All eyes on Pakistan’s commitment to peace in the region


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WPS Sidhu argues that Pakistan walking away from the Ufa Agreement talks will be seen as Pakistan walking away from terrorism talks

This interview first appeared on CNN-IBN channel. Watch the full discussion here.

Key highlights

  • This government is not going to allow Pakistan to meet Kashmir separatists on its own
  • Pakistan pulling away from these talks will be seen as them walking away from terrorism talks
  • At this stage of the talks, Pakistan cannot negotiate about the preamble of the Ufa agreement itself
  • Calling off of these talks is part of a much bigger global geo-political dance that India and Pakistan have done for years
  • US withdrawal from Afghanistan will put the pressure back on terrorism for Pakistan
  • Important to find out if Pakistan’s engagement with Hurriyat has actually advanced the cause of Kashmir or not
  • There has been a certain degree of continuity in Indo-Pak relations, but this government’s message is more firm

What do you think is the reason for this tough stand taken by the Indian Foreign Minister? Do they also want to show somewhere that there has been no climbdown by the Indian side?
Absolutely. There’s a fundamental element here that we need to keep in mind: India and particularly this government is changing the nature of the conversation. From now on this is going to be the new normal. In the past the governments may have allowed the Hurriyat to meet, but this government is certainly not going to allow that. We’ve seen evidence of that going forward and that is very much the new normal.

Even if Pakistan pulls out at this stage India would have already succeeded in very clearly making this summit about terrorism that Pakistan walked away from. India has been saying for weeks that it’s got dossiers that it wants to share and today, the Pakistani National Security Advisor reciprocated that by saying they also had dossiers to share. This has really become about terrorism, something that Pakistan also signed on to, but is now walking away from.

If India is setting the tone here and saying this is the new normal, you cannot bring Kashmir on the table, you cannot talk to any separatist before India, than how can the Pakistani side going to reply? How are they going to accept these conditions in future?
This is part of the reason why you’re seeing the kind of response that you are from Pakistan because they see a narrowing window of opportunity. With the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, there is really a declining role of Pakistan in stabilising the reason. With that support gone they’re going to feel increasing pressure on many of these other issues, particularly on terrorism. It’s ironic, because had they been wise they might have seen this as part of a long drawn-out process but in fact they’re really trying to put so much pressure on just one of many interactions that there’s almost a hint of desperation.

There has also been a lot of pressure on Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, when he attended Prime Minister Modi’s swearing-in ceremony, he faced a lot of criticism back home and a lot of that pressure still exists. Is this a result of that pressure?
Certainly. We’ve heard that soon after the Ufa statement the Pakistani side and leadership was walking away very deliberately from it, that’s not surprising, and this is part of the challenge of the India-Pakistan relationship, which is why in some ways Ufa was a very useful step forward because it had a step-by-step approach, and had the Pakistani leadership wanted to take that on they would have may well have been able to create some space for them going forward, but given all of the pre-talks talks the atmosphere has been so vitiated that even if the talks were to happen, the biggest achievement would be that they actually happened, not what the outcome was.

(The Ufa Agreement took place in the Russian city of Ufa on the sidelines of the BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summits, where India and Pakistan agreed that they have a collective responsibility to ensure peace and promote development. Both leaders condemned terrorism in all its forms and agreed to cooperate with each other to eliminate this menace from South Asia.)

Was External Affairs Minister giving out a message to Pakistan that don’t be too hopeful that we’ll talk to you in New York?
Certainly. It would be presumptive on the part of Pakistan that there’s going to be a meeting in New York when there wasn’t one in New Delhi, which so much effort went into. That was a very not-so-subtle message on the part of Sushma Swaraj, but also I think you can see a certain degree of desperation on the part of Pakistan to say, if that’s not the case then we’ll pass it on to the United Nations, knowing very well that India already has raised a couple of issues in the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee which was absolutely blocked by China. So this is certainly part of a much bigger global geo-political dance of which this is really one step.

