Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif, in their meeting in Russian city of Ufa on the sidelines of Shanghai Cooperation Organization last week, look to have re-set the format of their stalled bilateral dialogue in a way that the new structure gives center stage to terrorism talks, while relegating some of the core issues in the relationship like Kashmir to lesser priority.
Even as the fuller implication of a seemingly bold move by Mr Sharif to grant his Indian counterpart a dialogue structure of his choice would be seen in course of time, the immediate feeling in Islamabad was that a diplomatic defeat had been suffered.
“Demoralizing”, “one-sided” were some of the responses by certain key officials in the country’s foreign policy structure when asked about the joint declaration issued after the Ufa meeting. The impression was also shared in neighbouring Rawalpindi, which hosts the Army headquarters. Naturally, the gossip that the move will come with political costs for Mr Sharif is already making rounds in the federal capital.
Pakistani law does not allow involuntary voice sampling
Mr Modi and Mr Sharif, during their meeting – which followed the worst patch in ties for years – agreed on a roadmap of future engagement starting with a meeting of the National Security Advisers in Delhi for discussing terrorism related concerns. The interaction would be followed by meetings of the directors general of India’s Border Security Force and Pakistan’s Rangers for talks on issues related to the Line of Control and the Working Boundary, which witnessed last year some of the most severe clashes since the ceasefire in 2003, and between the military operations chiefs from both sides, more commonly known DGMOs. This process would be supplemented by confidence building measures including fast-tracking of the trial of the Mumbai accused in Pakistan, provision of their voice samples to India, release of fishermen who stray into each other’s territories, and steps for promotion of religious tourism.
There is no word that this new format replaces the previous dialogue structure that had been in place since 2004 and had survived the Mumbai attacks though after losing its name tag – Composite Dialogue. But, as long as there is nothing on the resumption of the peace talks, the new structure of engagements would be the face of bilateral interactions.
“The joint statement signals intent to deal primarily with the terrorism issue. It does not signal resumption of composite dialogue. Nor does it indicate any other format to discuss outstanding issues,” said former foreign secretary Salman Bashir, who is considered to be the architect of Pak-India re-engagement after the Mumbai attack and also served as high commissioner to India. “In this sense, it seems to be one sided. The only quid pro quo is to get Modi to attend the SAARC summit (scheduled to be held in Islamabad next year).”
Salman Bashir believes that the BSF-Rangers meetings and those between the DGMOs could ultimately lead to a meaningful engagement in future. He is however skeptical because of the history of Islamabad-New Delhi ties. “As of now, this is a far cry and a bit optimistic,” he says.
It has always been India’s effort since the Mumbai attacks to prioritize terrorism in bilateral dialogue, but this has more so been the case under Modi, who has since becoming prime minister in 2014 pursued the policy of maintaining limited engagement with Pakistan and one that is directed at getting tangibles on terrorism related concerns.
Pakistan too has its share of issues – trial of Samjhota Express bombing, Indian involvement in unrest in Balochistan, FATA, and Karachi. These issues have been quite vocally raised by the Army over past few months but, there is no mention of these in the joint statement except for the hope that when the NSAs meet they would address them as well. The statement reflects poorly on the government’s effort to flag them in face to face meeting with Modi.
But some are hoping against hope that India would listen to Pakistan’s concerns.
“The meeting of the national security advisers would provide the necessary space to discuss mutual concerns and allegations about terrorism. This is important because right now Indian allegations regarding Mumbai and our determination about Indian interference and abetment of terrorism inside Pakistan dominate the agenda,” says Ambassador Masood Khan, director general Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad. “These issues need to be tackled upfront in order to address the bigger longstanding issues of Kashmir, water and nuclear stability.”
There are questions about the commitment on providing voice samples of the Mumbai attack suspects. India had long asked for these voice samples, which have to be compared with the recordings of conversations between the attackers and their handlers at the time of attack referred to as 26/11. But the Pakistani side has been refusing on the grounds that the national law did not allow involuntary voice sampling. How would Mr Sharif overcome this legal complication? Would he get an amendment in the law?
Another cause of concern is the absence of Kashmir from the joint statement although it carries a vague commitment to “discuss all outstanding issues”.
