‘The Indian side has realised that not talking to Pakistan has not served any useful purpose.’
IMAGE: Border Security Force and Pakistani Rangers personnel take part in the beating retreat ceremony at the India-Pakistan Attari-Wagah border in Amritsar. Photograph: Deepak Sharma/ANI Photo
The casual remark by Yousef al Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates envoy to the US, on April 14 that the UAE was involved in reducing tensions between India and Pakistan confirmed what has been speculated for weeks.
‘We are mediating between India and Pakistan to help ease tensions,’ Otaiba told a virtual discussion with Stanford University’s Hoover Institution on Wednesday.
Otaiba is one of the key players in the signing of the Abraham Accords between Israel and UAE in August 2020, when the Emirates became the third Arab country to normalise relations with the Jewish State after Egypt and Jordan.
The move to bring India and Pakistan for peace talks assumes significance as US President Joe Biden’s administration has decided that US troops will leave Afghanistan on September 11, 2021, exactly 20 years after al-Qaeda brought down the World Trade Center in New York City.
So are India and Pakistan back once again on the road to elusive peace, then?
Syed Firdaus Ashraf/Rediff.com spoke to Talmiz Ahmad, an Indian Foreign Service officer of the 1974 batch who served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE, on what the future holds for the two neighbours.
“The India-Pakistan issue is not a foreign policy issue, but a matter of domestic opinion,” Ahmad says in an eloquent interview.
India has always maintained that there will be no third-party intervention between India and Pakistan. Now there are reports that the UAE is mediating between the two countries. So what changed?
There is some confusion in your mind. What India has consistently opposed in matters relating to India and Pakistan is third-party mediation. Mediation means there is a party other than India and Pakistan actively involved in their dialogue and is trying to persuade one side to accept the position of the other.
What India has never objected to is the idea of “good offices”.
“Good offices” refers to the role played by a third party to bring together two estranged parties in a shared space, but the actual dialogue takes place directly between the two parties.
For instance, the Camp David discussions, convened by US President Bill Clinton, were an instance of “good offices” in that, though President Clinton brought the two sides together at Camp David, the main dialogue was between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
If you remember, after the 1965 War, the Russians used their good offices to bring India and Pakistan together in Tashkent to finalise the accord. We did not call it mediation, but good offices.
So, there is a fundamental difference between the two approaches.
What the UAE is doing now is that they are using their good offices to encourage dialogue between India and Pakistan that has not taken place for some time. This is based on the good relations that the UAE has with both the countries, India and Pakistan, and the high level of trust it enjoys with each of them.
The UAE’s role is to encourage India and Pakistan to meet in at different venues, including Abu Dhabi and Dubai, for discussions rather than carry messages between the two countries. The substance of the dialogue will take place between the two parties and the UAE will not involved.
We have clearly stated that we will not talk to Pakistan until and unless it gives up terrorism in Kashmir. So why are we talking now?
This position has been held from time to time by different Indian leaders. But it is just not tenable.
We are neighbours, with a large number of issues between us that affect our interests. Yes there is certainly the problem of cross-border terrorism, but that does not mean that the entire relationship should be mortgaged to this one subject.
In fact, dialogue could even help to address this issue effectively. Again, while the issue of cross-border terror remains serious, it has not abated in the absence of our interaction; perhaps, it has got worse as those in Pakistan, who back terror as an instrument of State policy, have been enjoying a free ride.
Of course, the dialogue does not need to take place in the public domain. In the past we had our national security advisors and special envoys talking to each other secretly, outside the public gaze.
Pakistan took a hard stance after the abolition of Article 370 and said it will not talk to India until and unless Jammu and Kashmir reverts to its pre-Article 370 status.
The abrogation of Article 370 is entirely a domestic matter for India. In fact, Pakistan has also regularly made changes in respect of the status of the territories of PoK — the lease to China of territories in PoK to facilitate the construction of the the Karakoram Highway, as also the holding of elections by Pakistan in Gilgit-Baltistan.
India had lodged strong protests on both occasions, but, let us be clear, these are of a pro-forma character and effect no changes on the ground.
