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Baloch boomerang

For India and Pakistan, one single word could spell the difference between dialogue and stalemate. That word used to be Kashmir. That word could have been terrorism. But that word now is- Balochistan, writes Barkha Dutt.

india Updated: Jul 24, 2009 22:47 IST

For India and Pakistan, one single word could spell the difference between dialogue and stalemate. That word used to be Kashmir. That word could have been terrorism. But that word now is- Balochistan. The intense disapproval of its inclusion in the Egypt joint statement (some of it from within the Congress) terminates any chance of substantive forward movement between the two countries in the immediate future. Politics is set to steer diplomacy in the months to come. You will almost certainly see the government backtracking from its own plans at the first available opportunity. Balochistan has boomeranged.

The fact is that there was no agreed-upon joint statement on the table when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh began his talks at Sharm el-Sheikh. The two foreign secretaries, who had already met several times, had virtually given up on one. Out in the corridors where journalists staked out, we got word that the meeting may end either without a statement of consensus or at best there could be a single “safe” paragraph with the usual clichés on “constructive and cordial” talks. I remember phoning in with the news that the joint statement negotiations had broken down and now it was up to the two Prime Ministers to break the impasse. That attempt may have ended up creating an even wider gap than the one it was seeking to bridge.

This column argued last week that the broader decision to re-engage with Islamabad was perfectly logical, even necessary. And, I still believe that. New Delhi’s leverage to influence events, including the 26/11 investigations, was getting increasingly diminished because of prolonged non-engagement. If anything, not talking to Islamabad, was only strengthening the fundamentalists across the border. In any case, how long can refusing to talk be a philosophy of diplomacy? But I argued then, as I do now, against the joint statement becoming the barometer of progress at every Indo-Pak summit. What would have been lost had there not been one? If there were irresolute differences, why couldn’t the two leaders just have met the media together, and taken a few questions, instead of committing both sides to the written word?

The government may argue that joint statements are not legal documents and don’t bind India into any action. But they are historical documents that have traditionally shaped the contours of the dialogue process. There’s no getting away from that. Now there will be abiding questions about whether the statement was pushed through in a hurry. And while, drafting can be used to explain away the ambiguous nature of one sentence (delinking the composite dialogue from terrorism), the inclusion of Balochistan has precious little to do with craftsmanship. To include it was clearly a political decision, and we need more information on what prompted it.

As the interminable talks were going on behind closed doors, in Egypt, Balochistan was the subject of some cross-border debate among journalists covering the story. Before we knew what the outcome would be, I was interviewed by the irrepressible Pakistani anchor, Hamid Mir, for Geo TV. I agreed with Hamid that it was time for the dialogue process to resume in some form or the other. But here’s the irony: we got into an argument over Balochistan. Hamid brought up Islamabad’s allegations on Indian involvement in the region. I retorted by saying that while these allegations should be brought to the negotiating table, and New Delhi would have to respond to them at some stage, the suggestion of equivalence between these accusations and India’s long-standing concerns on terrorism was preposterous. Imagine my surprise then when I read the statement later.

That is the problem with the B-word. It suggests a sort of levelling out of charges. It may be true that over the years Pakistan has been both a perpetrator and a victim of terrorism. Unlike the hardliners, I have no problem in conceding that dual reality. But, thus far, that victimhood was seen to be a result of homegrown policies gone wrong or even because of contentious American interventions (the birth of the Taliban, for example). It’s only now that Islamabad can make the argument that India too foments terrorism. The joint statement may have managed to make terrorism its central focus. But the Balochistan inclusion allows Islamabad to create a-you-do-it-too formulation on the issue.

Yes, admittedly, the K-word was ousted out of the statement and that’s something pretty significant in itself. For Pakistan to not underline Kashmir in specific terms marks a departure in its own negotiating policy. But was there some sort of quid pro quo here: we will leave out Kashmir if you include Balochistan? If so, aren’t we in danger of equating the two again?

Right after the joint statement, the PM told us that he agreed to the inclusion because, “India had nothing to hide.” Given that he is among our most guileless political leaders, most of us believe him. But then we have several more questions. Was the evidence presented by Islamabad so strong that it compelled the inclusion of the B-word? Was there American pressure or American intelligence on it? There are other aspects that remain shrouded in some mystery as well. The PM quietly revealed that the ISI chief had briefed the military attaches at the Indian High Commission in Islamabad. But, since then the government has provided no more details on what these talks were about. Questions on whether the Intelligence Chief of Pakistan will be part of a new dialogue framework remain unanswered.

There may be several good reasons for why Egypt unfolded in the way it did. If that’s the case, we need to know those reasons. We need more transparency and more information. Intrigue and secrecy should not cloak decision-making. Otherwise one step forward could really end up being two steps back.

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV