Anti-clockwise, once again
Tired of warmongering and bloody terrorism, the people of India and Pakistan want authentic peace. Yet, every time there is a possibility of peace, the hawks on both sides manufacture an inevitable disaster
Sanjay Kapoor Islamabad (Pakistan)
It is hot and dusty in Pakistan's capital. In Islamabad, monsoons still seem an hour and ten minutes away by flight from Delhi, where clouds behave as a trailer of a B-grade Hindi movie - promising a lot without really delivering much. The now on and now off India-Pakistan talks, too, show the same eccentricities of an unpredictable monsoon.
So it was with little expectations that Indian Foreign Minister SM Krishna landed in Islamabad's airforce base at Chaklala to give expression to the spirit of Thimpu. At Thimpu, during the recent SAARC summit in April 2010, the prime ministers of India and Pakistan had agreed to talk with each other to bring down the "trust deficit" and fight the dark shadows of a violent, atavistic past layered by the viciousness of communal/religious fundamentalism and turbulent geo-politics of the region. This was easier said than done.
Many saw these talks as quite unreal - abstracted from the reality of Pakistan's manifest insincerity in reining in its home grown terrorists like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) that has been busy targeting India. What also created dissonance is Pakistan's inflated expectations about the role it would play in Afghanistan, once the Americans decide to head home in 2011.
Expectedly, Krishna, on landing at the airport, mentioned the revelations by the LeT operative, James Coleman Headley, who is in custody in the US, over his involvement in the carnage of November 26, 2008, in Mumbai and the imperative of the Pakistan government's response. Krishna's statement had factored India's Home Secretary GK Pillai's explosive statement where he claimed that fresh information from Headleys' interrogation by the National Investigating Agency (NIA) had suggested that Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) conceived and "executed" the Mumbai terror attack.
Such an allegation took the Pakistanis by surprise. After all, ten days earlier, Union Home Minister P Chidambaram had carried a dossier to Islamabad that was based on the revelations by Headley and demanded action from Pakistan against the perpetrators of the Mumbai attack. Chidambaram did not speak about ISI, but sources told Hardnews that the content of his discussion was little different from that of Pillai. Interestingly, Pakistan's Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, had enthusiastically responded to Chidambaram's demand by promising action in four weeks. In concrete terms this meant giving voice samples of the handlers of terrorists and speeding up the trial of those accused in the Mumbai attack.
Indian government sources claim that Pillai did not have any more information than what Chidambaram had given to Malik. What he did was to give expression to some of the information that lay tucked in the dossier. The moot question is, why did Pillai choose to speak on the eve of Krishna's departure, when his boss, Chidambaram, had already taken up the matter with his counterpart a few weeks earlier?
Krishna's mandate to speak with Pakistan was constricted by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), where both Defence Minister AK Antony and Chidambaram wanted the foreign minister to stick to the core issue of terror and Pakistan's response to it. Such an approach was considered limiting to any negotiations between the two countries, but members of the CCS thought that the country was not really ready for any breakthrough till Pakistan walked its promise on taking action against the Mumbai terrorists.
Worry was also expressed about how the noisy elements of the Hindutva forces would react to any kind of serious rapprochement with Pakistan. Of late, leaders like BJP's LK Advani have been claiming that India has been forced to engage with Pakistan under pressure from Washington. On the face of it, the cautious approach advocated by CCS went contrary to the desire of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to take advantage of the changed mood in a terror-wracked Pakistan and hasten the peace process.
A fortnight after the disastrous bilateral discussions in Islamabad, the leak of 92,000 intelligence reports from Afghanistan by Wikileaks may have lent substance to Pillai's allegations about ISI's role in fomenting terror in Afghanistan and the CCS caution - but the peace initiative thrashed out by Manmohan Singh and Yusuf Raza Gilani in Thimpu and before that in Sharm-el-Sheikh, was not supposed to pan out this way. Rainmakers on both sides had promised rain after zeroing down on probable outcomes when the two foreign ministers would eventually meet in Islamabad. IN FACT, THE dinner meeting on July 14 between SM Krishna and Shah Mehmood Qureshi was deceptively cordial. At that time it had seemed that the bilateral meeting on July 15 would produce some concrete results. Sources in the Pakistan government claim that Krishna had promised Qureshi that they will discuss all issues, including Kashmir and Siachen. Qureshi told his surprised officials that there would be a process of composite dialogue. Indian government sources claim that Qureshi misread the Indian delegation's response and over-reached himself.
Hence, when the formal discussion began in the office of the ministry of foreign affairs, located adjacent to Hotel Serena, it became clear that differences existed between the two sides. Indian officials were surprised by the candidness with which the Pakistanis addressed the issue of terror. Even the formulation of the Pakistan government on Jammu and Kashmir exhibited a marked departure from its earlier position. Indeed, during the press conference, the Pakistani foreign minister called the government in Srinagar the legally elected government of Jammu and Kashmir, despite exhortation by some media persons to dub it as Indian occupied Kashmir.
However, Qureshi's insistence on discussing Kashmir and Siachen did not meet with approval from the Indian side. While the Indian delegation was in agreement on soft issues like kick-starting the talks between the commerce secretaries and release of fishermen etc, they did not want to negotiate on subjects for which they did not have a mandate.
Expectedly, the optimism of the morning morphed into frustration and disquiet by the time the two sides broke for lunch. It was at this juncture that Qureshi alleged that members of the India delegation were seeking instructions from Delhi. It is rumoured that one of the officials used a skype phone - which works in wifi environment - in the belief that it cannot be tapped. Unfortunately, his understanding of technology proved inadequate and the call was tapped.
Qureshi's uncharitable allegation drew hostile response from the Indians, who, in a sharp riposte, claimed that he, too, stepped out to get his share of briefing from some people in the next room. Here, the obvious hint was at a possible ISI handler who was keeping a hawk-eye on what was going on inside.
The Indian delegation blamed the collapse of talks on the unscheduled meeting between President Asif Ali Zardari and Pakistan's Army Chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, who is believed to have conveyed to the civilian government the content and limits of engagement with India. This allegation has a ring of deja vu to it.
The truth is, every time India and Pakistan came close to striking a major deal, the Pakistan military has decisively stepped in. It happened in the early 1950s when the prime minister of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Bogra, and Jawaharlal Nehru agreed to sort out contentious issues. Nehru had agreed to a referendum in Kashmir, but Bogra was tripped. Later, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif came precipitously close to hammering a peace agreement with India; on both occasions, the army stepped in to oust them.
What is not clear is whether Kayani again read the riot act to Zardari. Pakistani sources deny this charge and claim that if ISI or the army was indeed opposed to any kind of engagement with India, then, there would have been no talks. They blame its unceremonious collapse on the way the discussion meandered and subsequently, the press conference entered a deadend.
Sources claim that the differences between the two countries got exacerbated when the diplomats from both sides were asked to put together a joint statement. Disagreements showed up on the choice of words and it got really messy. The press conference was postponed from afternoon to late evening. Thus, by the time the two delegations emerged, it seemed as if they had emerged from a bruising pillow fight. "It has been a very scrappy affair," a delegate told Hardnews.
Qureshi spoke in a measured voice without promising much, not exactly betraying the collapse of talks. There were nuggets about Jammu and Kashmir as elucidated above. Krishna also put into perspective the Indian position and expressed the resolve to carry forward the dialogue. Differences between the two countries showed up when the restive media was asked to field questions - two from each country. Provocative questions were raised on human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir, which, Krishna, to his credit, handled with great equanimity. Questions on Baluchistan and India's alleged involvement in insurgency drew a measured response from Qureshi.
It was at this juncture that Krishna intervened by stating that Pakistan had not produced a shred of evidence of India's involvement in Baluchistan. Qureshi kept quiet. He got back at him when there was a question about Hafiz Saeed (accused by India of being one of the Mumbai attack masterminds) and what his government was doing to keep him under check. Cleverly, he linked him to the "irresponsible" statement by Indian Home Secretary GK Pillai and how Krishna too agreed that it was "uncalled for". To the discomfort of many in India, Qureshi's uncanny statement evoked no rebuttal from Krishna.
The two foreign ministers shared a dinner together in the expansive hall of Hotel Serena, but it was apparent that there was no love lost between them. Next day, some Pakistani newspapers played up Qureshi's "weak-kneed response" on Jammu and Kashmir and the failure of the government to produce a "shred of evidence" on Baluchistan. Contrary to how it appeared in the press conference, the media reports in Pakistan actually contended that the Pakistani side has capitulated to Indian pressure.
Realising the mess he had got into without a matching response from India, Qureshi, quickly, and not too bothered about diplomatic subtlety, hit back gracelessly. Ignoring the fact that Krishna was still in the country and a 'guest', he blasted him in a press conference. He claimed that the Indian delegation was ill prepared and they did not have a clear mandate for talks. Qureshi sensed fault-lines in the Indian domestic establishment and hit out hard against both Krishna and Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao. By suggesting that members of Indian delegation were talking to Delhi implied that the foreign minister and his secretary were not equipped to take a decision and needed help from long distance handlers. It has been a serious charge that has scarred members of Indian delegation.
Later, Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani did damage control by reiterating his commitment to talks, but the two day encounter left blood on the conference floor. The Indian side, too, tried to limit the damage by questioning Pillai on the timing of his statement. Krishna, too, expressed his opposition to the timing of the statement, even while he had no reservation about its content.
Despite attempts by hawks within the Indian establishment to prove that ISI or the army killed the Islamabad talks, the truth is that there is a large constituency in Pakistan that was keen on a positive outcome. As repeated many times by the civilian leadership of Pakistan, there is a change in mood that wants to disenfranchise terror. Ordinary Pakistanis are fighting to save their soul.
The radicalisation of Pakistani society has brought two diverse streams of Islam in fierce confrontation. The Barelvi sect that follows the more liberal and sufi tradition is brutally challenged by the more puritanical Deoband school. Recent terror attacks at Data Durbar, a famous Sufi shrine in Lahore, has shocked Pakistan, and jolted many out of their stupor. Thousands protested against the attacks. The government, too, has begun to experience the blowback impact of backing the Deobandis to radicalise Pakistani and Afghan societies. Most Taliban are orthodox Deobandis and they have been hitting out violently against the peace-loving, humanist, pluralist spirit of sufism.
Pakistanis have also come to realise that all this State-sponsored terrorism has got them nothing except a reputation that makes them suspects in every act of violence in any part of the world. In other words, they are the new pariahs.
Worse, being tagged as a "failed state" means that the ISI/army policy to bleed India by "thousand cuts" has not stopped India from becoming a serious regional power. Ordinary Pakistanis, who usually took pride in the moral foundations of their 'nation-state', struggle to explain how an Islamic State could epitomise the worst in corruption and immorality. Google's bizarre and terrible findings that a large number of Pakistanis use the search engine for the most "offensive" expressions of sex has jolted many who believed that a religious state could provide the necessary moral force for a higher moral ground than their neighbour.
Like all envious neighbours, they hate India splurging in building a $3 billion airport terminal in Delhi, or preparing for expensive Commonwealth Games, when they are in such dire straits. Pakistan, which has taken a big IMF loan, has failed to meet its conditions to bring down its fiscal deficit and cut down subsidies. The dilemma for the Pakistani government is that withdrawal of subsidies would put greater burden on the poor, further driving them in the welcoming arms of jehadi trainers. Pakistan has a serious power problem and the outages run into 12-14 hours every day. Even a six star hotel like Serena in Islamabad informs its residents the timing of its cuts.
Pakistan is in deep misery, which is compounded by the demands that the US government is making on them to fight terror. Although the Pakistani army has been able to use its 'assets' like the LeT and Haqqani network to carve out a special role for itself in Afghanistan, ordinary Pakistanis fear that its engagement with its western neighbour is not really going to benefit. It could be yet another violent disaster.
"If Pakistan gets too deeply embroiled in Afghanistan, then it will start resembling Afghanistan," claimed an angry Pakistani. A Pakistani strategic expert stated categorically that Islamabad is basically much more strongly interested in Afghanistan, and it is was indeed willing to help India with internal security issues in Kashmir.
It is in such a socio-political backdrop that the engagement between India and Pakistan is taking place. While the civilian leadership in Islamabad is keen to seal some agreement with India as it could empower them against the army, a section in New Delhi is not keen to play ball. They aver that India has no need to talk to Pakistan and they should do only if Islamabad delivers on its promise to chase the guilty in the Mumbai terror attack. Manmohan Singh is keen to take advantage of what Pakistan's civilian leadership is offering, but, unfortunately, he has few in his party and government who want to back his important enterprise. The fiasco at Sharm-el-Sheikh is an important evidence of this limitation.