External Affairs

Former Indian, Pakistani Envoys Spar – and Talk – at Mother of all Track-IIs

Former Indian and Pakistani envoys have urged both governments to keep the communication channels open. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Former Indian and Pakistani envoys have urged both governments to keep the communication channels open. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

New Delhi: It may not be the equivalent to his secret rendezvous with a cigar-loving former Pakistani diplomat to find a roadmap to resolving the Kashmir imbroglio, but former prime ministerial special envoy Satinder Lambah managed to get together an extraordinary Track-2 event, which seemingly has official blessings.

For two days last week, six former Pakistani high commissioners and nine former Indian high commissioners sat down for the first time not only to take stock of the current state-of-play in bilateral relations, but also to find a clearer path to lower the bilateral temperature and foster meaningful talks.

The significance of the event was not just the high-profile battery of former top diplomats, but also their official interlocutors in Delhi. The 15 former envoys had a dinner at Hyderabad House, the foreign ministry’s venue for state banquets, hosted by the MEA’s secretary (economic relations) Amar Sinha. Thereafter, they met with national security advisor Ajit Doval – perhaps the second-most important Indian player on the India-Pakistan front right now, after the prime minister himself. Besides, they also had a talk with former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh and vice president Mohammad Hamid Ansari.

The Track-2 project was put together by the Ananta Aspen Centre, of whose board Lambah is chairman. Lambah served as Manmohan Singh’s special envoy from 2004 to 2013, and was the key Indian interlocutor for back-channel talks with Islamabad. He was earlier the Indian high commissioner to Pakistan from 1992 to 1995.

The Mumtaz hall at the Taj Palace reverberated with bonhomie and the smartest of Oxbridge accents as members of this select group took part in the gathering’s only public event – an interaction, which was partly televised. The only missing member was former foreign minister K. Natwar Singh, who had been Indian envoy to Pakistan from 1980 to 1982.

The ball was set rolling by Ashraf Jahangir Qazi, Pakistan’s envoy to India for five years, who asserted that the bilateral relationship “continues to live in interesting times”. When moderator Karan Thapar asked whether he would characterise the current state as ‘dancing on a pinhead,’ Qazi laughed and said, “that is perhaps the most accurate”.

According to Shiv Shankar Menon, former NSA and high commissioner (2003-2006), Pakistan gave “mixed signals” post-Pathankot. He cited Pakistani public statements on the joint investigation team (JIT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) chief Masood Azhar as positive, but didn’t take the bait on the question from the moderator on whether he thought the JeM leader was really in detention. “I have no idea. I have not been to the country in seven years,” Menon said.

Of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Lahore on Christmas day to meet his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif, Menon said it was “worth trying”. “Today, you have the opportunity of moving forward because of that visit,” he said. “But it is hard for me to say conclusively that it worked”.

Sailor, Spy

Unsurprisingly, all the former Pakistan envoys emphasised the importance of the arrest of Kulbhushan Jadhav – the former naval officer who Pakistan claims is an Indian intelligence agent – and who has been accused of “subversive activities” in Balochistan, Karachi and other areas.

“In Pakistan we have been talking about Indian interference in Balochistan for a long time. Only thing is we didn’t get any substantive evidence. Now for the first time, we have substantive evidence. A chap has been caught,” said Aziz Ahmed Khan.

Similarly, Salman Bashir (Pakistan’s high commissioner from 2012-2014) added that Jadhav’s arrest “amplifies” Pakistan’s long-standing claims and both countries should jointly investigate the matter. “Both sides should cooperate on this. In Pakistan, there was a sense of Indian interference in internal affairs. This particularly amplifies things. I think it is important to have more communication on incidents like this,” he noted.

G. Parthasarathy (1998-2000) scoffed at the ‘story’ about Jadhav. “I don’t think that Indians can carry a passport to hand it over… As bad as our intelligence is, we aren’t dumb. I am not persuaded. Iranians have told us that there have been attempts to kidnaps Indians in the past”. Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar had made a similar argument to his counterpart Aizaz Ahmed Chaudhury when they met on April 26, on the sidelines of the Heart of Asia senior officials meeting.

Khan countered that there could be a plausible explanation for the Indian travel document. “Why wouldn’t he have an Indian passport? It is a good cover. He can say that he was on bird hunting or some other purpose, and just strayed across the border. I dealt with the area as additional secretary in the foreign affairs ministry. So this is not a new game,” he insisted.

While he said that spies were dime-a-dozen among neighbours, Parthasarathy acknowledged that “if espionage is the cover of terrorism, that is a serious thing”. “The fact is that he (Jadhav) is not the LeT (Lashkar-e-Tayyaba) massacring 164 in Mumbai, a Dawood Ibrahim killing over 250 in the Mumbai blasts or a Jaish-e-Mohammad killing scores in India”.

NSAs channel the key

Interestingly, Bashir stressed the importance of the communication channel opened between the two NSAs, which has kept the recent crisis at bay. “I think that this dialogue has managed the explosiveness of such incidents be it Pathankot or the [Jadhav] arrest,” he said.

He added that their discussions with Indian officials here indicated that they were “were more than fully satisfied” with Pakistan on the JIT. Bashir’s contention that India has told them that the JIT process has been “satisfactory” is certainly a step up from the reticence of South Block to term it as a success. Indian officials have so far preferred to bide time until the JIT submits its final investigation report and Pakistan gives a formal response to a request for a National Investigation Agency team to visit that country in the future.

Khan said that besides the NSAs discussing “these sensitive issues”, there should be dialogue between the security agencies too. Here, he was echoing Parthasarathy, who had proposed that if Pakistan wanted to discuss Jadhav, then there should be direct talks between the Indian RAW chief and his counterpart.

Just after Mumbai 26/11, the Pakistani government had first agreed to send the ISI chief to India for talks but pulled back under pressure from the military.

Commenting on the latest talks between the foreign secretaries, Lambah said that while they didn’t appear to have taken the process forward, the meeting was “very important and useful” as it was the first such contact since the Pathankot terror attack. Later, Riaz Mohammed Khokhar described the outcome as “love all”.

Lambah was scathing about the release of a statement by the Pakistani side “just six minutes” after the start of foreign secretary talks that the Kashmir issue had been brought up. “In our talks also yesterday, I said that such actions should be avoided. We should not make ourselves a laughing stock. This doesn’t show seriousness,” he declared.

Bashir tried to explain that the breach in diplomatic protocol was a result of the media intrusion. “If both sides are concerned about how the talks will be played in the media, then this will happen,” he averred.

He even went to the extent of saying that there had been an impression that the Modi government did not have a Pakistan policy. “There had been such extensive talks on the back channel under Lambah, but all of that seems lost. I hope that it is not loss… We were at a loss if there is a Pakistan policy,” explained Bashir.

The Hurriyat and ‘Rawalpindi’ factors

He pointed out that the Pakistani high commission had always remained in touch with the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC). “The assumption was that once the back channel got mainstreamed, the APHC would take part in some sort of form”. The Modi government had called off the first foreign secretary-level talks in August 2014, after the Pakistan envoy to India had met with Hurriyat leaders. Then last year, the NSA-level talks were cancelled after India prevented Hurriyat leaders from meeting Sartaj Aziz by putting them under house detention.

Much water has flowed down the Indus since then, with the Indian government not having lost too much sleep after Hurriyat leaders had meetings with the Pakistan high commissioner and attended Pakistan Day celebrations last month.

This is perhaps best reflected in a written answer to the Rajya Sabha on April 28, which repeated India’s position that there was no role for a third party in the bilateral dialogue. But, the reply submitted by minister of state for external affairs V. K. Singh also noted that since the Hurriyat leaders were “Indian citizens, there is no bar on their meetings with representatives of any country in India”.

Rawalpindi’s ‘veto’ in bilateral relations was defended by former Pakistani high commissioners. “The army already has its hand full (domestically),” said Khan, referring to the Zarb-e-Azb operation against the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. “They have been successful in security its people and hence have a say in national security policymaking. Nothing more”.

When Thapar mischievously asked Satinder Lambah whether he wanted to correct Kanwal Sibal’s impression that his back channel talks were basically about “swanning” around in various world cities, he snapped, “No. I don’t want to add to his ignorance,” much to the amusement of the audience.

Echoing those words, Qazi said that there “was no doubt that the Pakistan military is a strong institution and its point of view does impact on policy”. But he cautioned, “Whenever things go wrong, it will be too simplistic to say that the military is behind it”. He pointed out that there was also a rather hardline sentiment prevalent in Pakistan about India, which cut across both civilian and military classes.

Thapar referred to an analysis in The Hindu by Ayesha Siddiqa in which the Pakistani author had concluded that there were ingredients available for a military “coup”. “In the new Pakistan, security analysts are allowed their flights of fancy,” Khan responded, when asked for his views.

The other Pakistanis on the panel agreed, but also justified the fact that the Pakistan army will keep giving its ‘inputs’. “In our case, the army is a superb institution. They have delivered on security and external affairs. And they give their inputs,” said Bashir.

About the extent about Sharif’s influence on foreign policy, Qazi pointed out that his interest in improving relations with India cannot be doubted. “People tend to suggest that he doesn’t have a hand on all the levers. But he seems to be quite constant on driving the relationship, even if he is not always successful due to various complex reasons,” he said.

Looking toward the future, Menon felt that even if bilateral relations remained “accident prone” and it seemed that both have “gone through several cycles”, “it doesn’t mean that we stop talking”. “It is in our interest to keep making the effort,” he said.

