Now that the widely anticipated has come to pass, let me start with an admission of fact – and that is that I got a prediction wrong when I stuck my neck out suggesting talks between the NSAs of India and Pakistan would go ahead. I had mistakenly concluded that having invested political capital in Ufa (Russia), both the Indian and Pakistani Prime Ministers would make the necessary compromises that would pave the way for the talks to go ahead. Perhaps somewhere I allowed the subconscious hope to overcome the more realistic cynicism that should have been guiding my brain.
I’m disappointed that I was wrong because I had hoped that this would be the first significant step towards steady, consistent dialogue between two neighbors that have shared a very patchy relationship. The people of Jammu and Kashmir were hopeful that the dialogue process would mean the resumption of the ceasefire along the Line of Control and border, reduced infiltration, reduced violence and a move towards realizing the promise of Simla to resolve all outstanding issues including J&K. With the breakdown of communication, once again, the people of J&K will be the biggest losers. The effects of the last few days will be felt on the ground for quite some time to come.
It is a strange feeling to be disappointed for being wrong and disappointed for being right, both at the same time. I’m disappointed that I was right about what the Modi government’s tough stand on the Hurriyat meant for the future of any India-Pakistan dialogue. I had argued (when the Foreign Secretary level talks were called off over a Pakistani invitation to the Hurriyat in 2014) that to make Pakistan-Hurriyat engagement the reason for calling off official government talks was short-sighted and completely unrealistic. To expect any Pakistani government, much less this Nawaz Sharif one, would completely rewrite their relationship with the Hurriyat is asking for too much. To make India-Pakistan dialogues conditional on this was to ensure that talks between the two governments would never achieve the continuity required. Sadly, the last few days have convinced me that I was right because Pakistan is not going to stop meeting the separatist leaders in Delhi, making any India-Pakistan talks in this country impossible.
Today, the Hurriyat must be a very satisfied bunch. They have struggled to find issues to keep themselves in the news. Other than capitalizing on the deaths of civilians during law and order disturbances, or to cross fire during an operation, there hasn’t been much for the Hurriyat to peddle to the people of Kashmir. The high turnout in the Panchayat elections and respectable turnouts in the two elections of 2014 did the Hurriyat no favours.
A possible meeting between Pakistani NSA Sartaj Aziz and the Hurriyat leaders would, at best, have been a side show generating little or no interest. It is possible that because of the cancellation of the previously scheduled Foreign Secretary-level talks. there may have been a bit more interest than usual, but it would have been nothing like the amount of attention that was finally heaped on them when they became the reason for a nasty war of words between India and Pakistan.
Previous central governments have always turned a blind-eye to meetings between visiting Pakistani officials and Hurriyat leaders. They haven’t liked the fact that these meetings happen, but wisely concluded that allowing them was the lesser of two evils. This time was dramatically different. The Modi Government in the centre, and the Mufti Government in the state ,joined hands to detain the Hurriyat leaders before they could leave for Delhi. In the game of one-upmanship, someone sitting in Delhi probably felt this would be the game-changer that would force Pakistan to pull out of the talks.
No sooner had they been detained than the backlash forced a rethink, and the cordon around the homes of the detained leaders was lifted. Suddenly, the sidebar was the headline news. The Hurriyat, which was at best the sideshow in this story, started to overshadow the key protagonists. It was now all about why they were detained, who ordered the detention, would they now be allowed to meet Sartaj Aziz, et cetera et cetera.
All this would have been comical if the games being played didn’t have very serious consequences for a lot of people. The battle of the leaks from “highly-placed sources” was replaced by the press statements and then trumped by the press conferences addressed by Sartaj Aziz and Sushma Swaraj, both sides playing a very high stakes game of chicken to see who blinks first, each saying they are ready for an unconditional dialogue while happily setting conditions for the other to fulfill.
Pakistan wanted to discuss Kashmir and India wanted to discuss terror. What I don’t get is how you can possibly discuss one without the other? What have we in J&K seen over the last 26 years if not terror? Did the Indian side really believe that they could discuss terror with Pakistan without Kashmir featuring in the talks? If the Ufa joint statement says that the two Prime Ministers “agreed that India and Pakistan have a collective responsibility to ensure peace and promote development. To do so, they are prepared to discuss all outstanding issues” how is discussing Kashmir violating the spirit of Ufa? India could have forcefully reiterated its position that Pakistan fulfill its commitment not to allow its soil to be used to support terror infrastructure directed at J&K, especially in light of the capture of terrorist Naveed in Udhampur. Pakistan would have repeated its same tired position about United Nation resolutions being the way forward. Nothing would change on the ground in the short term but at least we’d have the beginning of a dialogue process.
Instead we have a huge mess from where there is no easy exit. The problem with starting a process from the top down is that when things go wrong, there is nowhere to turn to. If the NSA talks were the result of a process that had started with talks between Foreign Office functionaries, or even Foreign Ministers, we could have turned to the two PMs to break the logjam. In this case it is the two PMs who initiated this process, so we have no doors to knock on to try and get things back on track.
We seem to be in for another extended impasse between India and Pakistan. I very much hope I’m wrong but that hope is the heart speaking, the brain unfortunately disagrees.
(By Omar Abdullah is National Conference leader and former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir)