No Room for Diplomacy As Delhi Becomes Red Line District

Far from protecting India’s interests, the red lines have simply painted the government into a corner, where it can only sulk, as a prisoner of its own foolishness

It would seem from the bizarre fiasco over the talks between the National Security Advisers of Pakistan and India that Lutyens Delhi has become a red line district. All the fleshpots of peace, which Pakistan could transact for, are on display, but tucked away behind two red lines which it must not cross. Sartaj Aziz could not meet the Hurriyat, because that would violate the Simla Accord, and could not take up Kashmir with Ajit Doval, because Ufa had laid down that they would only “discuss all issues connected to terrorism”.

These lines did not need to be drawn, particularly where and when they were. Far from protecting India’s interests, they have simply painted the government into a corner, where it can only sulk, as a prisoner of its own foolishness.

Simla and the Hurriyat

The first red line is farcical. Simla simply committed both parties to “settle their differences by peaceful means through bilateral negotiations or by any other peaceful means mutually agreed upon between them.”

Pakistan was not proposing that the Hurriyat be a third party at the talks between the NSAs. The diplomatic reception at which Aziz would have met them can hardly be denounced as Pakistan’s deploying “unpeaceful means”. Having met them, as visiting Pakistani leaders have for over a decade, Aziz would then have entered into bilateral negotiations with his counterpart. It is hard to see how this violates either the letter or the spirit of Simla.

There is in fact a great irony in an NDA government’s raising Simla to the level of holy writ. In 1999, when Pakistan went to the International Court of Justice over the shooting down of the Atlantique, it invoked the Simla Accord in its cause, to which India’s response, in its counter-memorial, was categorical, explaining to the court that:

“The phrase ‘settlement through bilateral negotiations or by any other peaceful means mutually agreed between them’, clearly relates to future negotiations and agreements on bilateral basis rather than by any other methods, such as judicial settlement through the Court. The agreement was primarily concerned to put an end to the conflict and to initiate the process of establishment of durable peace inter alia by withdrawing forces immediately after the end of war.”

In its judgement, the ICJ noted that

“India argues that the Simla Accord ‘is no more than an arrangement between India and Pakistan first to enter into negotiations in case of any difference, and following such negotiations, to refer the matter to any other method of settlement to the extent that there is any further and specific agreement between the parties’”.

The ICJ accepted this precise and limited definition of the Accord, put forward by India, holding that

“The Court further regards Article 1 of the Simla Accord, paragraph (ii) of which provides, inter alia, that ‘the two countries are resolved to settle their differences by peaceful means through bilateral negotiations or by any other peaceful means mutually agreed upon between them. . .’ as an obligation, generally, on the two States to settle their differences by peaceful means, to be mutually agreed by them. The said provision in no way modifies the specific rules governing recourse to any such means, including judicial settlement.”

Pakistan’s meetings with the Hurriyat before bilateral negotiations are clearly “recourse to any such means”. They are preparations for negotiations. They neither replace the negotiations nor devalue them. The Hurriyat is not banned in India, and its leaders meet diplomats from all countries who have the time to waste on them. The charade with its leaders over the last few days only gave them an importance these hollow men no longer deserve, and made a mockery of the legal process in India, as Indian citizens were detained for no legal reason.

Opportunity lost

The argument behind the second red line states the obvious. Kashmir was not explicitly part of the remit of the NSAs, but if we believe that the problem in J&K for two decades has been terrorism by those trained, armed, funded and infiltrated by Pakistan, it was central to the discussions between the NSAs. It was therefore in our interest to raise this, as we would have. What could Aziz have said in response? That we unleash state terror in J&K? The only evidence he could have produced, at a stretch, was the treatment of the Hurriyat over the last few days.

As against that, we could have thrown in Aziz’s face the collective view of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association a week back that Pakistan must invite the Speaker of the J&K Assembly to the CPA Assembly in Islamabad, which it did not want to do. Isolated, and with its arguments rejected by the other Parliaments, Pakistan has cancelled the conference. That is a pity, because it had proposed the impact of terrorism on state and society as the first topic for discussion, where we could have made some telling points. But our NSA could have told Aziz that the Commonwealth has again shown that, like the rest of the world, it accepts our view that the elections in J&K reflect the will of the people, in a fair, open democratic process. Pakistan’s arguments that the terrorism it foments in J&K is a struggle for self-determination have no support anywhere.

All in all, our government has been unbelievably inept. It should have anticipated that Aziz would have found it impossible not to meet Hurriyat. The Pakistan government would have been shown as weak, and it is not in our interest to weaken the civilian establishment even more. We should have choreographed this at Ufa, or through diplomatic channels afterwards, agreeing on a process in which neither side would lose face. Our government could in fact have argued that, since substantive discussions on an eventual settlement of the Kashmir dispute were not on the agenda of the NSA talks, as it would have been on that of the Foreign Secretaries, Aziz’s meeting with the Hurriyat was so irrelevant that it would shrug it off.

The fact that it did not do so—that it laid down conditions it knew Pakistan would not accept, deploying arguments that were flimsy at best, and spurning the golden opportunities that had presented themselves, including the capture of the Pakistani terrorist and the cancellation of the CPA conference—raise worrying questions. Does Prime Minister Modi really have a strategy for Pakistan, or is it simply a bogey to be raised periodically, and then symbolically exorcised, to show how strong his government is?

Omniscient ignorance

In retrospect, Ufa becomes even more of a mystery. Since terrorism is now the core issue for us, we would have pressed for the meeting that has now been aborted. Raising the level from the senior officials who go through the motions as and when the Anti-Terror Mechanism (ATM) meets to that of the NSAs is not something Pakistan would have asked for. Anyone familiar with discussions on terror between Pakistan and India, including in the ATM, would have known that raising the level would simply raise the pitch of the slanging match that would ensue. The decision to do so is redolent of the omniscient ignorance that has marked this government’s handling of Pakistan, and is clearly what we wanted. Having got Pakistan to agree, we claimed this as a triumph. Unless this was an end in itself, we had to make sure the meeting was held, and put it to some use. Why then ensure that it could not be held, and let Pakistan off the hook?

To get the Pakistani government to act on our demarches, we should have strengthened its hands. Letting them meet Hurriyat would have given them a meaningless victory, and let them claim to the public and the powers that be in Pakistan that they had not let India browbeat them. There might then have been a slight chance that the Nawaz Sharif government would be able to take some action on our requests and protests. Clearly, we had hoped so, or why propose the meeting at Ufa? In denying them even a minor procedural victory, we have ruled out even the slightest chance of our making any substantive gain.

The government will puff out its 56-inch chest and claim, on the hustings in Bihar and elsewhere, that it has stood up to Pakistan and seen it off, lock, stock and two smoking barrels. In truth, though, our NSA has been stood up by Sartaj Aziz. And the sad farce that has played out over the last few days in Delhi shows once again how wise the man was who warned that one should never underestimate the predictability of stupidity.

Satyabrata Pal is a former Indian diplomat. He served as India’s High Commissioner to Pakistan, and as a member of the National Human Rights Commission.