The meeting on Friday between > Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistan counterpart Nawaz Sharif — who met for nearly an hour in Ufa in Russia on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit to discuss an entire gamut of issues between the two countries — has kicked off a new season of engagement between India and Pakistan. There is now a clear road map of events in the next few months to take the dialogue process forward.
The >Foreign Secretaries of India and Pakistan , S. Jaishankar and Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry, held a joint press meet where they read out a joint statement on the outcome of the meeting and listed out five points. These are: a meeting in New Delhi between the two National Security Adviser (NSA) to discuss all issues linked to terrorism; early meetings of the Directors General of the Border Security Force and the Pakistan Rangers followed by that of the Directors General Military Operations (DGMO); the decision to release fishermen in each other’s custody, along with their boats, within a period of 15 days; a mechanism for facilitating religious tourism, and both sides agreeing to discuss ways and means to expedite the Mumbai case trial, including additional information like providing voice samples.
Bonhomie after acrimony The sixth point is that all actions would lead up to Mr. Modi’s visit to Pakistan, to attend the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Islamabad in 2016. As a result, the process would most closely mirror Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s reach-out to Pakistan on April 18, 2003, when the National Democratic Alliance government announced a “hand of friendship” to Pakistan after years of bitterness over the Kargil war, the Parliament attack and the Agra summit.
The announcement was followed by several rounds of official meetings, and then by the unilateral Ramzaan ceasefire announced by Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf in November 2003, so that by the time Mr. Vajpayee travelled to Pakistan in January 2004, he and Pakistan Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali were able to announce a number of major agreements and the Islamabad declaration that restarted the composite bilateral dialogue.
The key takeaway from the Ufa declaration is the bonhomie between the Prime Ministers after a period of extreme acrimony between their governments, particularly over Mr. Modi’s comments in Dhaka in June 2015, where he called Pakistan a “nuisance” that “promotes terrorism”, and the Sharif government’s responses to it. Despite all that, Mr. Sharif, with his determined commitment to bettering ties with India, and Mr. Modi, with his strong mandate, and firm grip of his party and cabinet, are still the best poised to deliver any agreement between the two countries that has seen so many others try and fail in the process.
Promises, the challenge However, history has proven that it isn’t delivering an agreement or a declaration between the two countries that is the biggest challenge, but delivering on its promises after that, given that the process can be firebombed by violence at the Line of Control (LoC), a terror attack , or even an outbreak of words. In that sense, it is important to look closer at each of the promises made in the joint statement at Ufa to see how firmly they will hold in the face of those risks.
To begin with, the NSAs’ meeting “to discuss all issues connected with terrorism” is important, given that both Mr. Ajit Doval of India and Mr. Sartaj Aziz have the full confidence of their respective Prime Ministers, which is crucial to hammer out any peace deal, away from the limitations of bureaucracies, militaries and the constant glare of the media. Second, even within their establishments, both men are seen as “hawks”. Therefore, if they do come to an agreement, it will take into account the most extreme views on either side.
This is not the first time that such an engagement has been proposed, however. In 2006, the Joint Terror Mechanism announced in Havana by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Gen. Musharraf also envisaged a dialogue away from the Foreign Ministries with NSAs and intelligence chiefs meetings. But that came a cropper over inherent distrust between both sides. Interestingly, part of the Havana declaration was Dr. Singh’s acceptance of an invitation to Pakistan, which never materialised. Mr. Doval is himself a figure viewed with deep suspicion in Pakistan, not the least because of past statements he has made on Balochistan and covert operations, which are aired on Pakistani TV channels quite regularly. However, given his years posted in Islamabad, and decades in the intelligence bureau, he will bring in a unique perspective to the talks.
