By Vivek Katju
The Government has not as yet publicly confirmed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s meeting with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif later this month in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly Session.
However there are three clear pointers that the meeting will take place unless an unanticipated development occurs.
- Satinder Lambah, India’s “back channel” to Pakistan, travelled to Dubai last week to meet Shahryar Khan who is performing the same role for his country. The timing of this meeting is not a coincidence. The former diplomats would have focussed on the steps that need to be taken to ensure that the atmosphere does not get so vitiated that Manmohan Singh finds it politically impossible to go ahead with the meeting. They would also have discussed outcomes.
- The Pakistani Judicial Commission is due to travel to India shortly to examine witnesses in connection with the Mumbai terror attack case. The timing of the Commission’s visit is to enable Manmohan Singh to indicate to the country that Nawaz Sharif is serious in pursuing the Mumbai case.
- While Pakistani transgressions along the Line of Control continue, the temperature has considerably cooled. Pakistani actions such as the beheading of India’s soldiers or their killing on Indian soil can be attempted by the Pakistani Army at any time. But at present they are not escalating the confrontation even while keeping the pot simmering.
Thus the Manmohan Singh-Nawaz Sharif meeting will almost certainly happen but what will be its outcome? What brief will Sharif bring after getting the Army on board? How credible will Sharif be at a time when changes in the Army leadership are imminent? On his part will Manmohan Singh bend backwards to please Pakistan as he did in his meetings with Pakistani leaders in Havana in 2006, in Sharm-el-Sheikh in 2009 and in Thimpu and Male in 2010 and 2011 respectively? It would be useful to recall the concessions made on the crucial issue of terrorism by Manmohan Singh at these meetings.
In Havana, Manmohan Singh agreed that India with Pakistan were both equally victims of terrorism. In Sharm-el-Sheikh, just eight months after the Mumbai attack, Manmohan Singh conceded that dialogue and terrorism should be delinked. In other words Pakistan could persist with terrorism and India would still continue with the dialogue process. He retracted somewhat from this position but only under intense pressure from, among others, many members of his own party.
He also gave the Baluchistan card to Pakistan in a joint statement which the Indian official who co-drafted it admitted was “badly drafted”. In Thimpu and Male, Manmohan Singh acted as if terrorism really did not matter to India and resumed/activated the composite dialogue even if that name was avoided for the process.
Will Manmohan Singh go down the old beaten path of concessions that he has taken so far or will he introduce new elements that will serve Indian interests in a more realistic manner?
The national debate, at this stage, revolves around the questions: should Manmohan Singh meet Nawaz Sharif in New York and should we resume the dialogue process with Pakistan. The discussion needs to move beyond these sterile and general questions to the nature of contact and interaction that India should have with Pakistan and when should this (new) process be undertaken.
The traditional dialogue structure between the two countries was loose and bilateral issues were discussed at political and official levels as needed. Certain groups were also set up occasionally for more enduring talks.
Between 1994 and 1996, all bilateral contacts were frozen as Pakistan thought that through such a policy it would attract international focus on Jammu and Kashmir. However, as soon as he won the February 1997 elections and became Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif abandoned the no contact policy and reached out to India to resume dialogue but with a condition - he wanted the Kashmir question to be top of the agenda in a structured and integrated dialogue process.
The dialogue structure called the “composite dialogue” was negotiated between India and Pakistan between March 1997 and September 1998. At the initial stage itself, India agreed that the issue of Jammu and Kashmir should head the list of eight subjects that were identified for the dialogue. India’s main concern, terrorism, found place but was linked with narcotics.
Other subjects were Peace and Security, Siachen and Sir Creek. The Tulbul Navigation Project which relates to the construction of a structure on the Jhelum that would enable the level of water to be maintained at a navigable depth over a stretch of the river as it flows through the Kashmir valley was also made part of the dialogue. The project has been stalled for decades as Pakistan has objected to it under the Indus Waters Treaty. The three remaining issues were terrorism and narcotics, trade and humanitarian matters that covered inter alia treatment of prisoners and fishermen.
The first round of discussions under the composite dialogue format began in October 1998. While the term has been dropped, the subjects remain essentially the same. It is also noteworthy that the India-Pakistan Joint Commission which is co-chaired by the respective Foreign Ministers has also been revived. It covers areas of cooperation that stretch from agriculture to the environment to trade, culture as well as humanitarian issues. It has not made any real progress for Pakistan remains fixated on dispute resolution, though on account of its economic difficulties it has moved ahead on trade.
As the present dialogue structure is rooted in an integrated approach any disruption in the process on account of unacceptable Pakistani action means that all contacts are disrupted. An attempt must be made to adopt a differentiated approach though Pakistan may resist it because of its fixation on settlement of “disputes”. This approach may permit the continuation of meaningful contacts on humanitarian issues and with co-operative processes under the rubric of the Joint Commission.
A differentiated approach must give salience to the crucial issue of terrorism. It is here that Manmohan Singh has to send out an unequivocal message that the Indian public opinion is no longer willing to accept any acts of terror emanating from Pakistani soil by state or non-state actors. If Pakistani persists in maintaining a proxy war as part of its security doctrine, India will be forced to defend itself by all necessary means. This does not imply use of counter terror by India. The message to Pakistan has to underline the need for completing the judicial process in Mumbai attack case to a closure within the shortest period of time.
To emphasise India’s new resolve Manmohan Singh must take Siachen and the Tulbul Navigation Project off the bilateral agenda. In the case of Siachen there is by now almost a national consensus that Indian troops should not withdraw from the area. We should proceed with the Tulbul project and if Pakistan wishes to invoke the dispute resolution mechanism under the Indus Waters Treaty, it can do so.
On Jammu and Kashmir India should state firmly that as long as infiltration and terrorism continue from Pakistan, talks are pointless.
The real danger in the meeting is if Manmohan Singh, in his abiding desire to visit Pakistan, agrees to do so if Pakistan agrees to move ahead only on trade and makes appropriate noises on terrorism. India will then be rewarding it for what it should have done on trade in the first place and not done at all on terrorism.