"If Pakistan wants to have any truck with the people of Kashmir, it should talk to Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, the elected CM" - An officer close to Doval
On August 22, when the suspense about the National Security Adviser-level talks between India and Pakistan was at its height, a cardamom-chewing Sushma Swaraj put forth two conditions before Pakistan which were to be met before midnight. One, no third parties, like the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, can be a part of the peace process. Two, the focus of the talks, due to begin the next day, should be on terror and not Kashmir. "Or else, the talks will not happen," said the external affairs minister.
By then, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval's office had put forth its terms. If Pakistan insisted on involving the Hurriyat, India would ask for roping in the Jammu and Kashmir government, the leaders of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and the fiercely independent tribes of Gilgit-Baltistan. The message was conveyed to Islamabad apparently through backchannels.
The talks had been doomed from the day Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif agreed on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Ufa in Russia to hold a special round of talks in New Delhi between the two NSAs. It was a surprise, even to many in India, that their joint statement did not mention Kashmir.
The Pakistan army soon opened up its mortars and small artillery on the Line of Control and the International Border, a usual tactic employed to vitiate the atmosphere before talks with India. This was followed by terror strikes in Gurdaspur in Punjab and in Udhampur in J&K. Both attacks left enough clues for Indian investigators to trace a Pak hand. Clearly, "the Inter-Services Intelligence was determined that it could not allow the NSA to engage in a discussion without even a mention of Kashmir," said an intelligence analyst. "They wanted to scuttle the talks." Swaraj, too, hinted as much. “Their reluctance to give dates for the agreed talks between the border police forces and the military operations' directors also showed their reluctance,” she said.
India was being stern, but refusing to be provoked—either by the border firing or the terror attacks—into cancelling the talks. The third attempt, after border firing and the terror strikes, was to formally ask India to include Kashmir in the talks. "They sent us letters on August 14 that they wanted to include Kashmir and other related issues," said a source in the prime minister's office. "We pointed to the Ufa statement. In that, only terror was agreed to be discussed in the NSA round."
It was then that Pakistan called the Hurriyat leaders, knowing that the Modi government would be provoked by that, as it had been a year ago. Last August, the Indian foreign secretary was about to fly to Islamabad for talks when Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit invited the Hurriyat leaders for talks at the mission. When he went ahead with the talks despite India's protests, India cancelled the talks.
The drama repeated now, with Pakistan cancelling the talks this time. But then, as former ambassador T.P. Sreenivasan pointed out, there was a lack of preparedness on the part of both sides. “While Sharif has failed to gain the confidence of the military elite of Pakistan, India has also not acted cautiously and, in the process, squandered away opportunities,” he said. “Talks with Pakistan need to be properly strategised."
Now, convinced that another round will not be possible for the next six to eight months, the PMO is reportedly working on a strategy to turn more aggressive. Doval is apparently convinced that it was India's dovishness over the years that has landed it in a soup. "While Pakistan was allowed to engage the Hurriyat leaders, India never asked for engaging the separatists in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir," pointed out an officer close to the NSA. "Second, after the democratic process was re-installed in Kashmir in the mid-1990s, we should have told Pakistan that if they wanted to talk to the representatives of the Kashmiri people, they should talk to the elected government of Jammu and Kashmir, and not the Hurriyat leaders. But we never put across the point diplomatically."
Apparently, the PMO has been in touch with the political parties of J&K on the issue. Even the opposition is on board. "For the first time, the Government of India has taken a stand, which is firm," said former chief minister Farooq Abdullah, who is politically opposed to Modi's BJP. "And, I congratulate Modi for it."
The thinking in the PMO is that Pakistan has been successful in coercing India diplomatically. "When we talk about terror, they have made us accept that they are also victims of terror, like us. This parity principle has to be done away with," said the officer.
"The PMO does not want to give any importance to the Hurriyat leaders as they are not the elected representatives of the Kashmiris and if Pakistan wants to have any truck with the people of Kashmir, it should talk to Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, the elected chief minister," he said.
But if Pakistan raises the issue of engaging the Hurriyat again, India would ask for engaging the pro-independence leaders of PoK. "You can call it a step-by-step approach. Last year, India told Pakistan that there was no place for the Hurriyat in the talks when it tried to get in touch with Hurriyat leaders in New Delhi ahead of the foreign secretary-level talks. We took a firm stand even if it meant calling off the talks," said the officer. In the second step, taken now, "we told them that Kashmir was not part of the dialogue and the only thing they could discuss with India was terrorism."
During the next round of talks, India may tell Pakistan to involve representatives from Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir also. “So far, the talks on Kashmir have been confined only to the Kashmir valley, which is with India, but no one is talking about the Kashmir with Pakistan. That area is disputed and needs to be discussed," said the officer.
It does not mean that all contacts are off. There still could be two rounds of talks soon, one between the heads of India's Border Security Force and Pakistan Rangers, and another between the directors-general of military operations of the two armies. "The talks between the border guards on both sides used to be a regular feature earlier,” said a BSF officer. “The planned talks were to be a resumption of that routine consultation. We are prepared to host if the Pakistanis wish to keep their promise of visiting us."
with R. Prasannan