there is great expectation at the popular level that things will move forward and things will lead to their logical conclusion.
In the last few months, ever since July especially, the charecterisation of the respective countries has changed subtly in the media. The word "terror" is the word that is most frequently used. As a result of this, the joint terror mechanism was born. Yet obituaries were written about this mechanism even before it was born. Do you share the pessimism?
I don't think the obituaries were written. If some people have given their analyses, their pessimistic version of things, that is different. But the decision to have this mechanism was taken at Havana and the details were discussed during the foreign secretary level talks. Now there is a mechanism which probably will hold a meeting whenever it is needed. And this is a mechanism whereby all the apprehensions that we have about each other and any information that we have about each other can be exchanged. You see, terror is not a phenomenon which is just confined to India. Terror is something that exists in Pakistan. Terror exists at the regional level. Terror exists internationally. It is a very difficult subject to tackle. The best thing to do is to tackle it seriously. And Pakistan's commitment to tackle terrorism is obvious to see. I mean, the entire international community has appreciated that. We have been a victim of terrorism and it is acknowledged by everyone that Pakistan also is a victim of terrorism. Everyone in the world has acknowledged that Pakistan has given exemplary co-operation as far as fighting terrorism is concerned.
Do you sense the same kind of view when you talk to people here that Pakistan is a victim in the same manner as we are a victim?
Well everybody considers themselves... you see, people are normally concerned about their own surroundings and their own selves. And people do not have time to go into details and look at the bigger or the larger picture, whereas this is a phenomenon where we should always keep the bigger picture in mind. And that is where I suppose this mechanism would be helpful where discussions can take place, focussed discussions...
I havent figured out exactly how this mechanism is going to work. We don't even have a date when they are going to meet next.
The mechanism will work. The mechanism will be a forum where whatever information that is available which could be useful in combating terrorism [would be shared]. You see, this is a counter-terrorism mechanism. So both the countries will have to co-operate to fight terrorism.
It is not going to be a one way street?
It is not going to be a one way street. Obviously.
Why is it then that the only thing we saw was New Delhi presenting evidence?
Well, when the time comes, when we feel the need, we will certainly do the same as well. It all depends. Let us just keep it as a focussed and a serious kind of mechanism where this menace, the menace of terrorism, can be tackled and we can co-operate in a meaningful manner to combat terrorism. Rather than the blame game thing, you know —if we start indulging in that, the mechanism cannot function properly.
In the case of consular access to incident that nearly happened in the southern India
— has anything emerged that points to...
See, I do not have the details in the communication that was handed over, the information that was handed over. Because it is something that has to be examined by people who are concerned with it. So let them have a look at it and let them come out with whatever reply they have to do. I haven't really looked at it.
No clear time frame?
Well, the foreign secretary has just gone a week-ten days ago. You know, I can't really predict that. I cannot really say how long they would need to examine that evidence. All I can say is that all information that has been provided in those pieces of paper.... all I can say is that we are very serious in extending co-operation for fighting terrorism and we hope that this will be taken seriously here as well.
In terms of quantity is it a very big file?
No. No. No. Not really. Just a few pages. I don't really recollect.
Less than a handful?
I haven't seen it. Yes, absolutely. Absolutely.
How difficult has it been for you to find a place to function out of in Mumbai?
You see, I'll tell you why it is not easy to find suitable place for a consulate. Bombay is not an easy place to find accommodation. It is an overcrowded place. After a lot of search and all, we did find a place. It was a ground floor near Nariman point. I went to see it myself. We were very pleased with that.
When was that?
About a year or so ago. We even signed a contract with the owner of the property. Then the society objected, saying that you cannot have the Pakistani consulate here because there will be difficulty and security and this, that and the other. And so they prevented the owner from renting the accommodation to us and so the contract fell through. Then, after that, we restarted our search. Then again we located a property but then again there was a snag about that as well. It was an independent bungalow — about three or four floors, I don't remember, I didnt go to see it, my colleagues did. The owner wanted to retain a little portion of that and we didn't wish to have that because you know for various considerations. We are still looking for property. And we have requested the government of India also to help us find a place, if they can do something.
Have they been able to do anything?
They haven't been able to present to us anything.
Not a single property?
No not a single property. You know different real estate agents keep suggesting places. For example, if some portion is available on the sixth or eighth or tenth floor it is obviously not suitable because it will inconvenience the people in that building, particularly a Pakistani consulate with the kind of interest and visas, and there will be a lot of movement. It will not be suitable to have it in just any place. It has to have a good location. It has to have good access. It has to have ample space.
Is the Jinnah House finally behind us?
Jinnah House? No. We are very serious about Jinnah House. The request is there that we would like to have the Jinnah House as the residence of our consul general.
You renew the request every time an occasion arises?
Yes. Every time. Yes, absolutely, absolutely. The request is always there.
What is the response?
I think the last one was they would like to convert it into a SAARC cultural centre or something like that. But we would like to have that property.
The Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service has been going on for some time now. Has it lived fully
up to expectations?
It was decided that we should have procedures simplified so that it is more convenient for the people to utilise the service. For that matter, any bus service. If there are too many difficulties in the form of scrutiny or delays, people do get discouraged. But it's a good beginning. It is working. It is serving the population. It has been a useful CBM.
