Last year, the Government of India called off Foreign Secretary-level talks with Pakistan, after the latter’s High Commission decided to meet with Kashmiri separatists, despite New Delhi’s objections. Irrespective of whether it was the right decision, all the bonhomie that was generated between New Delhi and Islamabad in the early months of Prime Minister Modi’s tenure withered away after the ill-timed meeting, which many have argued showed a lack of due deference to India’s sovereign claim over Kashmir.
However, earlier this year, both sides decided to restart diplomatic engagement in a bid to ease tensions on the border. After the meeting between Prime Minister Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif on the sidelines of a conference in Russia, both sides decided to hold National Security Advisor-level talks in New Delhi. Earlier this week, Pakistan accepted New Delhi’s invitation for talks on August 23. But in an announcement that has caused some furore within the Indian establishment, Pakistan’s foreign office has said it planned to go ahead and meet with Kashmiri separatist leaders in the national capital, after Islamabad’s envoy Sartaj Aziz holds crucial talks with India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. Separatist leaders including, Yasin Malik, Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, have been invited to a reception in New Delhi for Sartaj Aziz. As a result of Islamabad’s announcement, Kashmiri separatists invited to meet Pakistan’s Sartaj Aziz on Sunday were placed under house arrest and then freed around two hours later on Thursday.
According to news reports, senior officials in New Delhi described the detention and release as “a signal that the separatists cannot be a third party to talks.” Pakistan, however, has remained firm on its stand. Besides accusations of ceasefire violations across the Line of Control and International Border between both sides, discussions on cross-border terrorism will top the agenda between the NSAs on both sides.
Although Islamabad’s invitation to Kashmiri separatists has been seen as a provocation by certain segments, the government has said it will not be baited into cancelling what is the first such dialogue between the two countries after a year. This is a show of positive intent from the Modi government, which also sees diplomatic engagement as the only method of achieving tranquillity on the border, despite constant breaks.
Therefore, Islamabad’s decision to invite Kashmiri separatist, despite the Indian government’s objections, is nothing but an unnecessary provocation. Suffice to say, there is a feeling among certain foreign policy hawks that Islamabad seems determined to call off talks. Dialogue, as many in the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment know, is the only way forward for New Delhi, despite India’s superior military strength.
In the period when both governments decided to call off diplomatic engagement, we witnessed a war of words between both sides over a “spy drone” which Pakistan alleged was being used by India for aerial photography near the Line of Control (LoC), a claim dismissed by New Delhi. India, meanwhile, has repeatedly expressed its anger with a Pakistan court granting bail to terrorist Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, the mastermind of the Mumbai attacks in which 166 people were killed in 2008. Pakistan has, in turn, has criticized India’s decision to not challenge the bail granted to Swami Aseemanand, the alleged mastermind of the bombing of a train in 2007 in which 70 people were killed, most of them Pakistanis. With terrorism on top of the agenda, both sides will bring these sore points to the table.
The recent spates of attack in Udhampur, followed by the terror attack in Punjab, where two terrorists, again reportedly from Pakistan, sneaked across the border and wreaked havoc on the small town of Gurdaspur, will definitely find a place in the negotiations. Whether both sides arrive at any resolution is yet to be seen. However, this is a chance at a fruitful engagement, which both sides must grab.