Do you also get a sense that this is desperate attempt by Pakistan to keep the issue of Kashmir alive, and that is why they keep bringing back the Hurriyat even though India wants to keep them at arm’s length, and this is something that Pakistani foreign policy really thrives on.
There’s an element that both sides have overreacted a bit on this issue. There have been meetings in the past and they’ve gone on without much publicity but in fact this time around because there’s been such a hullabaloo about it that there’s been much more publicity. But also on the Pakistan side, I know they also want to make the point about Kashmir being a disputed territory but I think it is worth for them also to ask whether in fact their engagement with the Hurriyat has actually advanced the cause of Kashmir or not, and if it hasn’t then they’re actually doing a disservice to the cause of Kashmir than the other way around. Obviously all these years they have been meeting with the Hurriyat leaders but what has come of that? Perhaps they need to expand their engagement to meet with other Kashmiri leaders as well beyond the Hurriyat. Perhaps this is one of the things that the Pakistani establishment should think about a bit more as well.

In this particular instance, you can see how vicious this situation has become that ironically India is actually offering a way out to Pakistan by detaining the Hurriyat leaders so they cannot meet. What better reason could the Pakistani side have? They could say, we tried but we couldn’t meet. You save face. They’re not even doing that. They’re making it much of an more an issue of fundamental rights, which is ironic given the number of cases of people who’re running around free in Pakistan.

Is there also discomfort with this National Security Advisor level meeting at the Pakistani establishment now? Are they looking for a way out? Is there also a feeling within the Pakistani government and the Pakistani Army that the Ufa agreement was a  big mistake for them?
Absolutely. If you look at the Ufa agreement, in the operational points, three of them directly relate  to terrorism; the fifth point, which nobody is talking about, is actually to expedite the Mumbai case, which as you know as been one key contentious issue between India and Pakistan.

When the National Security Advisor Sartaj Aziz points to that phrase of “all outstanding issues” he’s actually talking about the preamble and that’s something even a third secretary knows is not what you negotiate about. It’s the operational paragraphs [that you can now talk about]. So it’s a bit puzzling, to say the least.

There was big consternation that India for one had a very strong case and that they were going to be meticulous about presenting it and that they [Pakistan] did not quite know how to respond except perhaps to bring forward some dossiers of their own.

There’s been a lot of talk about Dawood Ibrahim lately. Do you get a sense that the 26/11 trial has taken a back seat?
Perhaps yes, it certainly might be more of a distraction. That’s one of the perils, if you like, of an independent media; they follow the story where they takes them. But one of the elements which seems to have lost out in this is the progress, or lack of it, of the Mumbai trials and that’s something certainly that the government should or was likely to bring up in these talks going forward.

How different is today’s situation with Pakistan compared to the past?
There’s certain degree of continuity that you see in India-Pakistan relations, which has had its ups and downs irrespective of which government has been in power. And indeed, some governments which were seen as being more open to a reconciliation with Pakistan were less successful. They were not even able to make one visit etc. But I think what this particular government is trying to do is change that narrative. On the one hand, leave the door open for negotiations, but on the other hand, also draw a pretty strong hard redline on terrorism. Now that’s in theory. In practice, a lot more needs to be done, particularly on managing the border on the Indian side itself, being more effective in actually countering infiltrators as they’re coming through. But the bottomline is terrorism will not be tolerated any more and if the resumed dialogue is to resume it will only happen if there is a concrete forward movement on terrorism. This, by the way, was also the stand of the previous government. So we have seen a certain degree of continuity except that perhaps the firmness of the message is much more evident under this government.

What’s the road ahead for Indo-Pak relations after these talks are called off?
Given the changes in the geopolitical and the global scenario Pakistan is going to start to feel more and more pressure on its role as Terror Central and that’s going to become slightly more critical for all of the friends of Pakistan, which will find it much more difficult to try and support Pakistan’s intransigence when India is actually reaching out to deal with it on a subject which Pakistan says is also of primary concern to it.

Will Pakistan be increasingly isolated at the global level?
Yes, particularly given the US pull out from Afghanistan, and the fact that even the Afghan government which started with reaching out to Pakistan with a hand of friendship is now starting to reconsider. Even China is now stepping into the whole negotiations with Afghanistan directly, partly because it feels that Pakistan may not necessarily be able to deliver.

There is going to be more of a spotlight and Pakistan’s argument that it is as much a victim of terror should actually be a rationale for it to engage with a country which is also concerned about Pakistan being a victim of terror.