In early 2009, a few months after the Mumbai attacks, a group of Indians and Pakistanis met in Bangkok. The group included retired military and intelligence officers, ex-diplomats, editors, academics, and select politicians. At a time when India was furious with elements within Pakistan for engineering an attack of this magnitude, conversation between Delhi and Islamabad had frozen, and conflict was still a real possibility, this offered one of the first opportunities - unofficial as it may be - to gauge what both sides were thinking. A participant present at the meeting - the first Chaophraya dialogue as it was known - told HT, "It allowed the Pakistani representatives to see, first hand, the depth of anger and hurt felt by Indians. Status quo was not tenable anymore." At the same time, the conversation also exposed the Indians to the complexities within Pakistan.
Another Indian participant at the meet said, "I remember there was a young lawyer, and he explained to us how, like in India, the government could not control the pace and shape of judicial processes, the fraught relations between institutions, and the limitations of the Indian evidence that had been handed over till then." A retired Indian military officer, perceived to be close to the then NSA M K Narayanan, took the lawyer aside to get more details. It would not be unrealistic to assume that this was fed back to the official machinery on his return to Delhi.
The Ved Pratap Vaidik-Hafiz Saeed meet has been used by sections of the media to attack the entire rationale of Track 2 dialogue between India and Pakistan, since Vaidik was originally in Islamabad to attend one such meeting. These dialogues usually include influential actors from both sides, who may have access to their respective governments, but are outside the government framework. TV anchors have slammed it as a waste at best, and 'anti-national' at worst. But as the early 2009 initiative mentioned above shows, there is a value to such meetings. Amitabh Mattoo, director of the Australia-India Institute, who is co-chair of the Chaophraya dialogue along with former Pakistani minister Sherry Rehman, told HT, "Track 2 is an important way of sustaining communications, conversation and informal dialogue when governments may not be speaking (as after 26/11) and a way (when governments are speaking) of trying out new ideas or out-of-the-box thinking which governments cannot risk doing at the official level."
Raza Rumi, consulting editor of The Friday Times and Senior Fellow of the Jinnah Institute, which is a part of several such initiatives, agrees with Mattoo and argues these help 'overcome the constraints of inflexible official positions'. "In the case of India and Pakistan, they become even more important given the cyclical nature of official talks and their frequent breakdown."
But there are some thoughtful critics. Ayesha Siddiqa, a prominent Pakistani author and commentator, told HT that these Track 2 dialogues 'show no commitment beyond wining and dining, meeting friends and discussing issues'. Mattoo, however, believes that sometimes it is precisely "outside the formal discussions (over dinner or a drink) that one gains real insight". The fact that these meetings often happen outside the subcontinent - leading to the perception of 'junkets' - is a result of the stringent visa regimes between the two countries. But Siddiqa says that these do not help bridge any mistrust. "If you look at the kind of players involved I suspect these are meant to confirm suspicions or beliefs that one side has of the other. There are a handful of key players who are mostly retired diplomats and military officers." And it is these key players, she argues, who ensure that the Track 2 discussion 'does not stray out of control' and keep its membership very controlled.
However, criticisms can often be ill-informed. There are good, effective Track-2 mechanisms; and there are poorly thought out, ineffective dialogues. There are initiatives with transparent funding and a clear agenda, and there are initiatives which are perhaps sponsored by shadowy agencies with unclear objectives. It is for discerning participants to distinguish between these categories. It is also important to distinguish between Track 2 and backchannel communication. The former is an independent initiative, but the latter is used by governments to speak to each other in a discreet manner, outside formal diplomatic channels. It was through backchannel efforts of Satinder Lambah and Tariq Aziz that Manmohan Singh and Pervez Musharraf came close to drawing out a framework for resolving the Kashmir issue. It was through RK Mishra - who Mattoo calls 'the master of discretion, wisdom and understanding… Dronacharya of Indian Track 2', and someone who had the 'political backing of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and financial backing of the Ambanis' - that the first NDA government spoke to Pakistan. In fact, Mattoo recounts that during the Kargil war, even though MEA Joint Secretary Vivek Katju was on the same flight, Vajpayee sent the RAW-intercepted recording between then army chief Musharraf and his chief of staff General Aziz (which proved, beyond doubt, the complicity of the Pakistani Army even though they had kept denying it) to Nawaz Sharif through Mishra.
Even a sceptic of Track 2 like Siddiqa believes that back-channel has 'historically been beneficial and is relevant in the current India-Pakistan environment'. It is important that in the controversy around Vaidik, crucial mechanisms like Track 2 and communication through back-channel envoys are not discarded. The India-Pakistan relationship needs more, not less communication.