Mr Sharif and his aides may be seeing this omission of Kashmir from joint statement as a tactical concession for getting India talking again, but in Pakistan-India ties things soon become precedents.
Escalation beyond a point hurts India’s economic interests
One such mistake was committed by Mr Sharif during his visit to Delhi in May 2014 for attending Modi’s inauguration, when he skipped a meeting with Kashmiri leaders. The BJP government interpreted it differently and they reacted sharply when the high commissioner later held the usual consultations with the Kashmiris ahead of the foreign secretaries’ meeting agreed between Mr Modi and Mr Sharif, and cancelled the planned interaction in Islamabad. It took Pakistan another seven months to welcome the Indian foreign secretary in Islamabad for a meeting, albeit on a regional plane and still not in the bilateral context.
This time again, according to Delhi insiders, the Pakistan High Commission in India cancelled an iftar dinner that was to be attended by Kashmiri leaders for the fears that their participation could affect the Ufa meeting. The iftar was to be held a week before the meeting. Officially, the high commission cited deaths in Karachi because of a heat wave as the cause of the cancellation.
Jinnah Institute President Senator Sherry Rehman warns against avoiding the core issues. “Not voicing our concerns immediately will inevitably lead to another stalemate once the contentious issues are finally put forward from our side,” she says. “Attempts at skirting around hard-hitting issues, or postponing discussions on them for fear of an impasse have led to exactly that in the past.”
Besides, the controversy about what was agreed on at the meeting, there is also interest in what made the meeting possible, particularly in the tense backdrop in which it took place.
There are various interpretations. One is that India wanted to signal to the SCO and other international partners that it was engaging with Pakistan as opposed to the impression that it was promoting a stalemate. The other is that Modi had realized that closing down all lines of communication with Islamabad would not serve his purpose either. There were fears in India that the harsh exchanges with Islamabad together with the volatile situation on the LoC and Working Boundary could cause an escalation to a level where it would be difficult to manage it. Escalation beyond a point hurts India’s economic interests.
Senate Defence Committee Chairman Mushahid Hussain says: “Modi has realised that his policy of trying to bully and browbeat Pakistan or trying to isolate Pakistan has failed. In the process, India found itself isolated as everybody has been courting Islamabad.”
Pakistan, Senator Mushahid says, went to Ufa meeting from a position of relative strength, having, concurrently, equally good ties with China, US and Russia – a first for Pakistan, with China giving a vote of confidence in Pakistan’s future through the $46 billion Economic Corridor, and the international community accepting that the road to Afghan peace goes through Islamabad, with both the Afghan regime and Afghan Taliban accepting Pakistan as an ‘honest broker’.
Contrary to the general perception of capitulation in Ufa, the defense committee chairman thinks that the modest expectations attached to the meeting had been achieved. “Notwithstanding Modi & Co’s early blather about no talks with Pakistan, a focused dialogue has been initiated,” he said.
Indian Analyst Akar Patel, meanwhile, accuses Modi of policy confusion on Pakistan. “It is unclear to the observer what Modi’s policy towards Pakistan is. Is it friendly – as his surprising invitation to Nawaz Sharif for his swearing-in indicates? Is it passive – as India’s sulking over the Pakistan high commissioner meeting Hurriyat leaders shows? Is it aggressive – as the Indian government’s statements on the LoC and the defence minister’s casual remarks reveal? This schizophrenia should end. Modi has no option but to engage Pakistan. His unhinged supporters should accept this.”
Amb Masood Khan thinks that the meeting could lead to lowering of tensions.
“Preceding the meeting between the two prime ministers, tension between India and Pakistan had spiked,” he said. “There were apprehensions that this escalation could push the two countries, and with them the region, to a dangerous precipice. Therefore the meeting itself is significant because it brought about a semblance of thaw and an avowed desire to engage.”
Whatsoever little gains that are expected to accrue from the meeting too would depend on multiple factors including how sincerely Delhi proceeds with the agreed format. The accident prone nature of the relationship is another cause of concern. An exchange at the LoC or Working Boundary or a terrorist attack can wreck the process that has been started in Ufa.
But more importantly, as ex-foreign secretary Salman Bashir warns, the process should be “on equal terms, fair and just. Otherwise it will not be sustainable.”
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad