Pakistan called off the National Security Advisor-level talks with India on Saturday night, hours after New Delhi made it clear that discussions on Kashmir and a meeting with separatists will not be acceptable.
The last straw appeared to be External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s virtual ultimatum to Pakistan to give a clear commitment by midnight that it would not go ahead with meeting the separatists. She repeatedly emphasised that New Delhi was not laying down any pre-condition for the NSA-level talks. Swaraj further added that she was only invoking the Shimla spirit under which two countries are committed to resolving issues bilaterally and the recent agreement in Ufa where Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif. Under the Ufa agreement, both leaders had agreed that the NSAs would meet only to discuss terror. Meanwhile, Islamabad has accused New Delhi of setting preconditions and that under the Ufa agreement both sides had agreed to discuss “all outstanding issues”. Moreover, Islamabad has always viewed leaders from the Hurriyat as representatives of Kashmir, and therefore, insisted on meeting them irrespective of New Delhi’s objections. Without trying to sound frivolous, one does feel that diplomatic talks between two nuclear-armed nations were called off due to a mere guest list laid down by the Pakistani High Commission in New Delhi. The prospects of the much-awaited talks, set between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif in Russia last month, had also been clouded in recent weeks due to a series of militant attacks and border skirmishes. The divergence of talking points was always a stumbling block.
Indian officials had categorically said that they wanted to provide proof that militants were getting support from over its western border, while Pakistan wanted the talks to be broader and include issues on Kashmir. New Delhi had sent an invitation to the Pakistani establishment for NSA-level talks on July 23. However, Islamabad sent its reply only after 22 days on August 14, leaving a rather short window for both sides to thrash out the details of a common agenda. Pakistan’s insistence on meeting separatist leaders may have been an attempt to bring the Kashmir dispute through the backdoor, despite the Ufa agreement, which was clear in its mandate that NSA-level talks will only deal with cross-border terrorism. During these talks, New Delhi had hoped to present Pakistan with evidence on continuing cross-border terror activities. Moreover, New Delhi also sought to lay down a proposed path for the actions it expected Islamabad to take. Instead, the discourse has been reduced to the issue of Kashmir and the Hurriyat’s part in the larger puzzle.
The bottom-line is that the Hurriyat is a minor player in Kashmir politics, something which was evident from the recent assembly elections in the State. Much to the chagrin of separatist leaders and the military establishment in Pakistan, a high turnout in the assembly elections last year had shrunk the separatist constituency. The Modi government may have drawn a clear line against the involvement of separatist leaders in its engagement with Pakistan. However, the fact of the matter is that since the Foreign Secretary-level talks were cancelled last year, New Delhi’s attempts at back-channel talks with Islamabad seem to have borne no fruit.
In other words, it is clear that in the past year, New Delhi has failed to convince Islamabad that talks with the Hurriyat Conference leaders were unacceptable and doing so would be akin to crossing a red line. Although Pakistan’s insistence on meeting separatist leaders shows a lack of due deference to India’s sovereign claim over the Kashmir, the fact remains that talks with separatists would have no real impact on the ground. With talks called off, New Delhi, some would argue, has lost a chance to corner Pakistan on issues of cross-border terror, while handing out the latter’s military establishment what it always wanted: cancellation of talks. Pakistan, however, must learn its lessons that retaliation from India will have devastating consequences on its economy. A time for close introspection has come for both sides.