Another Indo-Pak face-off
S Madhusudhana Rao
Notwithstanding the Pak rejection of ‘red lines’ and ‘advisories,’ India has set a deadline for Islamabad to attend or cancel the planned Monday meeting between the National Security Advisors (NSAs) of the two countries on Delhi’s terms and conditions.
Amid drama and high-pitched verbal battles through media, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj bluntly told Pakistan on Saturday that a meeting of the National Security Advisors (NSAs) will go ahead only if talks are confined to terrorism and the Hurriyat is not made a stakeholder. Islamabad is given time till Saturday midnight to decide.
Thus India has ended speculation and uncertainty over the fate of talks that have been planned to take place in New Delhi between Indian NSA Ajit Doval and his Pak counterpart Sartaz Aziz.
The talks were agreed upon during an impromptu meeting between Indian and Pakistani Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Nawaz Shariff in Ufa, Russia, held on the sidelines of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit last month. At that time they were hailed as a step forward to discuss the ongoing border tensions. A month later, when the date was set and all preparations had been made for the hyped-up meeting, Pakistan has introduced a new element before sitting across the table. That is, an invitation to Indian Kashmir separatist leaders to meet Sartaz Aziz before sitting with Doval.
There is every reason for the Modi government to be infuriated over Pakistan’s unilateral decision and involve a third party in what Delhi insists is a bilateral issue. Islamabad maintains that it’s the practice for its officials to meet J&K separatists before conferring with Indians since the disputed state is a party to an amicable resolution of the conflict.
True, most of the time, the Indian government had turned a Nelson’s eye to such meetings earlier. But after the NDA government came to power, the rules of engagement have changed. Since Pakistan is dealing with a new Indian dispensation, it can’t advance the old practice to push its agenda. However, that’s what precisely the Pak government has done either to force Delhi to accede to its demand or cancel the talks, throwing a gauntlet to the BJP government. Islamabad’s aim is to put Delhi in a Catch-22 situation.
Delhi has reacted in a predictable manner, asking Islamabad to cancel talks with J&K separatist (Hurriyat) leaders. Pakistan hits back saying that it “won’t take dictation from India” and would go ahead as planned if Sartaz Aziz visits Delhi. When neither side is willing to budge, the face-off has no solution. If India cancels the NSA meet, it gives a propaganda handle to Pakistan. On its own, that country won’t back off because it wants to entrap the Modi government in the name of facilitating a dialogue. In reality, Pak intentions are to divert focus from border skirmishes and LoC violations to the decades-old separatist movement, abetted by Pak militants and supporters in the Valley.
Finally, India has ended the suspense by spelling out its stand, a few hours after Sartaj Aziz told news persons in Islamabad that he would travel to Delhi for the talks only if Kashmir is part of the agenda because it is the “most important outstanding issue” between the two sides. It appears that Delhi has timed its announcement to throw the ball into Pak court in a decisive shot.
“The Pakistani NSA is welcome if they don’t expand the scope of the talks beyond terror and if they don’t involve a third party…The Hurriyat cannot be made a stakeholder,” Sushma Swaraj said. Pakistan has time till midnight on Saturday to give an assurance that the meeting of the NSAs will focus only on terror or else there will be no talks, she said. Bilateral engagements will not cease if the talks between the NSAs are not held because there is ‘no full stop in diplomacy’, she added.
In point by point rebuttal, Sushma Swaraj said, “All talks between India and Pakistan can’t be called dialogue and composite dialogue ended after 26/11 attacks …terror and talks can’t go together, productive talks can take place in an environment free of terror and violence. It was decided at Ufa that terror and talks would be delinked and counter-terrorism and LoC violations to be discussed at NSA talks …India will talk on all outstanding issues, including Jammu & Kashmir, when terror and violence end. Sartaj Aziz is welcome to come to India for talks …in keeping with spirit of Ufa statement, please do not extend NSA talks to any issue beyond terror and the topics to be discussed at each level was mentioned clearly in Ufa statement.”
If India has made its position crystal clear, Pakistan too has stood its ground. Its rigid stand has come out in clear terms when Sartaz Aziz said he is prepared to go ahead with crucial talks with India but Kashmir will have to be part of the agenda because it is the “most important outstanding issue” between the two countries. “Pakistan believes Kashmir has to be part of the agenda for any talks even though it is not implicitly mentioned in the Ufa statement. The K word is very much in the statement because we agreed to discuss all outstanding issues and everyone knows what is the most important outstanding issue…Kashmir is indirectly there in the statement.”
Sartaz Aziz also said, “No serious dialogue with India is possible unless Kashmir is on the agenda. This is a reality that India has to recognise…India cannot wish away that this is not an issue. Since he came to power, Modi wants to normalise (relations) on his terms and not talk about Kashmir. But the rights of Kashmiris cannot be denied, the people of Pakistan want us to help them and we are providing them diplomatic, political and moral support.”
Now, with both sides not budging an inch from their stated positions, what’s the fate of NSA talks? From every available indication and the body language of Sushma Swaraj and Sartaz Aziz, the talks will not be held. If we go by previous Pak actions and reactions to India’s attempts to fix terror responsibility on that country, its National Security Advisor will not arrive in Delhi. Instead, Pakistan will go on another verbal offensive blaming India for scuttling the high-level talks that could have paved the way for a preliminary round of a ‘meaningful’ dialogue. That means India has to brace for another bout of tit-for-tat diplomatic war.
There are a few lessons to learn from the episode that the digital media has turned into a high-decibel airwaves war. First, the Modi government’s handling of the situation from the day Pakistan government had invited the Hurriyat leaders to meet its security advisor to their house arrests and release and again detention at Delhi airport to prevent them from going to the talks venue; second, not taking the J&K government into confidence; third, the government’s flip-flops and dithering; fourth, to let Pakistan take advantage and seize the first opportunity to take on India.
In fact, the government acted swiftly in the case of Commonwealth Parliamentary Union (CPU) conference planned for next month in Islamabad. India had said that it would boycott the event since the J&K Assembly Speaker Kavinder Gupta was not invited. Pakistan maintained that since it is a disputed state, it can’t invite it as a host to CPU. India’s boycott threat has forced the CPU to plan it in New York.
In another non-political event, what the forthcoming movie Phantom crew has done should be an eye-opener to those who want to turn the tables on Pakistan. In TV interviews and promotions, the lead actor Saif Ali Khan has rejected Pakistan ban on the film as it is based on Mumbai terror attacks even before it was released. It was banned by Lahore High Court a few days ago on a plea filed by JuD chief and 26/11 mastermind Hafiz Saeed against it alleging that the film contains “filthy propaganda” against him and his outfit. The best way to deal with Pakistan is to go on the offensive before taking a defensive position.