External Affairs

Modi Erred Once in Making Hurriyat the Issue. He Should Not Do So Again.

Pakistan’s decision to invite Hurriyat leaders to Delhi for a meeting with its National Security Adviser when the latter is in town for talks with his Indian counterpart on August 23-24 is a challenge—or provocation—that will test both the diplomatic skills and political wisdom of the Narendra Modi government.

Last August, the Prime Minister canceled what was going to be the first proper engagement between India and Pakistan in years because the Pakistani side did what it has always done on the eve of such talks without any adverse repercussions: it scheduled a meeting of its own with separatist leaders from the Hurriyat in Kashmir.

“At a time when serious initiatives were being undertaken by the Government of India to move bilateral ties forward, including towards the resumption of a regular dialogue process,” the Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement on August 18,  “the invitation to so-called leaders of the Hurriyat by Pakistan’s High Commissioner does indeed raise questions about Pakistan’s sincerity, and shows that its negative approaches and attempts to interfere in India’s internal affairs continue unabated.”

“It was underlined that the Pakistani High Commissioner’s meetings with these so called leaders of the Hurriyat undermines the constructive diplomatic engagement initiated by Prime Minister Modi in May on his very first day in office”, the MEA said, adding that Pakistan had now been told “in clear and unambiguous terms” that such “[interference] in India’s internal affairs [was] unacceptable” and that “under the present circumstances, it is felt that no useful purpose will be served by the Indian Foreign Secretary going to Islamabad next week … for talks…”

Ad hoc and unwise

Analysts at the time saw the cancellation of talks over Pakistan’s contacts with the Hurriyat as an attempt by the Modi government to draw new red lines in a a bilateral relationship that already had a number of conditions attached: no talks with terror, progress in the 26/11 trial, etc. While the BJP and a section of the retireati applauded this hardening of India’s position, others questioned the wisdom of raising the bar so high on an issue—the Hurriyat and its role—that had become increasingly irrelevant over the years.

Either way, the manner in which the demand was raised certainly suggested a certain degree of ad hocism on the part of the government. After all, the PMO knew at least a week in advance about the Pakistani High Commissioner’s proposed meeting with Hurriyat leaders. If the Prime Minister really wanted to lay down a new policy on the matter, he could have tried communicating his position through diplomatic channels or even politically, to Nawaz Sharif, with whom he had supposedly established a certain degree of warmth. Had Islamabad refused to budge, the talks could then have been called off. Instead, the government’s decision to take a stand over Pakistan talking to the Hurriyat came as something of an afterthought and was communicated to its High Commissioner just as his meeting with Hurriyat leader Shabbir Shah was about to begin.

Going public with his demand on the Hurriyat created two problems for Modi. It reduced the likelihood of Pakistan’s civilian government being able to concede the point without alienating the military establishment and its political opposition. But it also set the stage for India to hurt itself by either being forced to drop this condition for talks or entering a lengthy period of no contact—during which time relations would inevitably deteriorate.

Way out of dead-end

At Ufa, Modi was wise enough to recognise he had backed himself into a corner and worked out a contrivance with which to emerge. In a joint statement with Nawaz Sharif, he agreed to pick up the threads of the dialogue that had been cast aside last August, with the first step being a discussion on terrorism between the two NSAs. Given the link between terrorism and Kashmir, the ceasefire violations along the Line of Control and also the allegations from Pakistan of how India has been encouraging Balochi separatism and even acts of terror, it was inevitable that the NSA dialogue would end up touching on a wide range of subjects.

Under attack for failing to include an explicit reference to Kashmir in the Ufa statement, Nawaz Sharif has made it clear he is sending Sartaj Aziz to New Delhi with a laundry list of Pakistani complaints. And though “Jammu and Kashmir” may not figure as an explicit agenda item, he is demonstrating his continuing commitment to what Pakistan considers the “core issue” by making sure Aziz does meet the Hurriyat.

A senior official in the Modi government has described Aziz’s upcoming meeting with the Hurriyat as a desperate attempt by a section of the Pakistani establishment to get India to “abrogate” the talks since the focus is going to be on terrorism. Ironically, the agenda South Block had prepared for the August 25, 2014 meeting of foreign secretaries was also primarily focused on terror, yet India chose to abrogate them over the Hurriyat issue.

What is often conveniently overlooked is the fact that Nawaz Sharif could not have agreed to the Ufa statement without the backing of the same section of the Pakistani establishment which, in turn, has also signed off on the agenda that Sartaj Aziz sent to Delhi in advance of his arrival. There is, thus, no evidence that Pakistan is keen to call off the August 23-24 talks. What it does want to signal, however, is that it is not prepared to dilute its traditional position on Kashmir. The Pakistani High Commissioner’s August 14 speech was also intended to send the same message to the Modi government.

In Modi’s own words

The Hurriyat leaders have been invited to a reception along with hundreds of others but their meeting with Aziz is a photo op Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistani establishment need to convince their detractors that what they agreed to at Ufa was not a betrayal. While the same photo will be flashed by Modi’s detractors as proof of his failure to stand firm on his threats, it is important that the Prime Minister stands firm on the course he has chosen. As he said in his speech to the Indian community in the UAE earlier this week, “however complicated a problem might be, it can be solved through dialogue.”

It stands to reason that such a dialogue should not be held hostage to unnecessary pre-conditions.