NEW DELHI: A former Indian back channel envoy for talks with Pakistan has canvassed support for secret parleys reportedly between the two sides, The Hindu said on Monday.

It quoted Satinder Lambah, who represented former prime minister Manmohan Singh in the back channel talks with Islamabad from 2005 till 2014, as claiming the 2019 changes in the status of Jammu and Kashmir would not negatively affect future talks. India annexed the disputed state in 2019 and broke it into two union territories ruled directly by Delhi.

Asked whether the current reported back channel was activated from prodding by the US, Mr Lambah said it was likely to be a bilateral affair. “There was no third-party involvement (earlier). Bill Burns (now CIA Chief) in his memoirs wrote that the Indians did not share details with them and did not want any mediatory role. If you were to ask me, even now, it is probably a bilateral dialogue, although it may be influenced by the Biden effect.”

Would the agreement on Jammu and Kashmir negotiated by him still be valid more than a decade later, despite the changes in the status of Jammu and Kashmir, Mr Lambah was asked. “Yes it would (be valid). We did not negotiate for a specific era or political regime in government, but by keeping the future of the two countries in mind. Unconnected with relations with Pakistan, I believe the important state of J&K on our border deserves full statehood,” he said.

Lambah believes change in Kashmir status won’t negatively affect future talks

Talks with Pakistan needed to be secret, he said. “In both countries, the bigger challenge is dealing with domestic interests, as well as media leaks, which then distort the actual purpose of the dialogue. Once, I remember, we got a visa for me to travel to Lahore by a special plane for talks, but at that time Prime Minister asked me not to go. A major newspaper ran the story with a big headline stating that talks were on in Pakistan, which was far from true, and caused confusion. So even when I don’t think there is an agenda, people can create the wrong impression about talks. The opposition was briefed about talks, but no paper could ever be shown to anyone.”

Confidentiality was necessary, to pre-empt domestic reactions that come out even before some agreement is reached. “Pakistan’s recent decision on trade is a good example of that. Even when the Pakistan Prime Minister decided to open imports, others objected, and it had to be deferred.”

Mr Lambah confirmed that an agreement was ready to be signed on the Kashmir dispute between Dr Singh and then president Gen Pervez Musharraf. “We had even thought that if we had a deal, we would have wanted all the former prime ministers to be represented, so that we could show that there was a broad unanimity. But General Musharraf’s decision to sack his Chief Justice (Iftikhar Chaudhury) took matters off the rails in Pakistan and the deal we had, could not be signed. This is accepted as a reason for the failure even by analysts in Pakistan and the outside world.”

At another point in 2014, “many diplomats and others in public have described how the deal on trade for MFN status from Pakistan (called Non-Discriminatory Market Access or NDMA) was nearly through and it was cancelled at the last minute, because an emissary from the opposition party in India to Pakistan reportedly suggested that the deal should be held back until a new government was in power. Mr Nawaz Sharif may have taken that decision in Pakistan’s interests, but eventually, the MFN status deal never came through.”

How were the back channel meetings set up?

“We had each other’s phone numbers, but normally when we met, we would set up the next meeting’s logistics. We met in third countries that had convenient air-links from Delhi and Islamabad, so cities in neighbouring countries were preferred destinations. The duration of the visits was brief, normally a single day. We were careful (about media exposure) so we travelled as private citizens, no official delegation, and we even carried our own bags. Eventually, negotiating in this way, we spent nearly 150 hours together.”

If there were talks between Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa and Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, what would be his advice to the Indian representative?

“I have no advice to give,” Mr Lambah told The Hindu. “If true, I believe that a back channel dialogue between Mr Doval and General Bajwa would be a good combination. Our two countries have different power structures, and therefore we need people who have seniority in their own systems, direct access and confidence of the leadership. They need to be able to take on the spot decisions. I have worked with Mr Doval in the 1980s, at the High Commission in Islamabad, including a hijacking situation in Lahore (1981), and later on the situation in Afghanistan post-Bonn conference. General Bajwa has had an extension. As I said, given all our differences, they would be a good combination as interlocutors, or to oversee the dialogue.”

Mr Lambah said historically, Pakistan army leaders/chiefs think of improving relations with India only after stabilising themselves. “General Ziaul Haq suggested back channel talks after nine years in office, just before his death. General Musharraf started his peace overtures five years after taking over; and General Bajwa, three years after becoming army chief. Such occasions come after a gap of several years.”

Does he think peace has a chance?

“Yes of course. There are some who would argue otherwise and it is natural and justified in a democracy. Some may take a harder view. I am amongst the many who personally suffered as a result of partition. We lost our homes, possessions and had to rebuild our lives in independent India where we came without an address. But I still firmly believe that with a neighbour, particularly when there is an unfriendly relationship, you have to have a via media to exist. Otherwise, we both hurt ourselves. Engagement is necessary particularly with an adversary and I am glad it is being done now. I think we must take the dialogue process slowly, begin with some people-to-people initiatives and emphasis on economic relations. We need to have at least a limited beginning in encouraging travel, allowing people to meet each other. India’s biggest friends and ambassadors are Pakistanis who visit India and then return to tell others about all that we have achieved. At a suitable occasion, respective High Commissioners should be reinstated. Track-II dialogues should be held. There is no need to shy away from any discussion, because our fundamentals are strong.”

Published in Dawn, April 6th, 2021

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