Never the twain shall meet: India, Pakistan and the NSA peace talks facade

Peace talks between India and Pakistan collapsed on Saturday hours before they were scheduled to start, as the nuclear-armed rivals showed that they were unable to overcome deep-rooted mutual mistrust.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistan's Nawaz Sharif agreed to the talks when they met in Russia last month. But the countries failed at the last minute to agree the agenda for the meeting of their national security advisers (NSAs), due to start on Sunday, with Pakistan accusing India of imposing "preconditions".

 Never the twain shall meet: India, Pakistan and the NSA peace talks facade

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj at the press conference in New Delhi on Saturday. PTI

Pakistan pulled out after India's foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, said the talks would not take place if Pakistan's NSA Sartaj Aziz did not drop plans to meet separatists from the disputed region of Kashmir.

Swaraj also said India would only discuss terrorism-related issues, whereas Pakistan wanted a wider agenda that would, among other things, discuss the Kashmir question.

On Hurriyat, for example, while Swaraj said, "Don't talk to Hurriyat, no place for third party. Respect Simla pact." Aziz, on the other hand, had a radically opposite view: "Hurriyat represents Kashmiri people. Respect UNSC resolutions."

The agenda too was a matter of dispute. While Swaraj mentioned that the NSA talks will be only on terrorism, Aziz wanted the talks to be on all outstanding issues, including J&K.

Even their understanding of the UFA statement widely differs. Pakistan believe 'outstanding issues' also includes the K-word while India says 'outstanding issues' is the preamble.

And then, of course, there is always terrorism. It is Pakistan's firm belief that R&AW (Research and Analysis Wing) is responsible for a lot of trouble in Balochistan and other areas. They wanted to give a dossier to India's National Security Advisor Ajit Doval or to the UNGA in New York. Swaraj's riposte was simple: "If they can give dossiers, we can produce a living terrorist from Pakistan."

The collapse of the talks, though, raises some important questions and prime among them is whether the talk about the talks is always a facade. The trouble started soon after Modi and Sharif agreed to the talks when they met in Ufa last month. By the time, Sharif reached Islamabad, criticism back home was mounting.

At that point, Firstpost editor R Jagannathan had written: "It is premature and wholly illogical to term the decisions announced after the Narendra Modi-Nawaz Sharif meeting in Ufa, Russia, as either a 'breakthrough' or even the breaking of a 'deadlock'."

"India is not going to ease up on Kashmir or Siachen, and Pakistan is not going to play ball on any issue of vital interest to India - especially jihadi terror fostered by the Pakistani Deep State (army, ISI), or even the trial of 26/11 mastermind Zakiur Rahman Lakhvi. References to terrorism and the trial are just there for the optics – which may be worth having, but it won’t mean anything on the ground. Modi's proposed visit to Pakistan next year may be great for photo-ops, but that's about it."

And that is exactly what has happened. It is important for both sides to show the international community that they are 'trying' to talk; that they are 'trying' to sort issues out on their own. If anything, this is a facade that both sides try their hardest to keep up but perhaps they need to ask themselves if it truly is worth it?

Many in Kashmir would ask whether one can talk of terrorism in India without actually talking of Kashmir itself. Isn't that the bone of contention? Hasn't it always been? So when India and Pakistan talk about 'outstanding issues' shouldn't they both have been more specific if they were truly serious about the talks. But then again, maybe they wanted this grey area to exist because it gives them an escape route.

There is no way that the Modi government didn't know that the K-word wouldn't be mentioned during the talks but they deliberately chose to let it remain vague. It hurt no one and even allowed BJP to claim the UFA talks as a major victory for Modi, after all he went out of his way to contact Sharif.

In India, at least, we know the buck really stops at Modi. So if he wants to adopt a muscular policy then that is what the Army will do. But in Pakistan, Sharif is weakening and whether he can truly push others to agree to his agenda seems more unlikely with every passing month. So increasingly, his words count for less.

According to a report in the Economist, 'Early in office, Mr Sharif would not consult the army on any policy.' But that has changed rather radically and there is no way that he agreed to talks at UFA without the blessings of General Raheel Sharif. Still maybe the General wanted to just paint the PM in a bad light.

Both sides also knew that sooner, rather than later, Kashmir was going to enter the argument. Honestly, the grey area was there to account for exactly that.

India made it clear to Pakistan that a meeting between the separatists and Aziz was not appropriate, Pakistan reacted strongly to insist that it would not depart from the "established past practice" of interacting with separatist Hurriyat leaders. It almost felt like a set-up and a reason to dismiss any further dialogue between the two countries as a mirage; an optical illusion caused by our wants rather than reality.

This is why it is difficult to trust either side. This is the cloak and dagger stuff that politicians refer to as diplomacy. But as things stand, it isn't going to help India; it isn't going to help Pakistan and nor is it going to help the people of Kashmir.

And if there is one question that Modi and Sharif need to truthfully answer, it is this: Is the breakdown of talks what they truly wanted? If it wasn't, then they needed to do more to ensure that the talks didn't collapse this easily because in reality all that has happened could easily have been foreseen and accounted for.

-- With inputs from Reuters

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Updated Date: Aug 24, 2015 07:19:19 IST