The Pakistani decision to detain and then expel an Indian diplomat, Deepak Kaul, on trumped-up charges of espionage appears to be a carefully thought-out act. Inevitably, India retaliated by a tit-for-tat expulsion of a Pakistani diplomat. The result is that the cloud of suspicion hovering above the two countries following the Mumbai blasts has become much more dense and murky. Indian officials made it clear that the action would inevitably have an impact on the peace process. In the past, such acts have been used for diplomatic signalling. Just what Islamabad is saying may not be clear right now. But the action has certainly put paid the optimism that had arisen from the recent meetings between the Indian and Pakistani foreign secretaries in Dhaka, where the two officials had reiterated their desire to keep the peace process going.
Pakistani officials now claim that had India quietly lumped Mr Kaul’s expulsion, instead of going public on it and retaliating, things would have been fine. This is not only self-serving but bereft of common sense. Mr Kaul’s movement -- from Islamabad to Lahore to pick up his family from Wagah -- had been notified in advance. As is the Pakistani practice, he would have been aggressively tailed by the ISI through this journey. So, the charge that he stopped on the roadside to receive documents from a contact appear ludicrous. For decades, Indian diplomats have had to deal with the aggressive surveillance of Pakistani intelligence officials in their everyday lives, and at times they have faced abuse and assault. The Vienna Conventions of 1961 and a 1992 bilateral code of conduct signed by the two countries should have prevented the kind of rough and crude behaviour of Pakistani security agencies with Mr Kaul, but it did not. Fortunately, New Delhi did not treat the diplomat it expelled by way of retaliation in the same way.
Since mid-2003, the two countries had evolved a sophisticated back-channel mechanism through which contentious issues were dealt with freely and frankly, away from public glare. If that mechanism is no longer working, then we are in for trouble. For, a considerable chunk of the gains that have been associated with the peace process have come through behind-the-scenes negotiations, not the grand summits.