External Affairs

After the Collapse, the Questions That Still Remain

Sadly, the Modi government allowed itself to lose sight of why it had wanted to hold talks about terror in the first place

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in New Delhi on Thursday. Credit: PTI Photo by Kamal Singh

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in New Delhi on Thursday. Credit: PTI Photo by Kamal Singh

“Every conflict can only be resolved through peaceful dialogue,” Narendra Modi told a gathering of Non-Resident Indians in Dubai on August 17 while praising himself for the steps he had taken recently to forge agreements with Bangladesh and with Naga insurgents. Five days later, his government virtually walked away from a dialogue it had hoped to begin on one of the most intractable conflicts India confronts: terrorism emanating from Pakistan.

For all the promises he made of upending the dreary routine of the Delhi Durbar on matters of national and foreign policy, Modi has demonstrated in the 14 months he has been in office the same capacity for snatching shabby setbacks from the jaws of diplomatic opportunity that all his predecessors have shown over the past few decades.

If Modi has been a quick study in the fine art of failed peacemaking, he’s had able assistance from the political and military establishment of Pakistan—which has matched his government’s confusion and penchant for ad hocism with a sordid display of provocation and grandstanding of its own.

The backstory

Let’s start with what we know. Modi decided to draw a line under all the statements he had made about Pakistan while he was in the Opposition and invited Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for his swearing-in ceremony on May 26,2014. The two elected leaders hit it off and decided to get their foreign secretaries to meet soon to find a way to get the stalled dialogue process off the ground again.

There was, at this stage no talk of limiting the incipient engagement to terrorism; indeed, Sujata Singh, who was foreign secretary at the time, had prepared a fairly ambitious agenda for the meeting with her Pakistani counterpart which was set for August 25, 2014.

Two weeks before that date, news emerged in Srinagar that Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani would be travelling to Delhi to meet Pakistan’s high commissioner in New Delhi, Abdul Basit, to put across his views on the forthcoming talks. The Modi government took a full week to react. Strangely, it swung into action on the very day a leader from the other Hurriyat faction, Shabbir Shah, was to meet Basit. Pakistan was told such meetings were unacceptable and that if they went ahead with them, the talks would be called off. Basit’s instructions from Islamabad were that he should carry on as planned. India, therefore, cancelled the meeting of foreign secretaries.

The questions that remained: Why did the Modi government choose to object to Pakistan meeting the Hurriyat— a practice that all previous governments, especially the one headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had regarded as harmless—and why was no attempt made to convey this new red line in a timely and discreet fashion, something that would have increased the likelihood of Nawaz Sharif agreeing to India’s request?

The cancelling of the talks led to a period of free-fall in the relationship. Ceasefire violations increased and India adopted a policy of disproportionate, punitive retaliation. The violations stopped not because of the deterrent value of India’s response but because both sides eventually realised the futility of wasting ammunition and terrorising each other’s border populations.

India’s expressions of solidarity with Pakistan in the wake of the terrorist attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar created an opening for the relationship but this vanished when moves were made in Pakistan to release 26/11 mastermind Zaki-ur-Rahman Lakhvi on bail. The political hiatus ended but the situation along the border remained manageable until the onset of summer, when there was a new spike in ceasefire violations.

Ufa and after

During this period, Modi must have realised there was a downside to not talking to Pakistan and that ignoring Islamabad—as some hardliners advocated—was likely to create more problems for India in the long run. With some encouragement from friendly countries, Modi reached out to Nawaz Sharif and arranged a meeting on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Ufa, Russia on July 10, 2015.

A statement was quickly hammered out in which both countries agreed to “discuss all outstanding issues” as part of their “collective responsibility to ensure peace and promote development.” A number of immediate steps were identified, beginning with a meeting to be held by the two National Security Advisers in New Delhi “on all issues connected to terrorism.”

It is important to understand that this immediate emphasis on terrorism was important to the Modi government not because there had been any material change on the ground since August 2014—when India was preparing to discuss a range of issues with Pakistan such as trade and CBMs and not just terror—but because the Prime Minister needed to protect himself from the charge of having taken a U-turn. On cue, BJP spokespersons in Delhi started projecting Ufa as a major victory for Modi since India had kept out any reference to Kashmir and instead managed to keep the focus of future interaction limited to terrorism.

Given the political realities in Pakistan, it was clear that Nawaz Sharif could not have signed on to Ufa without the backing of General Raheel Sharif. Despite this, however, he came under attack in Pakistan for not having explicitly mentioned Kashmir in the statement. Sartaj Aziz was fielded to explain Kashmir was very much there (under the phrase “all outstanding issues”) and that Pakistan had no intention of dropping its interest in this subject. He also spoke about the possibility of reviving the back-channel.

The questions that remained: If it felt so strongly about the distinction between the “preambular” and the “operative” parts of the Ufa statement—a point External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj made on Friday—why didn’t the Modi government tell Islamabad that Kashmir could be talked about only after the terrorism issue is settled? And why didn’t India raise the Hurriyat issue at Ufa and remind Pakistan that this red line remained—even though the Modi government had allowed Hurriyat leaders to attend Pakistan’s National Day celebrations in Delhi and had even sent a senior minister to the function.