How many people used the last bus service?
I do not know the details, to be very honest.
I understand most of them have been running nearly empty?
These are the procedural difficulties that I mentioned to you and we are examining to see how we can make it function better.
You have been involved in the Siachen discussions for a very long time in various capacities. Now as you demit office here, how have the positions changed or the debate changed on Siachen? Has there been any basic shift at all?
If you look at it, I think in 1989 we issued a joint press statement whereby it was agreed that the forces would be redeployed and be brought down from the glacier area because they were being a victim of the weather—fighting the weather rather than fighting each other. And that could reduce the unnecessary extra expenditure both in the form of lives of soldiers as well as in financial terms and that we will peacefully negotiate the delineation of the line beyond NJ9842. My interpretation is that we had already reached an agreement on this. As far as we were concerned, a way to a solution was found. It was only the implementation that remained.
And what were the broad points on the way to the solution?
That we redploy the forces to lower heights, to agreed positions. We will both agree to which positions. From the present positions, we will move to mutually agreed position.
Without making clear where you are at that point of time?
When you have the redeployment schedule, automatically you will say they will move from point A to point Z.
So it would show up in some manner?
So it would be in the schedule. But the demand that was made here was...
Right from the time the discussions started in the early 1990s. I wasn't involved in it at that particular time, but I was told we had almost agreed on certain broad principles on how to redeploy forces and then the thing fell through. Your demand has been the authentication. On the map. And that is not acceptable to us and we have said that as far as we are concerned—about the indication of locations—we can always find a way to reflect that, but authentication on a map of a line indicating the present ground position is not acceptable.
What is the technical finesse on that?
Technical finesse is that you have a redeployment schedule, withdrawal schedule It will say that you will move from Point A to Point B. It will move on such a day in so many days in such and such time frame. Then from Point C to Point D. And so on and so forth. You see when you are relocating forces, when you are redeploying forces...
So it doesn't have to be reflected on a map?
It doesn't have to be reflected on a map. You do it, you indicate the grid references, that they were in such and such a point. Now they will be moving to such and such a point.
Could this pop up in an annexure or something?
It can. It can be. Yes, some way can be found without having to have it authenticated. The word "authentication" is not acceptable to us.
So it would have a certain bilateral, legal significance?
It will have the indication. I mean your concern is where you were and the indication would be there.
Would it have the same significance as on a map?
You see, what is the need of having it on a map? That is the point.
You see, people here are asking what is the difficulty in Pakistan telling its own people where they are on a map?
Look the difficulty is delineation of line beyond NJ9842 was something that needed to be done through peaceful negotiations— where that line would pass. And for that delineation, the first thing was to withdraw the forces. The withdrawal of the forces was to reduce tension and to have a zone of disengagement. And after that, the delineation of the line beyond NJ9842. If we start delineating lines now and authenticating it on map then that exercise becomes ...you know, it creates difficulties for that exercise.
So, in other words since 1989 to now there has been practically no movement?
There has been a lot of discussion and we understand each other's point of view much better.
How much better do you understand the points of view now than you did in 1989? You know you can keep talking till the cows come home.
I agree with you. The time now has come. We have discussed the situation threadbare. We understand each other's positions very well. And the time has now come to take a political decision to implement.
Is it a now or never situation?
It is not a now or never situation. In diplomacy, there is never such thing as never. But we feel that the time has come that we can take decisions which can be acceptable to both sides and which can find a good solution to the problem.
This will happen when the defence secretaries meet?
Well, the defence secretaries would meet again when the fourth round starts. The fourth round will start sometime in February.
The political decision could be taken after that?
I mean, as far as I am concerned, we have already discussed this problem in reasonably extensive detail. If we agree for redeployment, then we can work out the technical details about that. How will they move, and so on. For that, even military experts can meet and so on. But these are things that need to be discussed. I think a time has come to take a political decision that
says, "All right let us now implement it and create a zone of disengagement and move the
And do you sense a willingness on both sides to do this more than ever before?
There is a better understanding of each other's position. Again the discussions we had on Siachen during the foreign secretary level talks were in a positive light.
And they were not merely reiterative?
I would say they were more explanatory in the sense that we tried to explain each other's positions. Basically, I suppose it has also to do with the trust level and so on. But we feel that we have made our point of view pretty clear and pretty elaborate.
And you have sufficiently addressed the fears in New Delhi that after Kargil it is still possible to business with Pakistan in this manner?
I think that basically our position has been stated very clearly and I think that the proposal that we have made can be implemented and it takes into consideration mutual concerns. What we need to do is have a certain degree, a level of trust between the two sides and try and resolve this problem. And I think we have reached a stage where we can do it.
You want to share with our readers certain broad parameters of the proposal you have made?
You see, the proposal has throughout been that forces should be redeployed from the present positions to mutually agreed positions which are at lower height so that they are not eyeball to eyeball.
What will the redeployment based on? Same level of difficulty? Equidistant? What are the parameters?
That the military people can sit down and work out those technical details. They are the ones who have to work out those details. The basic thing is that the human loss because of the weather at those heights should be eliminated, should be reduced. As should the heavy expenditure in keeping the forces supplied —on which India is spending about three or four times more than Pakistan is, because of more difficulty of access on your side.