Derailed by the language

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Pakistani insistence on a timeline to Kashmir issue and Siachen, and India’s fears of a Sharm el-Sheikh repeat spoiled the foreign ministers meeting in Islamabad, but more than that, the talks seem to have failed on the choice of English words. Iftikhar Gilani reports.

Mastery over English vocabulary is a surefire way to earn kudos, as Omar Abdullah did as a parliamentarian at the fag end of parliamentary debate on nuke pact and recently as chief minister while giving a Powerpoint presentation to Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh during his recent Srinagar trip.

But it is a bane when it comes to India-Pakistan diplomacy. Pakistan’s ace diplomat Iqbal Akhund in his book Memoirs of a Bystander: A Life in Diplomacy (Oxford Pakistan Paperbacks) writes about English skills of India and Pakistan diplomats. He believes that they have best English communication and drafting skills outside Britain.

But second time, after Agra summit in July 2001, the Indo-Pak talks were marred in Islamabad as both sides locked horns over the choice of English words in the joint declaration. A diplomat privy to the six-hour long bilateral talks between the two foreign ministers stated that English language finally nailed the possibility of any joint statement.

Pakistan wanted to use the phrase “substantive discussions were held on Jammu and Kashmir” in the synopsis of agreed points in the draft joint agreement, but the Indian officials felt a catch, lest it became another Sharm el-Sheikh embarrassment that the government faced from a reference to Balochistan in the joint statement issued after a meeting of the two prime ministers in July last year.

The Indian officials insisted on replacing the Pakistani phraseology with, “Jammu and Kashmir and peace and security would be discussed at an appropriate time”. The Pakistani side refused to accept for fear of a political backlash in their country if the statement eludes mention of Kashmir, particularly when its current political unrest was getting much of media attention in Pakistan.

And, so the Indian and Pakistani diplomats endowed with rich English vocabulary outside Britain to draft watertight statements found their mastery over the lingua-franca a bane.

While both sides discussed all the issues, including Kashmir, Siachen, Sir Creek and water dispute, India was not ready to mention the talks on Kashmir and Siachen in the joint statement that S M Krishna and Shah Mehmood Qureshi were to release after the Islamabad talks.

The Agra summit between President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had derailed over similar dispute over the choice of words in the joint statement. At the instance of then home minister Lal Krishna Advani, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) trashed the formulation on Kashmir agreed upon by then foreign ministers Abdul Sattar and Jaswant Singh and handwritten by the latter who felt he had used his mastery over English to phrase every word carefully. The trashed part of the joint statement read: “Progress towards settlement of J&K issue would be conducive towards normalisation and will further the establishment of a cooperative relationship in a mutually reinforcing manner.”

Contrary to the general perception of the failed Islamabad talks, sources say the delegation-level talks progressed well setting a calendar for the secretary-level talks on commerce, internal security, terrorism, visa issues and drug trafficking and water. But India insisted that no such calendar was needed on the issues of Kashmir, Peace and Security and Siachen and suggested to use the phrase that “they will be discussed at an appropriate time.”

The Pakistani side even asked India to put in writing its formula on Sir Creek issue, drawing the ocean boundary running in the middle of the Kutch, but still the Indian diplomats did not budge from their reservation to the calendar on the three ticklish issues.

Sources said the Indian side never shied away discussing the issue of Pakistan’s concern.

“We said building trust will be a catalyst to move forward in these areas. We believe there is need to warm up before the process is actually launched, but the Pakistanis insisted on a timeline for Kashmir and Siachen as well as had been set up for other issues and thus came the blockade in the closing moments,” the sources said.

Pakistan’s perception was that since Home Minister P Chidambaram had already flagged the issue of terrorism just 25 days ago and shared detailed interrogation of American citizen David Colman Haedley, it was expected that External Affairs Minister Krishna would broaden the ambit of dialogue, a Pakistani diplomat added.

On the failure of the Islamabad talks, Indian version is that Pakistan army’s anger on Home Secretary G K Pillai’s statement and insistence on timeline on Kashmir and Siachen as well as removing the reference to 26/11 in joint statement were the reasons of “deadlock”.  

They believe that Krishna and Qureshi were said to have made good progress during their first session of talks which started at 11 am and lasted for nearly five hours, well beyond the schedule. The two also had a working lunch.

Krishna’s schedule was to leave at 3.20 pm and to reach Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s office to meet him at 3.30 pm. The call on President Asif Ali Zardari was to follow at 5.30 pm at the Presidential palace. Just 15 minutes prior to his departure, Krishna was informed that the order has been reversed and the call on Zardari will precede.

In the time slot Krishna was to meet Gilani, Pakistan’s   army Chief Ashfaq Pervez Kayani met the prime minister. Kayani had also met Zardari. When the talks resumed after Krishna’s two call-ons, the atmosphere totally had changed and Pakistan took stringent posture and expressed anger at the Pillai’s statement.

Further, Pakistan wanted all mention of 26/11 removed from the joint statement, insisting  that “Pakistan is as much a victim of terrorism as India is; you have had one 26/11, we have a 26/11 every day”. They also wanted that Jammu and Kashmir and Balochistan be included in the joint statement, to which Krishna, fearing a fallout akin to that of Sharm el-Sheikh, said a firm no.

Countering that Krishna was receiving phone calls during negotiations, they said that in fact, Qureshi was getting chits from his officials during the joint press conference advising and suggesting him answers to questions posed by newsmen.  When Qureshi referred to “elected government of Jammu and Kashmir”, he received first chit instructing him to refer the phrase “Indian occupied Kashmir”. The second chit asked him to raise the issue of Balochistan.

Reports here further said that officials from both sides had worked past lunch on July 15 to produce a draft of common talking points for the joint ministerial press conference spelling out a mutually acceptable framework for future meetings and included language that worked around obvious differences on a timeline for the resumption of talks on Siachen and Kashmir. But when the Pakistani side sent the draft to Qureshi for his approval, the minister shot it down.

The final nail came when after fresh efforts the Pakistanis wanted specific timelines for the resumption of discussion on Kashmir, peace and security, and Siachen.  On the telephone calls, officials here have admitted that Krishna left the room with his officials at one point.

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A journalist with seven years of working experience in Kashmir.

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