What Pakistan must answer

But India is not the only side whose behaviour leaves unanswered questions. Nawaz Sharif and Sartaj Aziz need to explain why, if Pakistan is so keen to move ahead on all issues, they agreed to the language of the Ufa statement in the first place. Even if one accepts their interpretation, Pakistan ought to have included language that would have made the ensuing process less ambiguous. If, as Aziz said on Friday, discussing the modalities of future engagement on Kashmir, Siachen and Sir Creek was so important that Islamabad was willing to abandon the NSA-level meeting altogether, why did it not seek to include a reference to them in the Ufa joint statement?

Second, Aziz was at pains to tell reporters that he had assembled three dossiers on the supposedly subversive activities of the Indian intelligence agencies inside Pakistan. If the information is all that robust and credible, surely it would have been in Pakistan’s interest to have gone ahead with a meeting with India, even one on the narrower issue of terrorism alone.

Third, even assuming the genuineness of Pakistan’s interest in discussing the modalities of future meetings with India on Kashmir, nothing would have prevented Aziz from raising this issue when he called on other leaders, namely Modi and Swaraj. Indeed, as his Prime Minister’s advisor and envoy, it would have made more sense for him to raise these issues at a higher political level than Doval’s. Cancelling his visit because India does not want other issues to be raised in the NSA meeting makes no sense.

Finally, on the Hurriyat, given the experience of August 2014, Pakistan ought to have realised inviting secessionist leaders at this time would be an unnecessary provocation, especially when—to use Aziz’s own words—”the main purpose of the meeting [between the NSAs] was to reduce tensions on the Line of Control and restore trust by addressing each other’s concerns regarding terrorist activities sitting across the table.” If Pakistan really wanted to reduce tensions, why did it insist on inviting the Hurriyat?

And some questions for India

When the news broke on August 19 of Hurriyat leaders being invited to meet Aziz in Delhi, top government sources provided the following briefing points to journalists covering the MEA: “In the aftermath of Ufa, sections of the Pakistani establishment have been trying to prevent talks on terror from taking place. After trying increased tension along the LoC and border and also terrorist attacks in Gurdaspur and Udhampur, the latest tactic is the Hurriyat invite. The aim is to get India to abrogate the talks and get the world to believe India called them off, but our aim is to make sure the talks go ahead as scheduled.”

This readout is significant for three reasons. First, though it comes after Pakistan had sent across its (objectionable) agenda, the Modi government considered the Hurriyat issue to be the only obstacle and not Aziz’s desire to talks about issues other than terrorism. By the time Swaraj held her press conference on Friday, however, India’s priorities had changed and it was clear that the main focus of her ire was the broad Pakistani agenda.  Second, the government’s analysis of rearguard action by a “section of the establishment” begged the question of why the Pakistani military should now want to scuttle a meeting that it had presumably given its approval for back at Ufa. Most importantly, if India really believed the Pakistani military was desperate to get the talks abrogated, this was all the more reason to ensure they went ahead as planned.

The Modi government should have been confident about India’s ability to neutralise Pakistani provocations and turn the scheduled meeting into a useful encounter. Apart from the dossiers which Doval planned to confront Aziz with, the Indian side no doubt had proposals and ideas on terrorism that would have been in India’s interest to pursue.

Benefits and costs

There is nothing particularly objectionable in Aziz wanting to discuss the modalities of future engagement on Kashmir and other issues. If the terror talks went well, India might itself want to move ahead on other issues. And if they didn’t, Aziz could easily have been told—at Hyderabad House during the talks, rather than via a press conference before the meeting—that future discussions on other issues would depend on what happens on the terrorism front.

Sadly, the Modi government allowed itself to lose sight of why it had wanted to hold talks about terror in the first place. India knew the talks would not be easy or particularly productive but realised it was still better to have them rather than not. There are costs and benefits attached to everything a government does. The downside of having accepted Aziz’s agenda would have been a few minutes of pointless and inconclusive discussions that would have had no negative consequences on the ground. The cost of the cancelled terror talks is not yet known but of one thing we can be certain: any negative consequences will most certainly be seen and felt on the ground.

  • ashok759

    Given how much political capital these talks consume to organise and how much rancour they create after or even when they are not held at all, it may not be a bad idea for the premiers to ocasionally pick up the phone and speak to each other.

  • S Thiyagarajan

    Contrary to expectations, the relationship between India and Pakistan got much worse after UFA than before. Realistically speaking, dialogue is the best option to sort out long standing thorny issues between them. But it cannot be a overnight development. You have to patiently pursue the process over weeks and months by track-2 diplomacy before hoping for a high level meeting. There is huge trust deficit between the two countries and it will take herculean task to set it right. But then, India is not talking directly to the real power centre, that is the Pakistan Army. Talking with the toothless civilian establishment which can wriggle out of its commitment at a cold stare of the Army is not going to yield fruits. Further there are vested interests in both the countries which wants to keep the pot boiling, the Pak. Army is the main culprit .