After a day of intense diplomatic acrimony, the meeting between India and Pakistan’s national security advisers (NSAs) stood cancelled, even though neither side categorically said they were calling off the talks and blamed it on the other.
The final break was over two issues — the agenda of the talks and the proposed meeting of the Pakistani NSA with the Hurriyat leadership — leading to the collapse of the Ufa framework agreed by the two prime ministers only last month.
Saturday saw four different acts play out — Pakistan’s NSA Sartaj Aziz first made public his intentions through a press conference in Islamabad in the afternoon; Indian external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj responded with clear redlines in New Delhi in the evening; a formal Pakistani statement late at night announced the talks “would not serve any purpose” if conducted on the basis of conditions laid down by Swaraj; and finally, India got back through the MEA spokesperson, calling the Pakistani decision “unfortunate” and emphasising there were no pre-conditions.
In the clearest articulation of Delhi’s policy line yet, Swaraj had said Aziz would be welcome in Delhi if Pakistan provided an assurance that he would not meet the Hurriyat and add a ‘third party’ to the process, and accept that talks would only focus on terror. “Keeping in mind the spirit of the (1972) Simla agreement, don’t make Hurriyat a third party to the talks, and keeping the spirit of Ufa (in Russia), don’t expand the subject of talks beyond terrorism,” Swaraj said.
When asked what would happen if Pakistan did not accept the position outlined by her, she said, categorically, “There will be no talks.” Swaraj had clarified that what was agreed upon at Ufa was not the resumption of the composite dialogue but only a decision to talk about terror, to then create an atmosphere conducive for dialogue on other issues.
In its formal response, Pakistan said that terrorism was a part of the composite dialogue, discussed simultaneously with other issues. “It is not reasonable for India to now assume the right to decide unilaterally that from now onwards, other issues will be discussed after terrorism has been discussed and eliminated,” a statement released by its foreign office said. It said that discussing only terrorism would “intensify the blame game” and “further vitiate the atmosphere”. And that is why Pakistan said it had suggested discussing “modalities and if possible, a time schedule, for discussions on all outstanding issues”.
Islamabad also said that Pakistani leaders had met Hurriyat leaders whenever they visited India in the past 20 years, and it would be “inappropriate” for India to “impose the condition” of changing this “long-standing practice”. India’s determination to not allow the separatists to be a party to the engagement was reflected in the detention of separatist leaders Shabir Shah and Bilal Lone, among others, in the Capital.
Earlier in the day, Aziz had refrained from calling off the talks and said he would go to Delhi, but without pre-conditions. He rebutted the charge that Pakistan was expanding the ambit of issues as agreed to at Ufa. Referring to the phrase “all outstanding issues”, he claimed everyone knew the most important outstanding issue between the two countries is the future of Jammu and Kashmir. “The word ‘K’ is very much present in this sentence…”
He also rejected the perception that Pakistan was apprehensive of the dossiers Indian NSA Ajit Doval was preparing for presentation during the talks, and was looking for an exit. “I will also be carrying three dossiers on R&AW’s involvement in promoting terrorism in Pakistan,” he said while showing the documents. Aziz said he would hand over the dossiers to Doval if possible in New York, and also to the UN secretary general.
India-Pakistan ties have gone through much turbulence in the past year. PM Narendra Modi invited counterpart Nawaz Sharif for his swearing-in last year, but soon after, foreign secretary talks were cancelled precisely over the issue of the Pakistan high commissioner meeting Hurriyat leaders. At Ufa, India took the initiative to restart engagement. But with the talks now having collapsed before they even started, it throws open a big question about the future of the relationship; how meetings would be resumed given the incompatibility of the Indian redlines and Pakistani positions; and whether the other elements of the Ufa agreement — talks between the two DGMOs and heads of the BSF and Pakistan Rangers — would hold or not.