External Affairs

The Talks Are Off, Now Get Ready for India-Pakistan Relations to Enter Free Fall

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj gestures during a news conference in New Delhi on Saturday. Credit: PTI Photo by Kamal Kishore

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj gestures during a news conference in New Delhi on Saturday. Credit: PTI Photo by Kamal Kishore

New Delhi: Hours after back-to-back press conferences in Islamabad and Delhi by Sartaj Aziz and Sushma Swaraj saw the governments of Pakistan and India take mutually exclusive positions on a high-level meeting that had been scheduled for August 23-24, the talks process has not only been aborted but the stage is now set for relations between the two countries to nosedive further.

“Pakistan has carefully analysed the contents of the Press Conference of the Indian Minister for External Affairs, Mrs. Sushma Swaraj this afternoon,” the Pakistani foreign office spokesman said in a statement on Friday night. “We have come to the conclusion that the proposed NSA level talks between the two countries would not serve any purpose, if conducted on the basis of the two conditions laid down by the Minister… Pakistan, therefore, reiterates that the scheduled NSA level talks cannot be held on the basis of the preconditions set by India.”

The Pakistani statement also said “it is not improbable” that India might seek to “delay the Resumed Dialogue indefinitely” by “concocting one or two incidents and keeping the LoC hot”, “considering that many terror ‘incidents’ blamed initially by India on Pakistan eventually turned out to be fake.”

Though accusing India of so-called ‘false flag’ operations is a staple of Pakistani television commentators, this is perhaps the first time the Government of Pakistan has levelled such a charge against New Delhi. The statement, however, did not cite any examples of which incidents it believes were “fake”.

While terming Pakistan’s decision to stay away from the proposed NSA-level talks as “unfortunate”, the Ministry of External Affairs said in a late night reaction that “India did not set any preconditions. We only reiterated that Pakistan respect the spirit of the Simla and Ufa Agreements to which it was already committed.”

Swaraj set two conditions

In fact, Swaraj had clearly and unambiguously spelt out two conditions: that Pakistan must accept (1) that it would not meet with leaders of the separatist All Parties Hurriyat Conference from Kashmir, and (2) that the agenda of the talks between National Security Adviser Ajit Kumar Doval and his Pakistani counterpart Sartaj Aziz would not extend beyond “all issues connected to terrorism.”

Swaraj’s statement was in response to Aziz telling the media a few hours earlier that Pakistan had proposed three agenda items for the Delhi talks—an agenda that he insisted “was fully in line with” the joint India-Pakistan statement at Ufa where the NSA meeting was first proposed:

The first point [of the Pakistani agenda] called for discussion on all issues related to terrorism.

The second point calls for reviewing progress on actual decisions made at Ufa i.e. prompt release of fishermen, better arrangements for religious tourism, and activation of mechanisms for restoring peace across the LOC and the Working Boundary.

The third point was intended to explore the modalities for discussions on all other outstanding issues including Kashmir, Sir Creek and Siachen.

Swaraj said India was prepared to discuss all outstanding issues, including Kashmir—as envisaged by the ‘Renewed Dialogue’ and the earlier ‘Composite Dialogue’ process—only if the two sides were able to bring about an improvement in bilateral atmospherics by ensuring an end to terrorism. “Dialogue cannot take place if there is the sound of gunfire,” she said, quoting Prime Minister Narendra Modi. That is why the Ufa statement had said the NSA-level talks would focus on terror, she added.

Dispute over Ufa statement

Questioning India’s understanding of the Ufa agenda, the Pakistani foreign office spokesman said on Friday night that the “main purpose of any dialogue between India and Pakistan is to reduce tensions and restore trust as a first step towards normalisation.” This would not be possible if the only purpose of the NSA level talks is to discuss terrorism, for this would “only intensify the blame game and further vitiate the atmosphere” rather than improving the prospects for peace.

This was the reason Pakistan had suggested that “apart from discussion on terrorism related issues, the two sides should also discuss modalities and if possible a time schedule, for discussions on all outstanding issues including Kashmir, Siachen and Sir Creek, in keeping with the understanding of the Ufa statement,” the spokesman added.

While Swaraj acknowledged India had agreed at Ufa that it was prepared to discuss all outstanding issues, this formulation was in the “preambular” part of the statement and not in its “operative part”. Pakistan said this “attempt to draw a distinction between preambular and operative paragraphs in the Ufa statement appears to be an after-thought to justify a position that is counterproductive in terms of the ultimate objective of reducing tensions and improving trust.”

Hurriyat factor

In her press conference, Swaraj said that since the 1972 Simla agreement had committed India and Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir issue bilaterally, there was no room for a third party like the Hurriyat. She acknowledged that Pakistani leaders had met with the Hurriyat in the past but claimed India had never allowed such meetings to take place before bilateral talks between the two countries.

When challenged by reporters on a point of fact—Pervez Musharraf, for example, had met with the Hurriyat in Delhi on the eve of talks with Atal Bihari Vajpayee in July 2001—Swaraj changed tack and said ‘raat gayi, baat gayi’ (that is all water under the bridge).

The Pakistani foreign office, in its statement, said that meeting Hurriyat leaders “has been a long-standing practice” of Pakistani leaders visiting India during the past 20 years. “It would be inappropriate for India to now impose the condition of changing this longstanding practice.”

Dossier war, and uncertainty on LoC

Aziz made light of the charge made by a section of the Indian media that he was “running away” from talks out of fear of the “dossier” on Pakistani complicity with terrorists that Doval was likely to hand over to him. He said Pakistan had prepared three dossiers detailing its charges against India’s Research & Analysis Wing which he intended to share with the United Nations once he had handed them over to Doval.

His threat drew a sharp retort from Swaraj, who said India would produce a live Pakistani terrorist—Naveed, who was captured in Udhampur earlier this month—in exchange for any dossier Aziz brought with him.

She said the proof of Pakistan’s unwillingness to follow through on its commitment to talk to India about terrorism lay in long time—three weeks—it took to respond to India’s invitation for the August 23-24 meeting. India wrote to Islamabad on July 23 but received a reply, and Pakistan’s agenda for the talks, only on August 14.

While Ufa also envisaged expeditious meetings between the Directors General of Military Operations from both sides, and the heads of the two border paramilitary forces, so far only the date for the latter meeting has been confirmed, for September 6.

How the cancellation of NSA talks will impact that meeting and, more generally, the situation on the Line of Control and International Border remains unclear.