Terror’s impact on political space

But Menon pointed out that the “most successful period” in bilateral talks was from 2003-5, when the border ceasefire worked and cross-border terrorism was at its “lowest level”.

After the border is quiet and terror drops, “then we can think of a modus vivendi where we can build something in which we can live with each other, even if we don’t solve everything,” he added.

“You were able to discuss Jammu and Kashmir when there was no tension on the border,” Parthasarathy concurred. “After Mumbai, with all respect to Shiv Shankar Menon, there was no political space for Dr Manmohan Singh to go forward.”

“(Indian) public opinion has had enough of terrorism. He (Modi) has to function in that environment. PM Modi has no political space to move. Hence, it is in our interest to keep talks away from the glare of media,” claimed Parthasarathy, even as he suggested that NSAs, foreign secretaries and even director generals of military operations should meet each other regularly.

Lambah also defended Modi’s commitment to take the relationship to new plane. “Let me tell you. His (Modi) election speeches very different but he did call me the day before he took over…and he wanted to take the relationship forward”.

He spelled out the the conditions for the formal talks, now renamed the Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue, to restart. “For the dialogue to continue, few things are important. Peace on the border and Line of Control. No cross border terrorism. Early, satisfactory completion of Mumbai trial and the Pathankot investigation. Guilty people, whether state or non-state should be caught. After that everything can be discussed,” Lambah said.

When Bashir demurred that “core issues” have to be discussed, Lambah retorted, “I have discussed their core issue (Kashmir) with them”.

Lambah’s advice – “Engage, keeping our interest in mind”.

Kashmir and the Kashmiris

Former Indian Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal, known for his hawkish positions, claimed that the Kashmir issue has been an older dispute between the neighbours than that of cross-border terrorism. “Terrorism is easier to handle than Kashmir. But, if the two are interlinked and terror is used to pressure India, it (talks) won’t go anywhere,” he said.

When Thapar mischievously asked Lambah whether he wanted to correct Sibal’s impression that his back channel talks were basically about “swanning” around in various world cities, he snapped, “No. I don’t want to add to his ignorance,” much to the amusement of the audience.

During the question and answer session, an insistent young man tried to get the attention of the moderator. When he finally caught Thapar’s attention, he identified himself as “Junaid from Kashmir”.

“When I hear everybody here (talk about Kashmir), I want to ask whether you are talking about the land or the people. I feel that my house is on fire, but I am locked inside and others are talking about me,” he said, adding, “I am from downtown Srinagar, and the only thing they want is self-determination”.

“Everything that we do as diplomats has to have a positive aspect on the people,” replied Menon. “Territorial issues are zero sum. Invariably you win or lose. So what we tried to make sure is to make borders irrelevant. If you look at what was done during that period, that’s what it was about. Stop making it a territorial policy.”

Parthasarathy interjected in support to provide the example of Northern Ireland. “The problem of Northern Ireland lasted 400 years. They came to a solution when both of them joined the EU, which allowed for smooth movement of people,” he said.

“I visited Northern Ireland.. what we were attempting here, and I have to give Dr Singh credit here, was to make borders irrelevant.”

He added that the Northern Ireland equivalent in Kashmir would be a “substantive economy”. “But all that is premised on the end of terrorism,” Parthasarathy cautioned.

Menon then mentioned the famous quote by US Senator George Mitchell, architect of the Irish Good Friday agreement, “We had 700 days of failure and one day of success”. “So, don’t give up,” the former Indian NSA advised. “We won’t,” Junaid Katju, a former journalist with a Srinagar-based English newspaper, added quietly.

At the end, there was unanimous consensus in the house that there was no alternative to talks between the two countries

“There is no substitute for talking to each other. Even if we agree to disagree,” said Shahid Malik.

Humayun Khan, probably the most senior among the Pakistani diplomats, said that the desire of the delegation to visit India was “not to defend or criticise policies”. “We came here as individuals who collectively represent 50 years of diplomatic postings in each other countries… Basically, we realised that in the long run, India and Pakistan have no option but to live in peace with each other. In the short term, we have to take steps to avoid major conflict,” said Khan, who came to New Delhi as Pakistan’s envoy in 1984.

Similarly, K. Shankar Bajpai felt that that the group’s discussions had been “extraordinary frank and friendly, and genuinely constructive”.

“We need to focus beyond the tu tu main main (he said, she said). We were genuinely concerned about what are the issues behind the subjects and what are the ways to overcome them. There are forces in both countries which prefer tension. It is incumbent on people like us to whittle away at those forces,” asserted Bajpai, who was high commissioner to Pakistan from 1976 to 1980.

Parthasarathy pointed out that there were “some issues that we are going to solve in our lifetime”. As a veteran of several Track-2 events, he described the discussions with Pakistani interlocutors this week as unusually candid. “In the 16 years since I retired, this was very different”.