RED ZONE FILES: Pakistan, India backchannel at a delicate point

Published May 6, 2021
Pakistani and Indian soldiers lower the flags of their countries during a daily ceremony at the Wagah border. — AFP/File
Pakistani and Indian soldiers lower the flags of their countries during a daily ceremony at the Wagah border. — AFP/File

Almost two weeks since a senior Pakistani official confirmed the existence of backchannel talks between Pakistan and India, fresh information suggests this quiet process is today situated at a delicate point and could go either way depending on the response from New Delhi.

A national debate was generated by a story published in this newspaper on April 25 titled “Indian offer led to ‘quiet’ talks on all major issues” which detailed a deliberate effort by the two South Asian rivals to engage in secret talks aimed at reducing tension and initiating an effort to resolve outstanding disputes. While the debate raged over whether discussing a possible resolution of the Kashmir issue with India was prudent policy at this time, some key nuances were overlooked. One reason for this was the direction that the debate took as it veered off from the contents of the original story and began to fuel itself from various other interpretations of what the senior official had suggested.

The situation is gradually becoming clearer with the emergence of fresh information from Red Zone insiders. Here is how it is mapping out:

For four months, the Pakistan-India backchannel progressed smoothly and between December 2020 and April 2021, intelligence officials from the two countries met face-to-face at least four to five times in a Gulf country. In these meetings, they talked about a number of key issues including the Kashmir dispute. However, officials insist that these meetings are best characterised as “talks about talks” and nothing more at this stage.

Read: The road to peace with India will take much more than the desire for better relations

Today these talks are at a standstill. Official sources confirm that for the process to move forward, India has to show some progress on issues that have been discussed so far. “They have to say something, do something to create an environment in which these secret talks can move forward,” says an insider. The sense that emerges from background conversations with official sources is that after hectic rounds of conversations, both sides had come to an understanding that tangible measures would need to be taken to nudge the process forward. Pakistan today believes it has done whatever it could do and now it is India’s responsibility to show progress.

This progress centres on the situation in Occupied Kashmir. Pakistani officials have communicated to Indian interlocutors their immediate priorities on the Kashmir issue after the Indians expressed their willingness to discuss all aspects of this dispute. These priorities are (1) India must not change the demography in Occupied Kashmir, and this is non-negotiable; (2) India must not undertake any measures that alter the character of the region; (3) India must take steps to normalise the lives of the people in the occupied territory, including the release of prisoners; (4) India will need to give statehood to Occupied Kashmir in one form or another; and (5) Any discussion from the Indian side on the status of Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan is off the table.

“Please remember this is not a dialogue,” says an insider. He argues that Pakistan had told India during backchannel talks that any prospects of transforming these ‘talks about talks’ into a dialogue depended on the progress that India could show on the priorities regarding Occupied Kashmir. So far, there is silence from New Delhi. Offi­cials say that Indian interlocutors had mentioned some steps they could take, but those have not materialized yet. Till they do, Pakistan will not take any other initiative.

What then was the logic to engage with India in the first place?

As mentioned in the earlier story, India had approached Pakistan in December last year to initiate talks and Pakistan had responded favourably. This response germinated from many closed-door meetings that discussed the pros and cons of accepting India’s offer to conduct ‘talks about talks’. Two points of views emerged from these discussions. The first one said India was offering these talks because the BJP government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi wanted to buy time so it could fast-track its plans to change the demography of Occupied Kashmir and at some point make the issue a closed chapter. The other view suggested that India had realised it was stuck in Occupied Kashmir after its August 5, 2019 takeover of the territory and therefore needed to tone down its belligerence in order to find a way out by engaging with Pakistan via some quid pro quo.

These two competing and conflicting arguments within high-level official circles led to some conclusions, one of which was that the BJP government must not be allowed to change the demography of Kashmir to a point of no return. Some officials argued that the RSS agenda was aimed at completing this altering of demography so that there would be nothing left for Pakistan and India to negotiate. However, it was noted that India was struggling to achieve this target.

On the basis of these arguments and counter-arguments, it was finally decided that it would be prudent to reciprocate India’s offer and use this opportunity to somehow push back Indian designs on Occupied Kashmir’s demography. In the ensuing rounds of talks between December 2020 and April 2021, Indian officials said they were open to talking about all these options regarding Occupied Kashmir.

However, a month on, the message from Pakistan to India, according to Red Zone insiders, is clear: If you do not take any positive steps, we do not have any space to move forward at this point.

But who in India is this message intended for? This too has been a sensitive topic these last few weeks in terms of who is ‘in the loop’ regarding this backchannel process in both Pakistan and India. A senior Pakistani official had confirmed two weeks ago that these talks were led by intelligence officials from both sides. He had explained diplomats and experts had not been involved because these backchannel contacts had not progressed beyond the exploratory stage. However there is fresh information available that suggests that from the Indian side the process of engagement is piloted by the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and includes various senior officials of the Indian intelligence service. The assessment of Pakistani officials is that the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) does not have a significant role in this process so far. “At this stage, their consensus is even narrower than ours,” says an insider.

Insiders with knowledge of the process say that Pakistani officials involved in the process had taken the leadership of Azad Kashmir as well as the Hurriyat Conference in the loop. How much these leaders knew is not clear but they were at least informed that the process was under way. Official sources now say that if there is reciprocity from New Delhi, and if there is any substantive headway that can convert these exploratory meetings into some kind of a structured dialogue, then the Pakistani side will take all stakeholders, including all political parties, into confidence.

But at this stage, expectations are tempered. Officials argue that Pakistan has kept its word on activity at the Line of Control (LoC) and the Indians know this. However, their ceasefire violations in the last few days have vitiated the atmosphere. This piles up on the fact that New Delhi has not even replied to Pakistan’s offer of help in the terrible situation from coronavirus in India. “These are all signs that they are not serious in their engagement,” an official states.

For Islamabad now, it is a policy of wait and see.

Published in Dawn, May 6th, 2021

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