Weekly Program on World Affairs


The Cancellation of India-Pakistan NSA Talks- Dr. Ashish Shukla


The proposed talks between the National Security Advisers (NSAs) of India and Pakistan got cancelled with both sides blaming each other for the fiasco.

Technically speaking, Pakistan, which is under tremendous pressure especially from its military establishment and religious fundamentalists, took a U-turn from the Ufa understanding — India and Pakistan PMs’ joint statement had agreed to focus on issues related to terrorism only — to insist on the inclusion of Kashmir issue into the NSA talks’ agenda.

It is worth noticing that the very next day of the Ufa understanding, Sartaj Aziz had declared that talks’ agenda will include all outstanding issues between the two countries, including Kashmir, and any dialogue with India minus Kashmir was not possible.

And with the dates coming closer for the talks, Pakistan’s insistence to include Kashmir in the agenda grew. As this was not enough, Pakistan’s High Commission to India sent invite to Hurriyat leaders for a reception to be held in New Delhi so that Sartaj Aziz, prior to his meeting with the Indian NSA, could interact with the separatists. New Delhi advised Islamabad to understand India’s sensitivity and cancel the meet with the separatists before or after the NSA talks. Pakistan did not pay heed. At this stage, Indian side decided to strictly adhere to the Ufa understanding and put forward two conditions for the dialogue: First, the Pakistan NSA would not meet Hurriyat leaders, and second, the discussion will be limited, as earlier agreed upon, to issues related to terrorism. Pakistan did not like India making the talk conditional. This finally led to the cancellation of the talks once again. This explains the complex nature of India-Pakistan relations. The world doesn’t need to be convinced about the fickleness ingrained in Pakistan’s nature. But what about India which proclaims to be a tolerant nation?

Engaging Pakistan: Not an easy job

The fact of the matter is that dealing with a country, like Pakistan, has never been an easy task. Any doubts? Please ask Americans and they’ll tell you how they pumped, and are still pumping, billions of dollars, in post-9/11 period, into Pakistani coffers only to get a bloody nose in Afghanistan by Pakistan’s favourite “The Good Taliban.” It is a State which runs with the hare and hunts with the hounds. It is a State where decisions regarding major issues pertaining to foreign and security policy are taken not by the elected representatives of the people but by the security establishment. It is a State with the fastest growing nuclear arsenal that provides safe haven to the infamous international terrorists and uses various terrorist outfits as “strategic assets” to achieve its foreign policy objectives.

In order to do even usual business with such a State, one needs to have a well thought-out as well as cohesive strategy. Although, Indian policy makers, right from August 1947, struggled hard to devise anything close to a “Cohesive Pakistan Policy”, the incumbent Government appears to be the most underprepared among all and has, by default or design, sidestepped even basic principles and norms of international diplomacy.

Quest for novelty and the flip-flops

There was a lot of praise and appreciation for Modi’s neighbourhood policy when all the heads of the neighbouring countries, including Pakistan, were invited to his swearing-in ceremony in May 2014 when he became the prime minister.  The exchange of gifts (saris, shawls, and mangoes) between the two Prime Ministers —Nawaz Sharif and Narendra Modi-too generated a hope to set things right in India —Pakistan relations. However, the euphoria was short-lived with the cancellation of proposed meeting between the two foreign secretaries in August 2014 by the Indian side. A pretext — meeting of Hurriayat leaders with Pakistani High Commissioner Abdul Basit —was used at the time to justify Indian action. It is important to note that the Pakistani side had been meeting with the Kashmiri separatists, for over two decades, prior to any bilateral discussion with India. To be honest, neither Pakistan nor Hurriyat achieved anything substantial from these meetings.

The Indian Governments of the past always had reservations about such meetings but never went as far. The Manmohan Singh Government had even allowed Hurriyat to visit Pakistan to meet the Pakistani leadership! The new Government had its own logic — Kashmir was to be discussed bilaterally and any third party to the talks was unwelcome. There was some support among strategic analysts behind such a position in India because it was interpreted as a bold step and a departure from the past. There was a hope that the Government will stand by its position in future. The sceptics held that talks or no talks, India and Pakistan were not going to move an inch on any of the issues dividing them, given the predominance of the military in Pakistan after the Islamabad sit-in by Imran Khan and its proverbial distaste for reconciliation with India.

When Prime Minister Modi decided not to meet Nawaz Sharif in New York in September 2014, it was regarded as evidence of a new approach by the new Government to ignore Pakistan and move on.

However, that was not to be. The two PMs did finally shake hands in Kathmandu, howsoever cold and brief it might have been. It did take almost six months for the Modi Government to realise that it could not afford continued disengagement with Pakistan. Possibly, US President Barak Obama, while in New Delhi for Republic Day celebrations, impressed upon Prime Minister Modi the need to engage Pakistan. Then, in early February came the telephonic call from the Indian Prime Minister to his Pakistani counterpart wishing Pakistani cricket team good luck for the World Cup tournament. He also took this opportunity to inform Nawaz to send India’s Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar to Islamabad soon as part of “SAARC Yaatra”. This was considered an attempt to re-engage Pakistan; yet the sceptics in India wondered, if India were to resume dialogue with Pakistan without getting any substantial assurance from Pakistan in return, then what was the reason behind calling off the dialogue in August 2014.

Amid preparations of “SAARC Yaatra”, Pakistan denied visa to PDP leader Naeem Akhtar saying that Hurriyat was the true representative of the people of Jammu & Kashmir and their decision to deny visa to Naeem Akhtar reflected their official position. With this, Pakistan, in a way, offered a hint that it had not revised its stance on Hurriyat even if India had cancelled the talks in August 2014. Interestingly, New Delhi ate the humble pie and did not make it an issue and Jaishankar visited Islamabad as per the schedule in March. Finally, on July 10, 2015, the two Prime Ministers chose to meet on the sidelines of the SCO summit meeting in Ufa and decided to hold a series of talks starting with a meeting between the National Security Advisers of the two countries on August 23-24.

Who gained what?

Now coming back to the post-Ufa NSA-level talks, the Indian Government drew two redlines — there should not be any meeting with Hurriyat leaders during the talks, and Kashmir would not be discussed because it was not in the Ufa agenda. Quite predictably, Pakistan rejected these redlines and accused India of not being serious. One doesn’t need to be an expert of international relations and diplomacy to understand the confusion in Indian mind over engagement with Pakistan. Would the sky have fallen, given the history and complex nature of India-Pakistan relations as well as civil-military dynamics in Pakistan, if India would have chosen to ignore the purring from Islamabad and gone ahead with talks with the civilian dispensation at the helm? Knowing fully well that the civilian Government would behave the way it did, was it in our interest to push it to the embrace of the Pakistan Army, which had been engaged in India-bashing at home, as the vernacular media in Pakistan indicated very clearly over the last two years?

It seems the Government is more interested in trying out a new method of engagement compared to all the previous governments, than disengaging Pakistan. What the incumbent Government needs to remember is that the sole factor driving a nation’s foreign policy is the national interest that does not change overnight. It can bring in innovation and novelty in its approach even by sticking to the existing pattern of engagement.

Now the question arises, who gained what, from this cancellation? The answer is: both the Kashmiri separatists and Pakistani security establishment gained a lot from the cancellation of talks while it might not have shown India in good light at the international level. The Hurriyat which was tottering on its last legs received some oxygen, while Pakistan military tore into the civilian argument in Pakistan that it was good for the nation to engage with India. It is also true that Kashmir was back in the news in international capitals as an issue continuing to bedevil India-Pakistan relations. A seasoned approach with quiet diplomacy was the need of the hour rather than returning shrieks with screeches. The spoilers have had the last laugh.

(Courtesy: The Pioneer)