THE offer of talks to India is very much on and there is no question of discontinuing the ongoing process of negotiations," say Pakistani Foreign Office sources. This is in reaction to the June 18 statement by foreign minister Assef Ahmed Ali who had expressed reservations about India not mentioning Kashmir as part of the agenda for talks.
"These are informal, diplomatic sort of statements which are made by both sides whenever such a process is about to take off. These are normally made to keep on stressing your basic position and pass signals. It should not at all be construed as rejection of talks on the part of Pakistan. We have received the return offer from the Indian Government and we are formalising our response which would be conveyed to them soon," said one official. He said Assef Ahmed Ali's views were not unusual and besides, the Indians have not reacted to it.
"So we have no reason to believe that there is any anxiety in New Delhi over the foreign minister's remarks. Currently, our reply is under preparation. Pakistan has to decide whether we can keep Kashmir away from the talks for the time being or we should stick to our old stand that without this core issue, there is no use engaging in a dialogue. We are taking stock of both the options," said another Foreign Ministry official.
The foreign minister had said that though Pakistan was studying the offer of secretary-level talks by the Indian Prime Minister, he was in favour of being cautious. "We seem to have lost sight of the realities before us. We should not be over-optimistic about these talks. Before we get into a dialogue, there should be a clarity of agenda and this is where I see the difficulty. We talked about the Kashmir issue but the replies we received did not touch upon it. If this is the approach they are going to adopt, we will find it difficult to respond. If they say Kashmir is not on the agenda, then it is the same position as Narasimha Rao adopted," said Assef Ahmed Ali.
Clearly, the foreign office spokesman had no such doubts. He said the basic theme of the Indian offer related to all issues and that "we interpret it as having included the Kashmir dispute".
Indian officials were not at all surprised by Assef Ahmed Ali's comments. He could be addressing domestic opinion. Besides, Pakistan has the habit of talking in different voices. But such remarks don't help the process, it only aids Pakistan in keeping its options open, said an official.
This is the second time that Assef Ahmed Ali is adopting such a stance. The first time it happened was when he was visiting Colombo two weeks ago. Benazir Bhutto's letter to Indian Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda had barely reached New Delhi when Assef Ahmed Ali raised the issue of Sri Lankan mediation on Kashmir. His comments did not go unnoticed in New Delhi. These statements naturally raise questions—whether Pakistan was following its old dual track policy or whether Assef Ahmed Ali was developing differences with Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Indian officials, however, refused to speculate, saying "we will wait for the official reply".
Though the visiting Sri Lankan foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar told journalists in New Delhi on June 21 that Assef Ahmed Ali had not raised the issue of mediation between India and Pakistan but merely asked Sri Lanka to convey that Pakistan wanted to have a dialogue with India, seeking outside mediation on Kashmir has long been a part of Pakistani foreign policy.
But Benazir Bhutto was quick to neutralise the effect of what her foreign minister had said. A day after his statement, she said the basic issue of Kashmir should be resolved through dialogue and that the new Indian Government had responded positively. "We are neither optimistic nor pessimistic about a solution to the Kashmir problem. There is a set process of dialogue but I cannot say whether it will be successful or not." She avoided a direct answer when asked if the proposed dialogue should be held at the prime ministerial level rather than at the level of foreign ministers or foreign secretaries, who have failed to produce results in the past. But she admitted that "it was a historical fact that talks between Pakistan and India have generally failed". She said she had been too busy with her government's budget and, therefore, could not respond to Indian Prime Minister Deve Gowda's letter. "I will consult security analysts and experts after the budget session to formulate our response," the Prime Minister said. The budget session is expected to end on June 29.
Citing the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, independence of Central Asian states and Namibia and the end of apartheid, Bhutto said there was no reason why Pakistan and India should not be able to resolve the Kashmir dispute. She was hopeful that the problem would be resolved as the two countries cannot afford to remain in a state of perpetual tension. "We have to open a dialogue and seek a peaceful solution of the longstanding issues."
Benazir Bhutto disclosed that Pakistan had deliberately not communicated with Atal Behari Vajpayee's BJP government, knowing fully well that it would not be able to win the trust vote. "That was why after the induction of a comparatively stable Deve Gowda as the new Prime Minister, we immediately got in touch."