Can India and Pakistan mend the rifts? Yes. Here are a few good tips to make sure we get there

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By Mani Shankar Aiyar

Fifteen years ago, Jaswant Singh and I were invited to represent India in a Track-II attempt to delineate the logic of the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. Our principal Pakistani interlocutor was Makhdoom Shah Mehmood Qureshi, fingered by Destiny to guide India-Pakistan relations into the second decade of the 21st century. And, boy, has he made a right royal mess of it!

Talk trap Foreign Ministers SM Krishna and Shah Mehmood Qureshi turn away from each other after their conference on July 15
Talk trap Foreign Ministers SM Krishna and Shah Mehmood Qureshi turn away from each other after their conference on July 15

I AM SURPRISED but astounded, for Shah Mehmood, as I have known him all these years, is, on the face of it, just about the best Pakistani Foreign Minister an Indian could hope for. He hails from the most distinguished spiritual family of the Multan region of southern Pakistani Punjab. As his honorific “Makhdoom” indicates, he will be the Pir one day in succession to his father. He has the closest ties of family and kinship with Prime Minister Yusuf Gilani, who hails from the same region and is also the designated inheritor of his father’s spiritual Pirship. Qureshi’s political credentials are impeccable. He never wavered in his commitment to the PPP, and was, along with his fellow Pir, Amin Fahim of Hala (who really should have been Pakistan’s Prime Minister but is now no more than Asif Zardari’s Commerce Minister), one of Benazir’s most trusted and faithful followers. Wealthy beyond the fondest imaginings of any Indian zamindar. Suave. Highly educated (even if his degree is from Oxford), beautifully dressed at all times, extremely well-mannered and highly sophisticated in language and expression (particularly in English, perhaps less so in Urdu — is that because his mother tongue is Serhaiki?). I would have wanted Qureshi as my counterpart, had I been able to make it to our own External Affairs Ministry.

Then what went wrong?
Perhaps it is that Qureshi’s relationship with India has always been star-crossed. His first visit to India came about as a result of Jaswant Singh and I protesting that, after two rounds of meetings in Singapore and Stockholm, it was imperative that the third and final meeting on the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline be held in our shared sub-continent. Thus, Qureshi landed in Delhi well in time to fly out to Udaipur, but then news came in that Benazir Bhutto’s third government had been toppled that morning, so Shah Mehmood had to fly back to Islamabad immediately.

Then, in 2008, after the fall of Pervez Musharraf and the installation of the Zardari/Gilani government, Shah Mehmood found himself elevated (to what must have been his own startled surprise) as Foreign Minister in his very first ministerial assignment. Within months he set out for Delhi. The afternoon of his arrival, I fetched up at the Taj Mansingh to congratulate him and welcome him to India. He was downcast. He had just learned that his wife’s father had suddenly passed away. He had to return home immediately, but promised to be back.

1 No peace pipe, this
Mumbai 26/11, the Taj Palace Hotel goes up in flames as the world watches on TV
2 Terror fair
Pakistani security guards examine the aftermath of a suicide attack at a shrine in Lahore in July 2010
3 Tongues of war
Pakistani hardliner Hafeez Saeed whipping up spleen against India in Islamabad 2008
4 ‘Active volcano’
Pakistan blames India for stoking unrest in its Balochistan region
5 Pain stake
Indian policemen jump out of a house in Srinagar, hiding a suspected militant
6 Jewel town
Kashmir, on the boil, restless; the dream neither party can give up on

Sure enough, Shah Mehmood was back in November 2008. It was arranged that he would have lunch with me to have a long, quiet, gettingacquainted- with-India chat.

Then came 26/11. Shah Mehmood was in Ajmer Sharif, scheduled to dine in Jaipur with Rajasthan Governor SK Singh, Ambassador of India to Islamabad, 1987-1990. Our Ministry of External Affairs called SK to tell him to cancel the dinner. I was next on the list. I was not, I was sternly told, to entertain our distinguished visitor. I enquired if I might at least call him, as a matter of common courtesy, to explain why. I was ordered not to speak to him. But my minder at our Foreign Office failed to instruct me not to speak to the High Commissioner. So I called Shahid Malik and, requesting him to keep Shah Mehmood at his side, explained the circumstances in which I was politically obliged to deny Shah Mehmood the hospitality of my home. Shah Mehmood understood without demur.

At the external affairs level, the imperative is to hold ‘talks about talks’, leaving it to the Home Ministers to chase up Mumbai 26/11

This indirect discussion through the Pakistani High Commissioner (we diplomats call it “proximity talks”!) continued into the tragedy that had enveloped the India-Pakistan relationship, and the shadow this cast on Shah Mehmood’s own yearning to be the architect of a new era of friendship and cooperation. We had just heard that Gilani had failed to deliver on his offer to send the DG, ISI to Delhi. Shah Mehmood begged me to see whether we could accept the alternative of the Deputy DG coming, and that he would try to come to pull Indo-Pak cooperation on 26/11 out of the morass, into which the DG to come had pushed the relationship. I frankly told Shah Mehmood that I counted for next to nothing and it was doubtful whether anything I said would alter the plunge in Indo-Pak relations.

Thus, Shah Mehmood had, for the third time, to return to Pakistan — Mission Unaccomplished.

I do not know what is the personal chemistry between Qureshi and External Affairs Minister SM Krishna, but from their ease of manner, as seen on television, till the disastrous press conference, it seemed they were getting on well. I would be surprised if it were otherwise for Krishna too is a welloff, well-dressed, well-spoken gentleman. Not, perhaps, in the same league, wealth-wise, as Qureshi, but quite as comfortable with the good things of life.

So what went wrong?
But before we get to that, perhaps we should be asking what went right. Mumbai 26/11 and the Headley revelations had been very much on the agenda when the two Prime Ministers agreed in Thimphu (April 2010) to get the dialogue back on track. Nor could there have been any hitch at the Foreign Secretary level because their talks in June 2010, which could not but have included the T-word, went off so smoothly there were smiles all around. (Earlier, in February 2010, readers will remember, Salman Bashir, the Pakistan Foreign Secretary had blown it by calling a separate press conference before leaving for Islamabad where he described the evidence tendered by us as “literature”). Yet, that gaffe had not thrown the dialogue off the rails; the body language, at any rate, after their second encounter in Islamabad in June bespoke bonhomie.

Most significant of all, I would rate the Home Minister’s visit a few days after Nirupama Rao returned to base. P Chidambaram is barely the man to mince words — and his counterpart, Pakistan Interior Minister Rehman Malik, is known for being both hawkish and outspoken. Clearly, the whole Headley dossier would have been at the centre of their dialogue — yet without disturbing the peace, as it were. Indeed, Malik has reiterated — after the Qureshi fiasco — that all commitments made by Pakistan to Chidambaram are in place and will be adhered to.

I stress all this for, whatever the later construct put on Home Secretary GK Pillai’s words on the eve of the Foreign Ministers’ meeting, what Pillai said could barely have been more pointed than what the principal prosecutor, India’s Home Minister, would have bluntly put to all those — Malik, Gilani and Zardari — he met while he was in Islamabad.

The proof of that pudding is in the eating. For if, indeed, it was Mumbai 26/11 that was the sticking point, why were “sources” telling every available TV channel that the repeated extensions of the talks were a sign of how well the talks were going, not that there were insuperable obstacles being hurdled?

Not a foreign affair Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Yousaf Raza Gilani at a bilateral meet in Egypt, July 2009
Not a foreign affair
Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Yousaf Raza Gilani at a bilateral meet in Egypt, July 2009

And, of course, when at long last the two Foreign Ministers emerged to meet the press, they were beaming — at any rate, Shah Mehmood was, Krishna being generally more reserved. They began by delivering themselves of their prepared orations — Shah Mehmood at dictation speed and inordinate length, Krishna somewhat more succinctly. But as Shah Mehmood stumbled over some of his lines, We the People clearly got the impression that some fairly impressive Foreign Office drafting had gone into his statement, an impression further confirmed when Krishna eventually took the floor. There was not one word, not one circumlocution anyone could have taken any objection to, other than stifling one’s yawn at the number of clichés with which both statements — but Shah Mehmood easily ahead in the race to boredom — had managed to overload their remarks. Everything scripted to perfection. The only question outstanding being the pace at which the process was to be taken forward.

Then why did everything unravel at the press conference? Was it because General Kayani and the rest of the army/intelligence brass had taken umbrage at the friendliness on display? Then, surely, such displeasure would have found its way into Shah Mehmood’s opening statement. For, it was not as if Shah Mehmood, after reading his prepared statement, had suddenly excused himself and rushed off to a hurried tete-a-tete with the Army Chief and then rushed back to rant at the press conference. On the contrary, it was only after internal consultation on both sides had been completed that carefully drafted statements were read out by the two principals.

What wrecked the meeting, then, was sheer inexperience and naivete in allowing the conference to overtake the carefully considered conclusions of the formal meeting. The two principals should have ended their press conference after taking a few barren questions on their statements, and then left it to their spokespersons to brazen out the rest (for that is what spokespersons are for — to act as lightning rods). They should not have allowed the press conference to become a bear garden in the open presence of a media left without a saucy story to tell and, therefore, keen on squeezing some ‘masala’ out of a successful if “bald and uninteresting narrative”. The blame for letting things get out of hand lies squarely with Shah Mehmood, but that should not derail a process that was going swimmingly well till he fell for the bait. Equally, the Indian delegation should have worked out with Pakistan in advance the scenario for taking questions at a joint press conference — as is the standard practice at all diplomatic conferences. Otherwise, we might as well conduct delicate diplomatic negotiations in Chandni Chowk if press conferences are to be the venue for disclosing discreet disagreements behind closed doors.

A school of thought in India believes diplomacy is a form of investigative journalism — expose the other man’s evil and hammer away at it

IN ANY case, it was a strategic blunder, in my view, to plunge into substantive discussions at such a high level without first structuring the dialogue to yield results. Instead of strategising the way forward, the two Foreign Ministers merely replayed what the Prime Ministers, the Foreign Secretaries and the Home Ministers had already placed on record. In a point-of-view I had earlier discussed at some length with the External Affairs Minister, and had written in a memo to the Foreign Secretary, I had argued that the Foreign Ministers should, in the first instance, initiate a process of consolidating the progress achieved over the last 13 years of “Composite Dialogue” into written agreements — especially the three extraordinarily fruitful years of back channel conversations (2004-07) between Ambassadors Sati Lambah of India and Tariq of Pakistan.

These have been truly extraordinary, for, as the Indian side has publicly hinted and privately confirmed, and Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri, the Pakistan Foreign Minister at the time, has thundered from platforms in both Delhi (February 2009) and Lahore (May 2010), the progress made on the back channel have indeed been remarkable. Agreements on Siachen, Sir Creek, the Tulbul navigation project and even Kashmir were but “a signature away” from conclusion. Why not then consolidate the solid outcome of that process as a way of setting the stage for the remaining issues, including, above all, India’s core concern over terrorism, and Pakistan’s over water? Is the aim of diplomacy public grandstanding over the other’s sins, or constructive engagement to arrive at meaningful conclusions?

There is a school of thought in India (well represented in the Foreign Service) that believes diplomacy is a form of investigative journalism — expose the other man’s evil and hammer away at that even if it contributes nothing to ending the menace (praying betimes that the Americans will pull our irons out of the fire). The minority sect to which I proudly belong believes that we alone can settle our issues instead of chasing the illusion of third power intervention. For that reason, engagement should be aimed less at exposure than at exploring common ground for joint action to end what is a common menace for both countries. Terrorism has taken about 100 times as many innocent lives in Pakistan as we lost in 26/11, and everyone in Pakistan knows that all the different terror groups are seamlessly merging into a single network that threatens Pakistan and the West as much as it does India. Dealing with terror selectively is no longer existentially possible.

Hard news Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik with Indian Home Minister P Chidambaram in Islamabad, June 2010
Hard news Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik with Indian Home Minister P Chidambaram in Islamabad, June 2010

I will instantly be told the difference is Pakistan was behind Mumbai 26/11; we are not behind the blasts and suicide attacks in Pakistan: that is a horror they have brought upon themselves. True. Too true. But by insisting on a mea culpa from the Pakistan establishment, which will never be forthcoming, are we not encouraging further outrages instead of working together to put a stop to them? And are we not rendering ourselves hostage to the very crossborder terrorism we ought to aim to neutralise?

Most Indians are sceptical of Pakistan’s capacity, let alone willingness, to end the terrorist menace, on the grounds that the Pakistan army and Intelligence are themselves breeding grounds for it. But to take such a monochromatic view of Pakistan is to seriously misread the situation. While there are elements in every segment of Pakistani society — army, intelligence, political parties, media, mullahs, and the aam aadmi — that bear an abiding hatred of Hindus and Indians, so too are there adamant anti-Pakistani Indians and communal elements in every section of our society. Diplomacy should aim at not letting such elements hold sway, and at expanding the constituency for peace that is there in every segment of Pakistani society, including the army and Intelligence.

TO DO so, we must not go in search of instant solutions. There are none. It is childish in the extreme to imagine that by roaring at the Pakistanis their house of cards will come tumbling down. Peace-making must necessarily be a slow, measured progress towards desired goals. Peace requires a carefully worked out framework for negotiations. And patience, persistence and closed doors behind which to hammer out outcomes acceptable to both parties. When, over the last 63 years, we have sporadically talked with Pakistan, the process has never been “sustained”, a word used by both Qureshi and Krishna at Islamabad but not followed through.

If the process is to be “sustained”, it must be structured so as to insulate it from the diurnal disturbances that are bound to characterise a relationship as troubled as the Indo-Pak one. Dialogue between us has always been “stop-go”, never “sustained”. To make the dialogue truly sustainable, the dialogue must be “uninterrupted and uninterruptible”, a phrase I have been flogging for the last 20 years (with, I might add, not many takers).

The India-Pakistan dialogue must be ‘uninterrupted and uninterruptible’, a phrase I have been flogging for the last 20 years

Therefore, at the external affairs level, the imperative is to hold “talks about talks”, leaving it to the Home Ministers to chase up Mumbai 26/11. I mean, shouldn’t Foreign Ministers be talking of making peace instead of parroting what their internal security chiefs have already settled?

To go beyond the fractured “composite dialogue” process — fractured because different elements of the dialogue were handled by different interlocutors — we should, as argued earlier, first consolidate into written agreements the positive outcomes of the composite dialogue, set the stage for “talks about talks” and structure that dialogue as “uninterrupted and uninterruptible”.

I would suggest the venue of the dialogue be shifted out of national capitals to the Wagah-Attari border, with the negotiating table placed across the border line (as in Panmunjom, Korean Peninsula, 1953 till today) so neither side is required to await the “convenience” of the other to get together.

Second, I’d suggest a fixed periodicity agreed to in advance: say every Thursday, as with the Vietnam- US talks in the Hotel Majestic at Paris (1968-75) that wound down the grim tragedy of the Vietnam War.

Third, I’d recommend a single, high-level, cabinet- rank interlocutor on each side — Kissinger and Le Duc Tho at Paris — to keep the dialogue from being fractured. (Note, the “composite dialogue” results came only when it was integrated on the back-channel with Satih and Tariq taking up all questions).

Fourth, I’d recommend that either side pick the subject it would like to discuss the following week without any veto right being accorded to the other party, plus a third subject to be mutually agreed. This would obviate the notorious tactic hitherto used for stalling dialogue: disagreement over what to discuss.

Fifth, I’d suggest a “zero hour” at the start of every session to enable each side to ventilate its grievances of a topical nature, so there is no scope for charges of a “sell-out” or suspected “appeasement”.

Finally, I’d recommend there be no artificial deadline for the conclusion of the talks. These things take time. Let them take time. After all, we have been through nearly 25 rounds of border talks with China since Rajiv Gandhi’s historic breakthrough visit to China in 1988. No outcomes have yet emerged, and no one knows whether they ever will. But what we do know is that it is precisely these time-unbound talks that give teeth to the agreement on maintaining “peace and tranquillity” on the border, notwithstanding provocations from both sides, military and diplomatic. With Pakistan too, let the talks go on till they yield results: jaw-jaw is the only alternative to war between two nuclear-weapons-armed powers.

And I am optimistic that the India-Pakistan dialogue, properly handled, will yield quicker fruit than the dialogue with China, principally because my three years in Karachi and the 20 or more visits I have made to Pakistan over the last 30 years persuade me that the Pakistanis are the easiest people to deal with — not the most difficult as is so often made out — provided they are treated with respect and understanding and good humour, eschewing hectoring and the scoring of debating points. Going by Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao’s statements — the most sober, balanced and constructive reaction we have had to the rumpus in Islamabad — that route is still on offer. (She has demonstrated her professionalism yet again after defusing the needless row over China’s “incursions” last autumn and the panache with which she handled Indo-Sri Lanka relations in the transition from Chandrika Kumaratunga to Mahinda Rajapaksa. I give her full marks.)

We have much to gain from sustained dialogue; from expanding the ambit of interaction away from cruelty and callousness, to re-establishing in the subcontinent the ambience of a composite culture, the Ganga-Jamuna tehzeeb that was the hallmark of our civilisational inheritance till Partition. This emphatically does not mean the restoration of Akhand Bharat. It means that respecting the irreversibility of Partition, we learn to treat each other as human beings, brothers and sisters whom much more unites than divides. When an innocent child chases his ball across the border, should he be arrested? Should fishermen who have deliberately or accidentally transgressed an unmarked line in the sea languish in jail without trial for years? Should soldiers who fought a war long ago be incarcerated for decades thereafter? Should even intelligence agents wither away in our versions of the Bastille for years and years and years, till they go insane as so many have? Should jawans in hundreds die of frost-bite, almost none to bullets, in a non-war in Siachen? Is it really so impossible to draw a line down the middle of the Sir Creek to forestall a repeat of the 1965 war? Should not the Jhelum be used, as it was till 1947, as the principal route to carry the produce of Kashmir to their natural outlet at Karachi? Is that not what the Tulbul Navigation project is about? Why not build dams on the Indus rivers system that will share their electricity with Pakistan and wean us both away from 19th century technology for irrigation? Should hundreds of visa seekers spend night after night in the ditches outside visa offices, shivering in anticipation of being denied entry once again next morning? Should we be confining foreign holidays to the rich who can fly out to London and New York but deny train tickets and bus rides to the aam aadmi to see how things are in the neighbouring forbidden land? Should we not be free to watch Pakistani TV in India? Should we not be allowed access to their newspapers and magazines, as they should to our films and TV channels? Should every qawwal and ghazal singer first prove he is not a terrorist before bursting into poetry and song? Tell me, did Ajmal Kasab and his gang of monomaniacs collect visas before embarking for Mumbai harbour? What do we gain from heaping these humiliations on our people, generally the poor and abandoned victims of history, who find themselves born into divided families? Whose interest is served by routing everything we wish to buy and sell each other, through a smuggler or via Dubai? Why can’t two brothers invest in a Pak- India joint venture? Why must we spend thousands of crores on hate and next to nothing on friendship?

THIS IS not a litany of complaints against India or a list of grievances against Pakistan. It is a joint charge against both countries that while their respective elites argue their case in drawing rooms and TV talk shows, the “dumb millions”, as Gandhiji called them, are those who bear the brunt of allegedly intelligent, educated and ‘patriotic’ leaders being unable to work out a via media among themselves. I’ve always been astonished at our Foreign Office’s uncanny ability to make friends with Paraguay but remain utterly bewildered by Pakistan. Had it not been for the historical accident of Pakistan, these would have been our fellow-citizens. Why do we find our kin so incomprehensible?

Why? Because our establishments have succeeded in demonising the Other and believing the myths we ourselves have created. But there are as many different Pakistanis, and Pakistani points of view, as there are Indians and Indian points of view. Indeed, I suspect Pakistani reaction to India is much more variegated than India’s because large parts of our country have no concern with Pakistan while virtually every Pakistani has a living relationship with India.

My close friend, JN ‘Mani’ Dixit, used to dismiss my views as a “Pollyanna” view of Pakistan. I plead guilty, for it is certainly true that I have more friends in Pakistan than I have enemies in India! But I am no more guilty than Gandhiji who wanted to spend the rest of his life in Pakistan promoting love and friendship, and would have done so if a religious bigot had not cut him down.

To not talk is to go nowhere; to talk is no guarantee that we will get somewhere. But there is no way to get where we — and the Pakistanis — want, except through sustained, uninterrupted and uninterruptible dialogue. And, remember, until and unless we arrive at a durable equilibrium in our relationship with Pakistan, we can never take our due place on the international stage. Nor even on the regional stage. Nor even on the domestic stage — for so long as stalemate and hostility persist between Pakistan and India, thus long will secularism — the bonding adhesive of our nationhood — be under assault from within. We cannot ignore Pakistan, nor believe that a troubled relationship is something we can live with. To move forward we must work to put the trauma of Partition behind us.

We might fail if we try; we are bound to fail if we don’t.

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