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25 August, 2015

Back to square one

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

There is no need to shed tears over the aborted meeting of National Security Advisers of India and Pakistan. It could only have produced more rancour.

Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif was present, along with other South Asian leaders, at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in in 2014. The goodwill his presence generated evaporated when, barely three months later, the government cancelled a scheduled meeting of Foreign Secretaries of the two countries, to show its disapproval of Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit’s consultations with leaders of the Kashmir’s separatist All Party Hurriyat Conference.

The meeting of officials was part of composite India-Pakistan talks, which have a long history. In 1997, a Foreign Secretary-level meeting outlined eight outstanding issues of concern to the two countries and proposed mechanisms to address them in an integrated manner. Over the years the process yielded some small gains but lack of determined political intervention inhibited progress on major issues.

The 2008 Mumbai terror attack derailed the process. It was put back on track in 2011 with a meeting of Home Secretaries at which terrorism was on the agenda. A few rounds of talks followed but there was little to show.

The cancellation of the Foreign Secretaries’ meeting attracted some criticism at home since India had previously overlooked the Pakistani envoy’s contacts with Kashmiri separatists. But Modi was determined to send across a message that they were not acceptable to him.

Last month, Modi and Nawaz Sharif shook hands at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit at Ufa, Russia, and discussed modalities of resuming bilateral talks. A joint statement issued later said they agreed India and Pakistan had a collective responsibility to ensure peace and promote development and that “they are prepared to discuss all outstanding issues”. It spelt out five specific steps, including NSA level talks, and contacts between army officials to improve the situation along the Line of Control which had witnessed continuous exchange of fire.

While the statement conveyed the impression that the composite talks were on again, India’s focus was on the first of the five proposed steps, namely a meeting of NSAs Sartaj Aziz and Ajit Doval in New Delhi to discuss terrorism-related issues.

Back home, Sharif came under attack for the Ufa statement as Pakistanis saw as one-sided inasmuch as it did not mention Kashmir, which, to them, is the central issue. They refused to buy official explanations that Kashmir had come up in the Modi-Sharif meeting and that the term “outstanding issues” covered Kashmir.

The Modi government has been projecting a hawkish image for some time to impress the Hindutva constituency. After Myanmar-based Naga rebels killed 18 security personnel in an ambush in Manipur, the Indian army conducted a retaliatory raid across the border. Official spokesmen said it was a warning to all terrorists operating from foreign soil.

As the scheduled meeting of NSAs approached, Pakistan was ready with a bait set. When India sent a draft agenda with terrorism as the only item, it sent an alternative one listing topics it wanted to be discussed, including Kashmir. Basit invited Hurriyat leaders to meet Sartaj Aziz over dinner.

To prevent the Hurriyat leaders from leaving Srinagar for Delhi, the Centre ordered that they be put under house arrest. As Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, whose People’s Democratic Party rules the state in coalition with Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, remonstrated, the Centre decided instead to arrest the Hurriyat leaders on arrival at Delhi airport.

With the fate of the NSA meet sealed, the two sides played out a long charade in front of television cameras with the singular aim of backing off without having to take the blame. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj demanded that Pakistan convey by midnight its acceptance of India’s advice not to meet Hurriyat leaders and limit the talks to terrorism. That gave Pakistan the opportunity to pull out saying there could be no talks on the basis of conditions.

Material which has come to light in the past week shows that the two governments spent the last month preparing dossiers the NSAs were to exchange. The meeting having fallen through, they publicised the charges against each other through the media.

After a 15-month-long journey through a convoluted path, Narendra Modi is back at the starting point, so far as relations with Pakistan are concerned. If Sharif has to take into account the Inter Service Intelligence, he has to contend with the Hindutva establishment which is watching his steps. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, August 25, 2015

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