The question we should be addressing is: What has encouraged Pakistan to talk to India and encouraged India to talk to Pakistan? Let us first look at the situation from the Pakistani perspective.
First, Pakistan is in a fairly difficult situation due to the focus on human rights and terrorism by the Biden administration.
Again, with the impending settlement in Afghanistan and US withdrawal, the latter will have less need for Pakistan to facilitate interaction with the Taliban. An accommodative approach towards India could improve its standing in the eyes of the Biden administration.
Second, the management of Afghan affairs after the US withdrawal, scheduled for September 11 this year, is another important issue for India and Pakistan to exchange views on. Till now we have supported rival sides and taken opposite positions. Stability in Afghanistan is a matter of concern for both countries.
Third, Pakistan has only one partner in the region and that is China. This relationship has evoked some disquiet in Pakistan itself, particularly in regard to the funding and execution of projects under CPEC, including concerns relating to national indebtedness.
Pakistani policy-makers might believe that if they have some degree of normalcy in ties with India, they might have a little more elbow room with regard to diplomatic options they can pursue.
What about India?
The Indian side has clearly realised that not talking to Pakistan has not served any useful purpose. Now, we are very keen to promote some degree of normalcy in Jammu and Kashmir and particularly the Kashmir valley. It would suit India if tension could be reduced at the border.
Through our interaction, we would also seek to persuade or pressurise Pakistan to reduce their support for extremism and violence across the border.
This approach would strengthen elements in Pakistan who are deeply concerned about Pakistan’s affiliation with extremist forces, which have wreaked such havoc within Pakistan itself.
Improved India-Pakistan ties would also open up the possibility of Indian goods transiting through Pakistan to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Who knows, it might even help to rejuvenate SAARC as well as an effective platform for regional cooperation.
But we have such diametrically opposite positions on Kashmir that there is no way we can talk. That has been the reason why talks failed in the past, isn’t it?
On certain issues, countries have so much emotional baggage that the political leadership, be it authoritarian or democratic, finds it impossible to make any concessions or even have a serious dialogue with the opposing party.
The Kashmir issue is one such issue for India and Pakistan — their nationhood can only be completed if they have the entire state under their control.
But this is the formal public posture. In reality, neither country has made a serious effort to effect major changes at the Line of Control that has been in place since 1947-1948. In fact, despite all the conflicts we have had after the 1947-1948 confrontation, the LoC has always been re-affirmed.
Pakistan is not likely to give up its claim on the Kashmir valley, nor will India ever give anything more than what Pakistan already has. Pakistan has been asking for ‘LOC +’ for a final settlement, saying ‘kuch aur toh humhe de do (give us something at least), so that we can tell our people that our ‘struggle’ has been successful.
The India-Pakistan issue is not a foreign policy issue, but a matter of domestic opinion. It is like the Israel issue in the United States. No political leader dare speak against Israel in America. It is not a foreign policy matter, but an emotional issue within the American domestic political order.
Can India and Pakistan ever have peace? After considerable reflection, I am convinced we cannot settle our issues on a bilateral basis. Certain issues cannot be addressed bilaterally and cannot be resolved bilaterally between two neighbouring countries as public opinion will not allow it. They can be settled only when both countries become part of a larger entity. I believe we can have peace only when we become committed members of a larger regional organisation.
I am inspired here by what happened in Europe. From 1870 to 1945 France and Germany were sworn enemies, they fought constantly. Recall the blood-letting in the First World War and the Second World War. France was humiliated and defeated by Germany and you could have never imagined that these two countries would ever have normal ties. Normalcy emerged when both the entities became members of a larger transnational entity.
It was a very slow process. Initially there was the European Coal and Steel Community as these were the matters that divided them. This over the years evolved into the European Union. Today you have soft borders, a shared currency and enjoy free passage within the EU for employment, business and investment.
We have not reached that stage yet, but ultimately that is the way India and Pakistan will go: The LOC will remain the formal border, but it will be a “soft border”, with relatively free movement.
This will be realised when the two countries have reached a high level of mutual trust; as of now, almost all aspects of our bilateral ties have zero-sum character. We have a long way to go.