The cancellation of the meeting between the national security advisers of India and Pakistan – after a disagreement over the agenda and a controversy over inviting Kashmiri leaders for a reception at the Pakistani High Commission in Delhi – is a fresh blow to mutual relations that were already on a steep decline.
Scheduled for August 24, it was one of the three follow-up meetings that prime ministers Nawaz Sharif and Narendra Modi had agreed to convene when they met in the Russian city of Ufa last month. Meetings between directors general of Indian Border Security Force (BSF) and Pakistan Rangers and the directors general of military operations (DGMOs) of India and Pakistan were also planned, to improve the atmospherics, lower tensions, and thus lay the basis for a normalization of mutual ties. But the cancellation of the very first meeting has also put the BSF-Rangers meeting, planned for September 9-13 in Delhi, under a cloud.
Foreign Office Spokesman Qazi Khalilullah says he has no updates, but the meeting has not been canceled. A military spokesman, meanwhile, said that representatives of BSF and Rangers had met earlier this week to discuss the agenda for the meeting. Even if the meeting does take place, one has to be very optimistic to expect a significant outcome.
The two sides are yet to fix the date for the big meeting between the DGMOs. They were expected to discuss ceasefire violations along the Line of Control and the Working Boundary. The two countries have accused each other of violating the ceasefire for about 100 times recently, because of which about 20 people have died (most of them Pakistanis living close to the Working Boundary).
Skirmishes on the LoC and Working Boundary have lately been a major irritant and were the primary reason why India suspended the dialogue that had resumed after the Mumbai attacks – a stalemate that the two countries are still unable to overcome.
The negativity generated by the bickering and the ultimate cancellation of the meeting between the NSAs has left little incentive for both sides to seek another engagement of the two prime ministers on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session next month. Diplomats on both sides will consider the fact that their prime ministers have met twice in the last 14 months, first in Delhi after Modi’s inauguration, and then in Ufa on the sidelines of Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit, but each of those interactions were followed by canceled follow-up meetings.
The joint statement after the Ufa meeting was poorly negotiated
The reason behind the cancellation, on both the occasions, was Pakistan’s desire to consult Kashmiri leaders of the Hurriyat Conference before these meetings. This time, India also criticized Islamabad’s insistence on expanding the agenda from just terrorism to a review of the implementation of decisions taken at Ufa and exploring the roadmap for future discussions on outstanding issues including Jammu and Kashmir, Sir Creek, and Siachen.
With Modi coming to power last year and the RSS ideology taking the center stage in Indian policy making, Delhi has undoubtedly become more aggressive towards Pakistan. But, Islamabad has also made mistakes.
When Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif skipped a meeting with Hurriyat leaders during his trip to Delhi to attend Modi’s swearing-in ceremony, Indians misread it as Islamabad’s willingness to put Kashmir behind. From then on, a senior Pakistani diplomat said, they have been strongly opposing Pakistan’s engagement with Kashmiri leaders, which has been a longstanding practice.
Then, ahead of the meeting in Ufa, the Pakistani High Commission in Delhi canceled an iftar reception that was to be attended by Hurriyat leaders, reinforcing the perceptions in Delhi that Pakistan could compromise on its political contacts with Kashmiris. But apparent pressure at home compelled the Pakistani government to invite Kashmiri leaders to a meeting ahead of the talks between the national security advisers.
New Delhi has been using an interpretation of the Simla agreement – that the Kashmir issue should be discussed bilaterally – to oppose Pakistan’s meetings with Hurriyat leaders. Islamabad’s argument – that Kashmiris are not a third party in this dispute, but primary stakeholders – comes too late to compensate for its earlier missteps.
The government’s flip flop on meetings with Hurriyat leaders may also be an indicator of civil-military differences over ties with India. Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj hinted at that in her press conference, saying more than once that her government had also resisted domestic pressure.
Then there was the disagreement over the agenda. The two prime ministers had agreed in their Ufa meeting that the national security advisers would meet to discuss terrorism concerns, India says. But, when Pakistan accepted the invitation for the August 24 meeting, it also proposed a discussion on modalities for future dialogue on other outstanding issues.
The problem here is a poorly negotiated joint statement after the Ufa meeting. Pakistan says the reference to the two prime ministers agreeing to their collective responsibility to ensure peace and promote development, and expressing readiness to discuss all outstanding issues, allowed for a broader discussion.
The Indians take a stricter view of the statement, saying “the operative part” that provided for a series of three meetings was what had been agreed on, and it would not allow Pakistan to bring other issues on the table.
Islamabad says that while it did not intend substantive discussions on Kashmir, Siachen and Sir Creek at the meeting, it only wants to get an understanding on how and when these issues would be discussed. In other words, it wants to explore the prospects of resumption of the stalled bilateral dialogue that has been on hold since January 2013.
Apparently, both sides are to blame for the cancellation of the important meeting – Delhi showed its traditional inflexibility towards Pakistan, while Islamabad tried to make up for some of its earlier bloopers in dealing with the Modi government by taking a more liberal view of the Ufa understanding and force on to the table some of the things it could not emphasize in Ufa.
“What is really frustrating is that there is no clarity at home,” said a Pakistani official who had been involved in the decision.
The blind alley in which the two neighbors now find themselves is a result of the fast shrinking common ground.
In a talk at the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad, former Chief of General Staff Lt Gen (r) Waheed Arshad explained Delhi’s lack of interest in pursuing peace with Pakistan. “There is no common point… there is no common agenda on how to progress,” he said, adding that Delhi’s policy making was now dominated by a narrow Hindu mindset rather than Indian nationalism.
Modi’s move to hand over the Pakistan file to Ajit Doval and appoint ex IB chief Asif Ibrahim as a special envoy made it clear that his Pakistan policy would now be formed by former intelligence officers who are deeply anti-Pakistan.
One takeaway for Pakistan is that it needs to have a more disciplined policy towards India and should stop taking things for granted. For now, Islamabad should focus on managing the situation and avoiding further escalation.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad