Indo-Pak peace process: Can backchannel diplomacy work now?

In his massive recent book, Neither a Hawk nor a Dove: An Insider’s Account of Pakistan’s Foreign Policy (Penguin/Viking), 2015, Kurshid Mahmud Kasuri, former foreign minister of Pakistan (2002-2007), provides not only a broad assessment of Pakistan’s foreign (also defence) policy since independence in 1947 but also makes a strong case for the resumption of the stalled backchannel diplomacy between India and Pakistan to find a fair and just solution to the vexed dispute on Kashmir and other issues.

Khurshid Mahmood Kasuri (L) at the launch of his book with columnist Sudheendra Kulkarni in Mumbai

Khurshid Mahmood Kasuri (L) at the launch of his book with columnist Sudheendra Kulkarni in Mumbai

He explicates and defends the framework for a Kashmir settlement evolved through backchannel diplomacy during 2005-2007. He says the endemic problems between the two countries can only be addressed by such diplomacy, citing Henry Kissinger who stressed its importance and held in addition that in resolving complex international crises, ‘the test is not absolute satisfaction but balanced dissatisfaction’ (p. 353).

Kasuri’s call for the resumption of backchannel diplomacy between India and Pakistan is no doubt very important given the sharp deterioration in Indo-Pak relations, which led to the abrupt cancellation of the National Security Advisor-level talks in New Delhi between the two countries on August 23-24. The leading Indian diplomat and politician Mani Shankar Aiyar has consistently argued in favour of ‘uninterrupted and uninterruptible’ dialogue between the two countries as essential for establishing peace in the region.

Kasuri’s detailed discussion of his country’s foreign and defence policy includes an account of the framework for the resolution of the Kashmir conflict evolved during the time of President Parvez Musharraf and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh through backchannel diplomacy. This is not widely known.

India and Pakistan became nuclear-armed powers in May 1998. Since war is not an option between the two nuclear armed neighbours, a peace process was initiated in February 1999 when Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee visited Pakistan and had discussions with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif leading to the much acclaimed Lahore Declaration. The representatives of the two Prime Ministers held backchannel discussions.

The 1999 meeting was followed by the Agra Summit in July 2001 between Musharraf and Vajpayee. Perhaps an element of mistrust of Musharraf on the part of the Indian leadership arising from his role in the Kargil conflict of mid-1999 contributed to the failure of the Summit.

While India held that the draft joint statement by the two leaders did not unequivocally condemn international terrorism, Pakistan argued that the resolution of the Kashmir conflict was more important. Some commentators felt that the Indian Prime Minister should have invited the Pakistani President to stay a day longer in Agra, visit the Holy Shrine at Ajmer Sharif and continue the discussions with the Indian leaders the next day. The Pakistani leader departed in a huff without the purpose of the Summit being achieved.

The author, in his discussion of the Agra Summit (pp. 157-60), identifies the lack of careful preparation as the cause of its failure. He notes that the subsequent meetings between the two sides were preceded by ‘difficult, painstaking and time-consuming’ preparations to make them successful.

The Agra Summit was followed by the SAARC meeting in 2004 in Islamabad which provided an opportunity to the Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee to renew his contact with Pakistani President Musharraf. A joint press statement was issued about the commencement of the Composite Dialogue Process from February 2004.

Our author, as the then Pakistan foreign minister, made his first visit to India in September 2004. Manmohan Singh, who had become the Prime Minister of India in 2004, remained in that position till 2014. Kasuri was able to meet the separatist Kashmiri leaders of the All Party Hurryiat Conference and others. Pakistan has always felt that these leaders had a key role to play in resolving the Kashmir conflict.

The then foreign minister of India Natwar Singh visited Pakistan in February 2005 and the Muzaffarabad-Srinagar bus service was started in April 2005. Ambassador Lambah was appointed by India as the backchannel negotiator in February 2005 to carry forward the peace process.

President Musharraf too made a successful visit to India in April 2005 on the invitation of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. A joint statement was issued proclaiming the irreversibility of the peace process. LK Advani, India’s leader of the Opposition in Parliament, visited Pakistan in June 2005. The separatist Kashmiri leaders from India too were able to visit Pakistan facilitating a dialogue between the three main stakeholders on Kashmir generating positive ideas, which were discussed in the backchannel negotiations. The Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee had already met the Kashmiri separatist leaders earlier in 2004.

The Indian foreign minister visited Pakistan in October 2005 and reviewed the second round of the composite dialogue. Our author reiterated the need to continue backchannel negotiations. The July 2006 Mumbai train bombings led to the setting up of a bilateral Anti-terror Mechanism in March 2007. Four meetings of the mechanism were held till October 2008.

Detailed and concrete work towards real progress was made via the backchannel negotiations from 2004 to 2007. The author made an appropriate evaluation of the process before demitting office in 2007. The Mumbai terrorist attacks in November 2008 came after the backchannel negotiations had reached a high level.

On the basis of these negotiations, President Musharraf and Prime Minister Singh agreed on a four-point formula for settlement of the Kashmir conflict which is explained by the author. Briefly, they were: i) Jammu and Kashmir would not be made independent; ii) borders would not be redrawn; iii) the Line of Control would be made irrelevant; and iv) a joint mechanism would be established for management of both parts of Kashmir. Thus, both countries found out that a solution to Kashmir and other disputes was feasible.

The author reiterates that the origins of the backchannel talks are to be traced to the time of Prime Ministers Sharif and Vajpayee following their meeting in February 1999 at Lahore. In January 2004, the joint statement issued by Prime Minister Vajpayee and President Musharraf stipulated that the Kashmir conflict should be resolved to the mutual satisfaction of both parties.

However, the envisaged visit of Prime Minister Singh to Pakistan to sign the agreement on the Sir Creek dispute had to be postponed in view of the forthcoming state assembly elections in India. Further, President Musharraf faced political difficulties because of a reference he made against the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan to the Supreme Judicial Council, which led to his eventual departure from office. The achievements of the backchannel negotiations for peace between the two countries remained to be consolidated.

The author hopes that the backchannel mechanism found to be useful by two former Prime Ministers of India would be utilized by Narendra Modi, the current Prime Minister of India, to settle the conflict issues between India and Pakistan.

The Hindu nationalist Prime Minister of India has hardened his stance on Pakistan. He has not only objected to any contact between Pakistani leaders and those of the separatist All Party Hurriyat Conference in the Kashmir Valley (allowed earlier) but has insisted that a discussion of cross border terrorism should precede a debate on Kashmir.

Further, it is reported that in a tit-for-tat move against Pakistan’s focus on human rights violations by the security forces in Kashmir, India is making a show of its support to the cause of dissidents in Baluchistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan. Is there room for backchannel diplomacy here? Kasuri would probably say ‘yes’ since there is no other option short of war!

Should Kasuri have met the incumbent Prime Minister of India to share his thoughts on this grave subject?

(The author is a former Director General of Police in Northeast India. He has authored State, Policy and Conflicts in Northeast India, Routledge, forthcoming)

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