Sunday, February 28, 2010

How India lost the plot in talks

How India lost the plot in talks
By M J Akbar

Delhi lost its own plot one day before foreign secretaries Nirupama Rao and Salman Bashir sat down at Hyderabad House to reopen the dialogue between India and Pakistan.

Salman Bashir came to Delhi for two sets of talks, not one. The Government of India was the second half of his agenda. The first, and from his perspective the more important, part was the resumption of dialogue between Islamabad and secessionist elements in Jammu and Kashmir, Hurriyat leaders and the more extreme Syed Ali Shah Geelani.

Bashir did not want to talk to Omar or Farooq Abdullah, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, Mehbooba Mufti or Ghulam Nabi Azad, who represent parties that have won a substantial number of seats in the assembly. He wanted to hear what Geelani said, that there was a storm brewing in the Valley. Bashir reassured Geelani that Pakistan had not abandoned its dream of altering the map of India.

These pre-arranged meetings were held with the consent of the Government of India. If the Indian government had wanted to prevent them, Hurriyat leaders and Geelani would not have been able to catch the flight from Srinagar to Delhi. Precedence — the fact that we have enabled such meetings before — is not the point.

India stopped the ongoing dialogue in unusual circumstances, after the terrorist invasion of Mumbai. Delhi offered a resumption of talks, but with one condition, that they would focus on terrorism; and issues like Kashmir (part of the composite dialogue) would be taken up only after Pakistan had provided satisfaction that it had acted against known terrorists and instigators of Mumbai, like Hafiz Saeed.

If that was going to be our focus, if that was the agenda we had set, why did we permit the meetings between Pakistan and Hurriyat-Geelani? We could have explained that Pakistan could talk to the Kashmiri leaders on the Indian soil the next time around, if there was a next time; on February 25, it would only be about terrorism.

When we did not, Pakistan inferred that it was business as usual, and that our position on terrorism was rhetoric meant for domestic consumption. Pakistan voiced such an inference when Salman Bashir briefed the media, saying that Kashmir had been discussed “extensively” and suggesting that India had returned to the negotiating table because of international pressure.

It was, he implied with that little smile on either corner of his mouth, a diplomatic triumph for Pakistan.

Perhaps, the time has come for India to demand reciprocal rights. It would be interesting if Nirupama Rao insists that during her next visit to Islamabad (she has received an invitation) on meeting insurgents from Balochistan — assuming that they are either alive or outside jail.

Let us be clear about one reality: Salman Bashir could have returned without undue damage to his professional health if talks with Rao had been sabotaged before they started, but he might have had to take a flight to some other country if he had returned without meeting Hurriyat and Geelani. Kashmir is the heart and head of Pakistan’s policy towards India.

There is insufficient recognition, certainly among Indians and possibly within the Indian government, of the fact that Pakistan’s policy has hardened after the Mumbai terrorist onslaught, rather than softened. Pervez Musharraf’s “close-to-a-solution” is now denied as mere waffle, since nothing was put in writing.

Mumbai is not cause for mea culpa, but reason for accusation: India deserves what it got because it holds Kashmir “illegally”. In such a narrative, Hafiz Saeed becomes the daring maverick who brought Kashmir back to the centrestage as the “core” issue (a term Salman Bashir used repeatedly, as was his brief).

India and Pakistan might agree, therefore, that terrorism is an evil, but they have totally divergent definitions of who constitutes a terrorist. Salman Bashir can agree on terrorism without blinking an eyelid, and moan about thousands dead in his own country — but they died from Taliban bullets and bombs, not from a Hafiz Saeed gun. India’s terrorist is Pakistan’s freedom fighter.

As Bashir coolly explained in Delhi, Hafiz Saeed was within his democratic rights when, at his Lahore rally, he told followers armed with Kalasnikovs that one Mumbai was not enough. The Pakistan army would have opened artillery fire if the Taliban had dared to hold a similar public meeting in Peshawar.

Rao, who was firm enough during the talks, made one serious mistake. She forgot a basic law of Indo-Pak diplomacy. She left the last word to Salman Bashir. Her hurry to brief the media was inexplicable; it was Bashir who had to go take a flight out of Delhi. She could have waited. We lost the plot both before and after the talks.

Appeared in Times of India - February 28, 2010

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