The meetings between military commanders at the LoC are already a part of an ongoing process, and even before the Prime Ministers met in Ufa, one such meeting had been scheduled for September 2015 between the DGs of the BSF and the Pakistani Rangers. There is an annual mechanism for high-level talks between the Pakistani Rangers and BSF chiefs that last took place in March 2015 at the Wagah-Attari border. DGMO (Army-to-Army) meetings have also taken place in the past, albeit more rarely as when the DGMOs met in December 2013 as an outcome of the Singh-Sharif meeting in New York — it was after a period of 14 years. It remains to be seen what structure the newly announced DGMO talks will take.
Release of fishermen Similarly, the reference to the release of fishermen is also a regular occurrence. Another batch was released after Mr. Modi spoke to Mr. Sharif last month. The tragedy is that the navies of both countries detain these fishermen who stray over the sea boundaries quicker than they can be released, and at any given point, each country holds 300-400 fishermen. The mechanism for “religious tourism” will be welcomed in all parts, as each year, Indian and Pakistani officials wrangle over the visas issued to Indians for Gurpurab celebrations at Nankana Sahib and to the Hinglaj Mata temple, and to Pakistani pilgrims for the Ajmer Sharif and Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi.
Expediting Mumbai trial Finally, there is the very significant reference to the provision of “voice samples” and to expedite the Mumbai trial. Despite the Bharatiya Janata Party’s claims that these have been given for the “first” time, both assurances were given by Pakistan in May 2010 after the Thimphu SAARC summit meeting between Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and Dr. Singh. A month later, when Home Minister P. Chidambaram travelled to Islamabad armed with the Indian “dossiers”, Pakistan Interior Minister Rehman Mallik had declared that Pakistan would provide India all support in probing the 26/11 attacks. This was to include expediting the trial with “day-to-day” hearings in a special court; giving India the voice-samples of terror element Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, alleged to be the operational mastermind in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, and the other accused in Adiala jail, and of hunting down the “masterminds” of the attack including reinvestigating the case of Mumbai attack mastermind Hafiz Saeed. The promise of voice samples was critical as they could be matched with telephone recordings that India already has produced, of Lashkar-e-Taiba commanders in the so-called “Karachi control room” coldbloodedly guiding gunman Ajmal Kasab and his colleagues to kill innocents at the Taj hotel and Chabad House in Mumbai. If any of those samples matched with the men accused, then that would clinch the 26/11 trial. However, in June 2011, Mr. Mallik announced that he couldn’t hand over the voice samples without the permission of the accused, who had appealed to the courts on the issue. “If I give the samples by any other means by recording their voice and send it to India, that will be challenged in [a] Pakistani court and there will be contempt of court on the investigators and prosecutors,” Mr. Mallik had said in an interview at the time.
It would be interesting to find out how the Pakistan Muslim League government has now given India a similar assurance, and whether it has a new law up its sleeve or has secured a court order in favour of handing over the voice samples. An added hurdle will be that Lakhvi is out on bail, and was recently exempted from court appearances in the 26/11 trial, which will make it extremely difficult to track him down for the process. Another question that arises is where India will take its quest at the UN to make Pakistan accountable for the Mumbai attacks. For the past few months, India has stepped up efforts to have Pakistan named or criticised by the UN, the 1267 Taliban sanctions committee and the Financial Action Task Force. Now that the Indian and Pakistani governments are discussing the matter, will India cease these efforts, or at least suspend them?
Eventually the Ufa engagement proves the strength of the fundamentals of the India-Pakistan relationship, that despite all that happens to derail the relationship, the two have always returned to the table, and that every Prime Minister and President, across political parties in India and Pakistan, has tried to make a contribution to that process. Another fundamental, the need for one-upmanship, to decide who came away the victor from the talks is always the cause for the unravelling of the process. In that respect it is a mistake for some in the government to claim success at the non-inclusion of a reference to Jammu and Kashmir at Ufa; the 2009 Sharm el-Sheikh document also made no reference to the Kashmir dispute.
Given the past history of summits between India and Pakistan, and the constant and creative search for new solutions by their leaders to a nearly 70-year-old dispute that has cost both countries dear, it would be a mistake to claim that any new venture in the relationship is in fact “a first” that has never been done before. What it is however, is a new reason for hope.