Among the multiple endings

v. sudarshan

v. sudarshan  

How Kulbhushan Jadhav’s fate is tied to the state of play in India-Pakistan ties

The symbolism was inescapable. Two years ago, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an impromptu stop-over in Lahore to reach out to the then Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, during the wedding of his grand-daughter, it was Christmas Day, December 25, 2015. Recall the circumstances. Ten days previously, Mr. Modi had addressed the Combined Commanders Conference aboard INS Vikramaditya. He had declared: “India is engaging Pakistan to try and turn the course of history, bring an end to terrorism, build peaceful relations, advance cooperation and promote stability and prosperity in our region.” The Indian and Pakistani National Security Advisers, Ajit Doval and Nasser Khan Janjua, had met in Bangkok to work on the modalities for the way forward, so we can presume that the Pakistani Army was more or less on board. So when Mr. Sharif suggested to Mr. Modi, who had called from Kabul, that he drop by, Mr. Modi let himself be persuaded. It was so last-minute that officials had to scramble to find an appropriate gift, and in the end Mr. Modi landed in Lahore bearing the message of peace.

Back to square one

Two years later, by permitting naval commander Kulbhushan Jadhav’s mother and wife to visit him in Islamabad on December 25, Pakistan’s deep state was signalling that New Delhi should consider this a return gift. But that message of peace was torn to shreds in that metal container with a glass panel where India and Pakistan conducted fishbowl diplomacy. The rules of engagement need to be rewritten yet again, this time in a way that insulates bilateral relations from the vagaries of Pakistan’s internal politics.

Was the outcome of Jadhav family reunion, with a disrupted conversation and the visitors’ accessories confiscated, a failure of anticipation? Consider the circumstances. There has been a downturn in relations with Pakistan in every sphere, against the backdrop of another domestic political upheaval that dislodged Mr. Sharif from the Prime Minister’s post. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj informed Parliament that what eventually happened in the Pakistan Foreign Office when Jadhav’s wife and mother were allowed to briefly interact with him in highly restrictive circumstances was a “departure from the agreed understandings between the two countries in the conduct of this meeting.” The Ministry of External Affairs also declared that “prior to the meeting, the two governments were in touch through diplomatic channels to work out the modalities and format. There were clear understandings…”

There is still not enough detail in the public domain on what exactly were these modalities and understandings that had been worked out diplomatically and how much ambiguity was inherent in the resultant format for either side to interpret. That Pakistani journalists were allowed to repeatedly attempt to badger Mr. Jadhav’s wife and mother, that no communication was allowed in Marathi, their mother tongue, that the footwear Mr. Jadhav’s wife was wearing was confiscated and sent for unspecified tests indicate the potential for further diplomatic mischief.

But the larger point remains that Pakistan has not allowed consular access to Mr. Jadhav — that is, Indian diplomats in Islamabad have not been able to visit him in prison and record his version of how he came to be in Pakistan’s custody, etc. It may not come as a surprise if it turns out that Mr. Jadhav was indeed a spy, but even that needn’t detain us here. Nations spy on each other.

The issue here is the message that Pakistan is conveying.

Bruising episode

The question is: at the end of this bruising diplomacy, who is likely to walk away smelling more of roses? And certainly, it is not clear how all this has helped Mr. Jadhav’s condition or eventual fate, whatever conclusion the International Court of Justice may or may not reach. From the debriefing the Ministry of External affairs got from his mother and wife, it appeared to them that the alleged spy was “under considerable stress and was speaking in an atmosphere of coercion.” Moreover, his appearance had also raised questions of his health and well-being.

Mr. Jadhav may well receive a presidential pardon, and be retuned to India. There may even be a spy barter, though this occurs mostly before their cases come up for trial and rarely afterwards. So long as there are spies among us, the script has many potential endings. Which one will we eventually get to see?


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