By Maleeha Lodhi
UNTIL a few weeks ago New Delhi showed little enthusiasm for deepening the process of diplomatic engagement with Islamabad and even less interest in discussing issues of Pakistan’s concern.
But this seemed to change two weeks ago ahead of the start of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) session. Pakistani officials were approached by their Indian counterparts for a meeting between the Foreign Ministers of the two countries on the sidelines of the General Assembly at New York. Pakistan welcomed the diplomatic opening but asked what would be the substantive outcome of such parleys, Islamabad did more. It sought to persuade Delhi to pick up from where the ill-fated July meeting between Foreign Ministers Shah Mahmud Qureshi and SM Krishna had left off. The talks in Islamabad on July 15 had resulted in deadlock with negotiations unable to reconcile differences over the agenda and modalities for the dialogue ahead. The deal breaker was the Indian refusal to include Kashmir, Siachen and Peace and Security in future talks within an agreed timeframe.
The Indian delegation had offered to proceed on other issues, insisting that the three issues of priority for Pakistan be discussed later at an unspecified “appropriate time”. The Indian focus remained almost exclusively on terrorism.
The effort to de-link substantive issues and disputes including Kashmir from the future dialogue was at odds with India’s publicly declared willingness to “discuss all issues”. This urged Pakistani officials to reject what they portrayed as a ‘selective’ approach.
So when Indian officials approached Islamabad a fortnight ago for the New York meeting, Pakistani officials sought to test the Indian side by proposing an ‘outcome’ statement that would emerge from such an encounter. This included discussion of ‘Jammu and Kashmir’ and ‘Peace and Security’ at foreign secretary-level talks which were suggested for October, ahead of the Foreign Ministers’ meeting now slated for early next year. The draft outcome paper also set out a roadmap for “comprehensive” talks on other issues.
While Delhi signalled willingness to discuss all issues and accept Islamabad’s draft outcome suggestion it said it expected Pakistan not to raise the Kashmir issue at the General Assembly and indicated it would reassess the matter in that light. The Indian desire for an anodyne Pakistani statement on Kashmir did not materialise. Nor could it, especially given the inflamed situation in the Valley. Qureshi’s UN speech was a robust statement of Pakistan’s position on Kashmir which he reiterated in other forums.
The sharp verbal clashes between the Pakistani and Indian foreign ministers quashed the possibility of any meeting. Mr. Krishna accused Pakistan of stirring trouble in Kashmir to divert attention from its internal situation. As the chance of a meeting vanished, The Times of India laid the blame for this on Qureshi who was seen to have “scuttled (the) expected meeting” by voicing “Islamabad’s familiar rhetoric on Kashmir”. Several questions emerge from the latest diplomatic encounter between the two countries. Where does this leave the apparent agreement to discuss “all issues” in the months to come? What has brought about an ostensible change in Delhi’s posture? Is this stance just tactical?
Answers to the first question will have to await the passage of time. As for the other questions two linked factors may be shaping India’s attitude towards talks with Pakistan. The first is the game-changing Kashmir uprising and the second President Barack Obama’s upcoming visit to India in November. The mass protests in Kashmir have redefined the whole issue, putting it on the front burner however much anyone would want to wish it away. A bloody summer in the Valley has seen over a hundred civilians killed in just over a hundred days.
The Indian government’s effort to defuse the crisis by offering an eight-point “confidence-building” package has been rejected by Kashmiri leaders. They have described the steps as an “eye wash” that fail to address the causes of the uprising. Against this backdrop agreeing to include Kashmir in future discussions with Islamabad is another way for Delhi to defuse this explosive situation while also signalling to the international community that it is engaged in addressing the crisis. Whether this is just a tactical shift will be tested in the dialogue ahead and especially by the seriousness India shows in addressing the substance and not just the manifestation of the Kashmir crisis. There may be another reason for Delhi’s shifting posture on talks with Islamabad. This has to do with President Obama’s much anticipated visit to India. Delhi is anxious to pacify the protests in Kashmir and be seen as discussing Kashmir with Pakistan to ensure that the issue stays off the agenda with a President, who, as candidate Obama, had acknowledged the need to resolve the dispute to secure US objectives in Afghanistan.
With Kashmir in deep ferment doubts linger in Delhi circles about whether President Obama might privately urge a Kashmir solution as a way of achieving regional stabilisation. The Times of India, for example, speculated last week that Obama might “push” Kashmir by offering “incremental” support for India’s candidature for the UN Security Council. Influential analysts in the US have also been arguing that the time has come for a diplomatic initiative on Kashmir. For example, Bruce Reidel, who undertook the Obama administration’s first review of Afghan strategy, recently wrote: “Obama’s strategy for dealing with Afghanistan and Pakistan always needed a Kashmir component to succeed – that need is more urgent and obvious now”. And he stressed that the President’s trip to India “will be a key to addressing it”.
Whether or not any of this translates into urging Washington to consider a diplomatic effort – quiet or otherwise – it is already obliging Delhi to make preemptive moves out of concern that these could be the leading edge of a growing trend. Meanwhile the popular upsurge in the Valley has sent a powerful message about what the Kashmiris want. This cannot be cast aside or marginalised in any Pakistan-India dialogue. To do so would denude the peace process of substance and make it unsustainable.