The Indo-Pak composite dialogue facing hiccups since its 26/11 pause, is seeing a sudden boost with talks at three levels lined up in Islamabad. IFTIKHAR GILANI reports.
Seventeen months into 26/11, India is making a fast forward move to re-engage Pakistan in dialogue. Three-level talks have been lined up, all in Islamabad, to bridge the trust deficit and chalk out modalities for future dialogue.
Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi rang up India’s External Affairs Minister S M Krishna and spent some 25 minutes discussing the modalities. The two agreed on Krishna’s travel to Islamabad on July 15, though Qureshi had offered to travel to Delhi in case Krishna had any reservations.
The agenda for the meeting will be worked out by Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao who will be travelling with Home Minister P Chidambaram to Islamabad on June 26 for a SAARC home ministers’ meeting. It is unusual for the foreign secretary to accompany the home minister, but Krishna directed her to make the trip to meet her counterpart Salman Bashir on the sidelines of the SAARC meet. Chidambaram will separately have a meeting with his counterpart on the sidelines to discuss terror.
The telephone did not, however, come without hiccups. Ever since the Sharm-el-Sheikh joint statement fallout, Krishna has been too cautious and a little nervous in his dealings with Pakistan. In Thimphu, when prime ministers decided that foreign ministers would meet to take matters forward, Krishna postponed a discussion. Instead, he told his Pakistani counterpart, that he would be ready to receive his call once he is back in Delhi.
Bitten by the false call episode that had almost raked a war between the two nuclear countries soon after the Mumbai carnage, the two sides had decided that ministers would talk on verified official landline numbers only.
A caller identifying himself as then External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee had called Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari without any prior notice, sidestepping diplomatic nitty-gritty, threatening a war against Pakistan. The call had sent Pakistan in tizzy, with a special plane arriving in New Delhi in the middle of night to evacuate Qureshi, who in a show of bravado had stayed back to conclude his three-day tour to India.
Afterwards, the diplomats exchanged telephone numbers, which were verified by intelligence agencies. After their stamp, it was the question of availability of ministers on these numbers.
Assuming everything has been set right, Krishana on May 6, announced in parliament to talk to his counterpart next day. Little, did he realise that, Qureshi on the other end was not available on the verified phone number.
Pakistan suggested May 8, but Krishna had already appointments lined up in Bangalore. He proposed Monday (May 10). But it appeared now Qureshi had engagements outside his office.
Ultimately, both found a convenient time on May 11, Tuesday, hours ahead of Krishna leaving for Kazakhstan. Under normal circumstances, the two foreign ministers would have met in Thimpu itself. Even though Pakistanis were ready to arrange a ministerial meeting, Krishna told his advisors that it could be done over phone after some internal discussions.
On his return, he conveyed through official channels to Pakistan that he would rather wait till the parliament session is over.
Indications that India is not dumping the dialogue process that was started in 2004 but brought to a halt by 26/11 came from Krishna as he told Qureshi to work out the methodology to carry forward the dialogue so that all outstanding issues could be discussed in an atmosphere of “mutual trust.”
He said the prime ministers of the two countries, after their meeting in Thimpu, had asked the foreign ministers and foreign secretaries to meet “as soon as possible” and discuss ways to reduce the “trust deficit.”
Krishna said the first steps towards reducing the distrust by holding talks between the principals of the foreign ministries were being taken following Pakistan’s assurance of “adequately” meeting Indian concerns on terrorism.
A meeting between the foreign secretaries in February this year was intended to send the message to the people of Pakistan that India believes in “open door, open communication policy.”
While analysts attach lot of significance to the resumption of Foreign Minister-level talks, they believe that Home Minister Chidambaram’s visit to Islamabad would set the tone for the future dialogue.
He would raise the issues of extradition of Jamaat-ul-Dawa chief Hafiz Saeed and others named by the Mumbai judge in his verdict while sentencing to death the lone terrorist caught alive. Further, it is also believed that India proposed July 15 meeting to let passions over the sentencing of Ajmal Kasab to cool down.
Analysts further point out that there was perceptible attempt to cool tempers in New Delhi’s power blocks. In a significant remark, Chidambaram, apparently bailing out Pakistan said idea of cross border terrorism needs to be redefined because Jihadis were drawing inspiration from West Asia.
“Terrorism of the jihadi variety is cross-border terrorism. Even the definition of cross-border terrorism has to be changed…..no longer does it cross our borders and go into Pakistan. It goes beyond Pakistan. It now reaches a few Middle East countries,” he added. The statement probably indicates India is ready to concede that Pakistan, too is a victim of terrorism.
The current structure of discussing eight issues under the composite dialogue process by different working groups led by respective secretaries had come up in June 1997 immediately after a meeting between then prime ministers Inder Kumar Gujaral and Nawaz Sharief. As India is loathe to return to composite dialogue format, it has, however, assured Pakistani counterparts that it was ready to discuss all eight issues.
Sources also believe that both countries were nudged to return to dialogue table, not only by the big powers, but the smaller countries in South Asia too had pleaded them to change their obdurate attitude. As other countries worked quietly, Maldives President Mohammed Nasheed came out openly in Thimpu on how SAARC has remained hostage to the India-Pakistan rivalry.
“I hope neighbours can find ways to compartmentalise their differences while finding ways to move forward. I am, of course, referring to India and Pakistan. I hope this summit will lead to greater dialogue between (them),” he said in his address. It was perhaps first time that these countries exerted pressure on both countries to come to table.
These countries believed that SAARC progress has been hampered by the hostilities of India and Pakistan, be that the issue of connectivity or trade agreements.
Indo Pak tete-a-tete since 26/11
Nov 26, 2008: External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee and his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mehmood Qureshi hold talks in New Delhi, hours before Mumbai terror strike.
Nov 27, 2008: Qureshi cuts short his three-day visit to India after the Mumbai carnage and rushes back to Islamabad
Dec 5, 2008: India presses “pause button” on the peace-time talks, putting off indefinitely several bilateral meetings lined up as part of the composite dialogue process.
Feb 26, 2009: Meeting between foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan on the sidelines of the SAARC ministerial meeting in Colombo.
May 31-June 5, 2009: 103rd meeting of Permanent Indus Commission that deals with cross-border rivers.
June 16, 2009: Meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistan President Asif Zardari on the sidelines of BRIC and SCO summits in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg. In the first summit-level meeting between the two leaders since 26/11, Manmohan Singh tells Zardari in front of the media that he has a limited mandate to convey to him that Pakistani territory can’t be used for terror against India.
June 26, 2009: Meeting between Krishna and Qureshi on the sidelines of the G8 outreach meeting in Trieste, Italy.
July 16, 2009: Meeting between Manmohan Singh and Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on the sidelines of the NAM summit in the Egyptian resort town Sharm el-Sheikh. A joint declaration delinking the dialogue process from terror includes a reference to Balochistan, leading to uproar in India.
Sep 27, 2009: India’s Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao and her Pakistani counterpart Salman Bashir meet on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in New York.
Sep 27, 2009: Krishna and Qureshi meet on the sidelines of the UNGA in New York. The deadlock persists with India asking Pakistan to take concrete action against the perpetrators of the Mumbai carnage.
Feb 25, 2010: Foreign secretary-level talks between India and Pakistan in New Delhi, with no breakthrough except both agree to stay in touch.
March 27-31, 2010: 104th meeting of Permanent Indus Commission.
March 28-31, 2010: Biannual meeting between India’s Border Security Force and Pakistan Rangers.
April 11-12, 2010: Manmohan Singh and Gilani exchange greetings at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington but no talks take place.
April 29, 2010: Manmohan Singh and Gilani meet in the Bhutanese capital Thimphu and direct their foreign ministers and foreign secretaries to work out modalities to bridge trust deficit.
May 11, 2010: External affairs ministers Krishna and Qureshi hold telephonic conversation. Qureshi invites Krishna to Islamabad July 15 for talks. Before that, India’s Home Minister P. Chidambaram will visit Islamabad June 26 for the meeting of home ministers of SAARC. Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao to accompany the Home Minister and set agenda for the foreign ministers’ meeting by meeting her counterpart on the sidelines of the SAARC meet.