Of India-Pakistan ties and third-party mediation

ByManish Tewari
May 05, 2021 11:17 PM IST

While there have efforts in the past, the choice to accept third-party mediation vis-à-vis Pakistan is a first post-1972

In the midst of the mismanagement of Covid-19 by the central government, and India’s decision to accept foreign aid after 17 years, a development that has slipped under the radar is the choice to accept third-party mediation qua Pakistan — a first post-1972.

If India and Pakistan are now wanting to cross the Rubicon of third-party mediation, should they not find an arbitrator with greater heft? (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
If India and Pakistan are now wanting to cross the Rubicon of third-party mediation, should they not find an arbitrator with greater heft? (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

In a recent off-the-record interaction with journalists, Pakistani army chief General QJ Bajwa apparently opined that India’s national security adviser Ajit Doval and Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) chief Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed had ostensibly held confabulations in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), leading up to the February 25 ceasefire. What was, however, glossed over was the exact role of the UAE in midwifing this interaction?

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That role was revealed earlier by the UAE’s ambassador to the United States (US), Yousef Al Otaiba. He avowed that the UAE is indeed mediating between India and Pakistan to help them reach a “healthy and functional relationship”. He further went on to state that India and Pakistan may not become the best of friends but at least “we” want to get it to a level where it is functional and operational and “they” (India and Pakistan) are speaking to each other and there are lines of communication and that’s “our” goal.

Notwithstanding the dripping condescension of a marriage counsellor trying to patch up a rather prickly relationship, Otaiba’s revelations may perhaps be inaugurating a new chapter in the Indo-Pakistani dynamic — direct and overt mediation by a third country.

The India-Pakistan relationship, or the absence of it, has gone through many hoops of overt mediation and backchannel dialogue in the past seven decades. Between January 1, 1948, when India took Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) to the United Nations (UN) and the Simla Agreement on July 2, 1972, whereby both nations agreed to settle all outstanding disputes bilaterally, there were a series of attempts to mediate both under the auspices of the UN and bilaterally by the great powers. Various UN resolutions, efforts by Adlai Stevenson in 1953 and the Soviet Union-brokered Tashkent agreement after the Indo-Pakistan war in 1965 all bear eloquent testimony to these failed and some partly successful efforts.

However, post-Simla, India has stoutly resisted any attempt by any other nation to intervene or mediate overtly in the Indo-Pakistani imbroglio.

Undoubtedly, there have been various discreet attempts after that too. Both the United States (US) and even the Soviet Union reached out to India and Pakistan respectively to lower heightened tensions in the wake of Operation Brass Tacks in 1986-1987. There was the Robert Gates Mission in 1990 when ratcheting up of tensions between India and Pakistan over the unrest in Kashmir and Pakistan’s nuclear sabre-rattling impelled the then US deputy national security adviser to make a dash to the subcontinent. On July 4, 1999, Nawaz Sharif made an emergency sprint to Washington DC to get President Bill Clinton to intervene in the Kargil War but Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee resolutely refused to join him in DC and stayed put in Delhi, making it clear that Pakistani withdrawal was the first step.

During Operation Parakram in 2001 again, presumably, at the behest of the US, Lieutenant General Kapil Vij was relieved of the command of the Ambala-based 2nd Strike Core because American satellites picked up the forward deployment of his armoured assets almost to strike positions. During the second peak of Operation Parakram, post the Kaluchak terrorist outrage, US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage and defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld played peacemaker between India and Pakistan.

Similarly, during the 26/11 terrorist outrage in 2008 and the air raid on Balakot in 2019, there was an enormous amount of backchannel manoeuvring by many friendly nations, described by various actors in their accounts, most recently by one of Donald Trump’s many national security advisers, John Bolton.

Then, there were the backchannel bilateral conversations. One of the less documented but perhaps the most productive dialogue was between RK Mishra and Pakistan’s former foreign secretary Niaz Naik in 1998 and 1999. The parleys suffered because of the Kargil conflict. However, the most sustained backchannel between the two countries was between ambassador Satinder Lambah and his Pakistani counterpart Tariq Aziz during the tenure of the United Progressive Alliance. Lambah is circumspect even today about what transpired during this process.

It is also widely speculated that there was another backchannel active from 2018 onwards between a former deputy director-general of the ISI and a now-retired senior officer of the cabinet secretariat that dovetailed into more high-level interactions at an institutional level between India and Pakistan. The common thread that runs through all these attempts from 1972 onwards was that they were quiet and discreet parleys aimed at influencing key decision-makers in both countries — either to act or not act in a particular manner, during or in the aftermath of a crisis. The backchannels were also purely bilateral affairs unlike the Oslo process between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) that was actively midwifed by the foreign ministry of Norway.

Presuming that both India and Pakistan do believe that such third-party mediation would help in arriving at a modus vivendi between the two nuclear-armed neighbours, there is an obvious question — does the UAE have the heft to guarantee that the arrangements arrived at are adhered too, which, from India’s perspective, is primarily the cessation of all cross-border terrorism by Pakistan? If India and Pakistan are now wanting to cross the Rubicon of third-party mediation, should they not find an arbitrator with greater heft?

Manish Tewari is a Member of Parliament, former Union minister, and a lawyer

The views expressed are personal

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