So near and yet so far

Photo: Vijay Pandey
Photo: Vijay Pandey

Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri thought “Interrupted Symphony” should be a good title for his forthcoming book about India-Pakistan relations, but settled for Neither Hawk Nor Dove on the advice of his publisher.

The former Pakistani foreign minister, who has since joined Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, would not reveal whether he was inspired in part by how he found in a relative hawk like Brajesh Mishra, the late national security adviser to former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a reliable and honest interlocutor. “My book sends a hard message to Pakistan but delivered softly to India,” is all he would venture to say.

Kasuri, 73, recalls with great fondness and detail that the two nuclear-armed South Asian neighbours had come “very near” to an agreed framework on the Kashmir issue when Manmohan Singh and Pervez Musharraf were in power. Kasuri would know for he served as Pakistan’s foreign minister between 2002 and 2007; he was among a handful of persons on either side who have seen the contours of the back-channel talks between India and Pakistan start and evolve, only to be put in a deep freeze as, like most things in the subcontinent, the political climate changed without notice.

“Sir Creek was a signature away,” he says at a luncheon hosted by his dear friend Mani Shankar Aiyar in New Delhi, with a tinge of sadness mixed with exasperation at the glacial pace at which this roller-coaster of a peace process has meandered from the time both sides sat down for meetings, including in third countries, in order to gain an appreciation of each other’s bottom line. (Sir Creek is an estuary of about 100 km in the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat, which forms a maritime boundary with Pakistan’s Sindh province.)

The paradox is unmistakable: India and Pakistan had come very close to a resolution of the Kashmir issue at a time when their bilateral ties were at their frostiest, following the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament and the 1999 Kargil conflict before that. Alluding to former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger’s remark about “balanced dissatisfaction” as a possible means to resolving the Ukraine crisis, Kasuri insists that the personalities involved in the India-Pakistan back-channel talks could claim with a degree of pride and satisfaction to have achieved “better than balanced dissatisfaction” and arrived at a template that could easily be sold to various stakeholders in both countries, including, but not limited to, the peoples and legislatures. “Hundred percent (agreement) was never possible,” he says, adding on a note of caution that a minuscule “religious right” in Pakistan might not relent.

A strong votary of Congress parliamentarian Aiyar’s push for an “uninterrupted and uninterruptible” dialogue between India and Pakistan, Kasuri says it behoves of the prime ministers of both countries to renew political and diplomatic contacts when they grace the 18th SAARC summit to be hosted by Nepal on 26 November, which, incidentally, will mark the sixth anniversary of the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attacks.

This year’s summit will be held after a three-year gap; the last summit was hosted by Maldives in 2011. While some South Asian diplomats cite this anomaly to question the efficacy of SAARC as a regional grouping, some others believe that the eight-member bloc could be meeting too frequently (annually, in the case of SAARC, where the member-states host it in the alphabetical order) for its own good.

Sheel Kant Sharma, a former Indian diplomat and a former secretary-general of SAARC, feels that the annual summits attended by the heads of state or government leave their respective bureaucracies with little or no time to act upon or follow up on the declaration adopted towards the end of a summit.

Gowher Rizvi, the international affairs adviser to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, suspects the SAARC has been “designed not to succeed” given how underfunded it is and how more attention could be paid to strengthening its secretariat. Rizvi, who was recently in New Delhi, said at an event organised by a privately-run think-tank that the SAARC secretary-general’s post should be elevated to a ministerial rank in order to allow greater access to the political leaderships of the member-states. Shyam Saran, the chairman of the National Security Advisory Board and a former foreign secretary, in turn, feels that India should take the lead to make SAARC work.

The first SAARC summit was held in Dhaka in 1985. At the time, it had Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka as its members. Since then, it has grown to include Afghanistan as a full member and many more countries and multilateral organisations as its observers.

‘Modi and Sharif must develop personal chemistry for peace to succeed’

For someone who was privy to the delicate details of the protracted India-Pakistan back-channel talks that straddled two governments in India, that of former prime ministers Manmohan Singh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri would rather hide than reveal and understandably so. Given the sensitivities, neither country would want the painstaking effort that went into the talks to become a casualty of negative public perceptions without first preparing the ground for a grand reconciliation. However, the former Pakistani foreign minister wants the broad contours of the talks to be put on record and debated in the interest of a lasting peace on the Indian subcontinent. “I hope the current BJP government will give some thought to why Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee had concluded that talks should be the way forward,” he tells Ramesh Ramachandran in an exclusive interview.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

The two leaders also talked about ways to enhance cooperation. PTI Photo
False start Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif should meet again at the SAARC summit, says Kasuri

Your visit to India comes before a likely meeting between the leaders of India and Pakistan on the margins of the SAARC summit in Kathmandu. Also the anniversary of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks is coming up. Given that backdrop, how do you see the bilateral discourse or engagement evolving?
As somebody who has dealt with these issues for a very long time, I hope and pray that the two prime ministers meet and this despite the fact that I do not belong to Mr Nawaz Sharif’s party. I talk as a Pakistani. It is in our interest that the talks take place and I think Mr Vajpayee, the wise man of BJP, had gone through a lot of political journey before he reached the conclusion that he did. Nobody could be a better patriot than Mr Vajpayee. Nobody could doubt his wisdom. Nobody could doubt his loyalty to the BJP. So, he must have gone through a lot of experience, a lot of thought process, for him to reach the conclusion that he did. And that’s why he started the process and that’s why history will always accord that to him. We are lucky that Dr Manmohan Singh’s government followed it through. Previously, by the way, we were not certain that it would happen. So, when the BJP lost, we were very uncertain about the fate of the process that was begun by him would be. So, all I will say is that I hope the current BJP government will perhaps give some thought to why Mr Vajpayee had reached the conclusion that he did. Secondly, we have tried everything… war… near wars… nuclearisation; everything has been tried. I mean are we going to live like this? I think if you talk to a sane Indian privately, he is very angry with what Pakistan is perceived to have done. But when he is in a cooler moment, he says, after all, as Vajpayee rightly said, you can’t change your neighbours and we can’t change ours. There were people, by the way, not just in India, who said that they did not want to have anything to do with Pakistan; a lot of people in Pakistan said they did not want to have anything to do with India; that Pakistan is in the Muslim world… they were thrilled when the Americans came forward with the idea of an extended Middle East and included Pakistan in it. Now they can continue to extend the Middle East as much as they want but geography will not change. So, any Pakistani in his right mind will understand that he can be a part of the Muslim world or whatever he wants to be… he can be part of the Ummah but he can’t escape geography. And I go further as a positivist. I believe it is good for Pakistan. And I’m sure that there are a lot of good Indians who think it is good for India; that India, despite being a much bigger country than Pakistan, can achieve its potential truly when there is peace in the neighbourhood. And this is something that the Indians have said… Indian leaders are saying… I am not putting words in their mouth… they said it themselves. So, I think, keeping that in mind, let’s hope that the two prime ministers meet.

The India-Pakistan talks have a start-stop pattern to them. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s invitation to Nawaz Sharif for his swearing-in ceremony was followed by the cancellation of foreign secretary-level talks and, more recently, ceasefire violations across the Line of Control and the international border in Jammu and Kashmir. Is the atmosphere any more conducive for talks?
Let me put a counter question to those who put a question like this. When the peace process was serious, was ever a gun fired in the 2003-04 period? Not a single bullet was fired. So, I mean, the two things are linked. I agree entirely with Mani Shankar Aiyar when he talks about uninterrupted and uninterruptible dialogue… that’s, in fact, the reason why I support (a dialogue) because that is the nature of our relationship. And, of course, the famous Vietnamese bombing… the meeting in a Paris hotel between the Vietnamese negotiator and Henry Kissinger was not interrupted in spite of the bombing that was inflicted on the Vietnamese people, including phosphorous bomb, and you have seen the horrid photograph of the child burning… it is etched in my memory. So, when you talk of the state of the Pakistan-India relationship, it cannot be worse than that because no Pakistani or Indian government has in any war tried to burn people alive. I mean, to my knowledge, we have never used phosphorus. Both (India and Pakistan) have fought against each other and treated each other’s prisoners humanely. So, let’s look at the way we are different from a lot of other countries, luckily. Let’s build on it and my own feeling is that this is a temporary setback. I think Prime Minister Modi’s basic purpose is to develop India. This is what his winning slogan was and the people of India bought into it. He will have to deliver on it if he has to win the next election. In fact, in order to keep their aspirations, expectations and hopes alive, that they are not dashed, he will have to deliver and I don’t want to say anything more than what I am going to say to you. For that to be achieved to its full potential, there has to be peace in the neighbourhood. I have not seen any country develop, unless you are the United States of America, and have the capacity to literally do whatever you want to do with any other country and get away with it, but even they have paid a price. America has not got away with it. It has paid a major price for what it did to Iran and Afghanistan. Today, China has either overtaken or will overtake the American economy. Why? Because of these very distractions. So, it remains true that you need peace around if you want to develop.

Big step forward The formula arrived at by Musharraf and Manmohan could be the blueprint for peace

There was a lot of talk about a ‘Four-Point Formula’ when Manmohan Singh and Gen Pervez Musharraf were in power. It envisioned cross-LoC movement of people, phased withdrawal of armed forces, a new model of governance and a joint mechanism for carrying the process forward. In your estimation, is that a template that governments in India and Pakistan can and must work upon?
You see, there are a lot of thoughts that I am going to say in my book. Why did we arrive at that (formula)? It’s easy to write in four lines about a four-point formula but there was a good reason: The Kashmiris didn’t wish to be divided. So, we wanted a joint mechanism where Kashmir won’t be divided. For the first time, it gave some experience to the Pakistani and the Indian leadership to interact with each other in a conducive and a productive manner, instead of trying one-upmanship in the United Nations fora.

I know, I used to be thrilled when I used to be leading the Pakistani delegation because I saw young Pakistani foreign service officers work extra hard to get one paragraph brought into a NAM (Non-Aligned Movement) statement, about which I mention in my book. After keeping awake the whole night, they would tell me, ‘We have won a great victory, Sir.’ I’m sure the Indians were trying their best to ensure that the paragraph should not be included… (which talked about) a distinction between ‘terrorism’ and ‘war of independence’. What difference did it make? I used to then ask our young boys about the effort that they had made because ground reality does not change. You have to deal with India; it is your neighbour, a much bigger neighbour. What were we aiming at? A just peace. By the way, in the absence of a just peace, as I remarked to other people, even if one side wins, nothing can happen. The other won’t accept it; it will wait for a better day. That’s what happened to Germany and the result was Adolf Hitler. So, therefore, I think what we started, and I have staunchly believe and I have never changed my mind on that just as Mani Shankar Aiyar doesn’t change his mind, what’s more important for the current government is the journey — intellectual and mental journey — that Mr Vajpayee went through.

Like it or not, a lot more depends on personalities than systems or processes in the Indian subcontinent. Do you think personal chemistry matters, too? How important is it or will be for a dialogue among political leaders such as a Modi in India and a Sharif in Pakistan? Is there a critical mass on both sides to take the peace process forward?
You will be surprised that I devote an ­entire chapter in my book to personal relationships and Mani also figures in it. I strongly believe in it. It matters but is it a Berlin Wall that you cannot overcome? Not at all. My way of dealing with the Indians was first to accept that they are as human as I am. Their instincts are the same as mine. I was able to ­convince them… at least three foreign ministers of India I dealt with… that they could take me at my word, that I would do my best. I was not a dictator of Pakistan, but they knew if I made a commitment I will try my best. Human relationships matter, but it doesn’t mean human relationships are always among people of similar backgrounds. People who are entrusted vast responsibilities by their nations are ­under extraordinary compulsions to ­actually break the Berlin Wall and try and develop that empathy, because in the absence of that empathy I agree with you it’s very difficult to do any constructive work. If perpetually you are thinking the other ­fellow is out to do you in, then it won’t work. So I think Prime Ministers Modi and Sharif or whoever comes to power in Pakistan, they must develop that chemistry. But that is not going to happen overnight. Sometimes you (know some people)… Mani Shankar Aiyar and I knew each other but it doesn’t mean that I knew every interlocutor of mine. I didn’t know Natwar Singh or Pranab Mukherjee but I developed very good chemistry with them. They knew they wanted to serve India’s cause, I wanted to serve Pakistan’s cause. We have to first convince that our cause was not so completely in conflict. What was the common factor? The 600 million people living below the poverty line while the Chinese have lifted 600 million above the poverty line. The ­Chinese were behind Pakistan and India in 1949; this is something that we should try and emulate.

If I were to now talk about the domestic politics in Pakistan, we see your party and its leader Imran Khan agitating and mobilising public opinion against the Sharif government. Where do you think the domestic political discourse in Pakistan lies vis-à-vis India?
Here’s the good news. Nobody can contradict me. And I put it in my book. I have quoted him (Imran Khan), so when he comes to power, all those speeches of him will be quoted back to him. I have said in the book the areas where I disagree with Imran Khan but the area where I entirely agree with him is on India. And there are many statements that I have quoted and hopefully Imran means what he says and I have no doubt that he means what he says. I have seen a lot of goodwill for him in India, by the way. Although some people may not agree with his current politics, they have goodwill for him as a person.

So, my own feeling is that Imran wants peace with India. He wants a just peace, as I do. And then I did something clever. I actually briefed him before he was going to Mirpur to deliver a speech. He went on record that I have briefed him and he supports that. I’m interested in making sure that it comes in my book. So, that means that the next government after Nawaz Sharif’s will be our government.

So, am I correct in presuming that you remain an incorrigible optimist about the India-Pakistan peace process?
As I said, I have no option; the other is a disaster I am not prepared to confront. And for the Pakistan-India relationship with the history that it has, you have to be an optimist. But it’s not that I am a foolish optimist. I am an optimist based on what I saw at close hand. I could see people regarded as hawks like Brajesh Mishra (the late national security adviser) meeting me in Munich; we interacted as human beings. We have had hawks on the Pakistani side. Hawk or whatever, everybody is human on the inside. The point is to touch the right chord and everybody should know, Indians and Pakistanis, that beyond a certain point the other side cannot be pushed. If you realise that, no mountain is insurmountable.

So, the moment that came some few years ago is not entirely lost. Peace is eminently possible and doable?
Whenever there are statesmen in power, hopefully soon; if unfortunately not soon, whenever; they will have a blueprint before them. They will know this is the bottom line for both the governments. Beyond that neither government will relent. So, the good thing is that the work that has been done is on record. There’s no poker anymore. You can’t pretend to ask for the moon because the other side already knows what you have agreed and this is institutional memory by the way. Regardless of posturing, it remains in institutional memory. I can’t believe that Dr Manmohan Singh was not consulting the Indian Army and somebody in the (Indian) foreign office must have been in his confidence.

In hindsight, do you think Manmohan Singh erred in not seizing the moment and travelling to Pakistan in 2006?
It was just bad luck. You had elections in Uttar Pradesh and some other states. I wish he had come (to Pakistan)… hindsight, they say, is 20/20. If I think Dr Manmohan knew what was going to happen in March 2007, he would have strained extra hard despite the elections. So, I give him benefit of the doubt. I didn’t know what was going to happen in March (the protests by lawyers after Musharraf suspended the chief justice of Pakistan’s supreme court), so why should Manmohan Singh have known? I thought we were there for the next five years. That’s the next thing I have learnt in politics. Never make that mistake. When for the first time my name was mentioned as foreign minister, I accompanied Asghar Khan to Tehran and they thought he would be the prime minister and I would be foreign minister… this was several decades ago. And we were with the Shah of Iran and I say in the book how he was holding forth on Mozambique to Angola but didn’t know a thing that was happening in Tehran. And five months after we met, he was out. And he was at the height of his power. With all the American might behind him, the Americans didn’t provide him (Shah of Iran) with land for a grave. He had to go to Egypt to be buried. So, things change dramatically.


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