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Payback to Pak that UPA missed
Gilgit answer to Hurriyat

New Delhi, Aug. 24: For the new government at the Centre, one of the most challenging decisions in its tenure just shy of three months was the conclusion that bilateral talks with Pakistan had to be called off at a late minute.

If Sujatha Singh had stuck to her plans and gone to Islamabad this week, she, along with Pakistan’s foreign secretary, would have finalised a date and approved the modalities for transforming Wagah-Attari from a border of mistrust and intrigue into potentially a bustling bilateral trading point with people-to-people contacts between the two sides, according to multiple sources that were working on the now asphyxiated August 25 meeting.

Ever since Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif agreed soon after the former took office that economics was the key to confidence building that could solve festering disputes between their countries, officials on both sides have been working towards opening the Wagah-Attari border to full trade.

It would not have been the only “deliverable” during the opening round of a resumed dialogue with high expectations. Progress was realistically possible during the meeting of foreign secretaries on exporting power to Pakistan, which would have eased the popular siege now around Sharif, and although less specifically, on a gas pipeline between the two estranged neighbours.

Such possibilities that would have kept alive the expectations raised by Modi in his early weeks as Prime Minister were weighed at a high political level meeting against the tantalising, if risky, prospect that the BJP-led government could set in motion a train of events which may ultimately solve the Kashmir issue on India’s terms.

If the BJP’s political machine under president Amit Shah manages to create a fertile ground for ending the special status for Jammu and Kashmir, for the first time since independence, the state’s demography could change.

Enterprising Punjabis from neighbouring states, for instance, would buy land and settle in Kashmir which is not possible now. Article 370 prohibits Indian citizens from outside Jammu and Kashmir from buying land or property in the state.

This is no BJP fantasy: Modi could replicate in the Valley what the Han Chinese leadership did in Tibet.

The restive Chinese province has been demographically so altered through resettlement, it has weakened the push for independence from Beijing. Resettlement by people from elsewhere in India has the potential to make separatism redundant without Article 370.

For now, though, that is putting the cart before the horse. When Atal Bihari Vajpayee assumed government leadership in 1998 with L.K. Advani as home minister, the prospect of “hot pursuit” of cross-border terrorists and Israeli-style attacks on terrorist training camps in Pakistan and in occupied Kashmir were considered.

Eventually, the idea petered out and the same fate could befall Modi’s plans for Jammu and Kashmir. But for now, similar prospects are driving the government’s agenda on Pakistan.

For those who have come into government after a gap of a full decade, a treasure trove of material on Kashmir policy and how business was done with Pakistan through decades has become available in recent weeks.

At high political levels in the Modi government, such material is being gone through with a fine tooth comb to fashion responses to all eventualities from across the border. Another terrorist attack, for instance, is seriously being anticipated in the full realisation that if reactions on Raisina Hill are no different from those by Manmohan Singh, the halo around Modi would vanish in an instant.

In one sweep, the BJP’s unique selling proposition as a bulwark against external terrorism, already dented once when terrorists were exchanged in Kandahar for passengers of a hijacked Indian Airlines plane, would dissipate.

Thus, it was discovered almost a fortnight ago — soon after intelligence agencies told Ajit Doval, the national security adviser — that when Hurriyat leaders had been invited to the Pakistan high commission, the UPA government had failed to consider options that were offered to its Prime Minister to neutralise the recurring irritant of such meetings in Chanakyapuri, the capital’s diplomatic enclave.

It has been independently confirmed by this writer that during the tenure of UPA I, a governor of Jammu and Kashmir argued forcefully that meetings between Pakistani envoys and Hurriyat leaders should be countered in Islamabad by the Indian high commissioner inviting Shia leaders from Gilgit-Baltistan, who are victims of ethnic cleansing by the Pakistan Army. Just like Pandits from the Kashmir Valley.

But Manmohan Singh did not act on the governor’s advice: a charitable explanation is that things were going well with Gen. Pervez Musharraf and there was a realistic expectation that the army headed by Musharraf would agree to convert the Line of Control into a permanent border as agreed in Shimla after the 1971 war, according to diplomatic folklore.

Opinion within the government is that a rising crescendo of demands that Pakistani high commissioner Abdul Basit should be expelled or that Indian envoys should meet rebels from Balochistan are ill-informed nonsense being put out by talk-show pundits.

India has no role in Balochistan. On the other hand, Gilgit-Baltistan is Indian territory, occupied by Pakistan with impunity. Besides, Pakistan has been chipping away at the status of Gilgit-Baltistan in violation of international law. This has strengthened the case for meetings between freedom fighters from that area and Indian envoys.

A key input into the final decision to call off foreign secretary-level talks was an assessment by the Multi-Agency Centre (MAC), the nodal agency for all terror-related intelligence. It is under the umbrella of the Intelligence Bureau.

A MAC assessment, which this writer has seen, says there are 34 active terrorist training camps and eight “holding” camps in operation across the border. Gilgit-Baltistan and occupied Kashmir account for 17 active and four holding camps each.

This assessment has strengthened those in the government who have concluded that Pakistani assurances of not allowing use of its territory for cross-border terrorism are nothing but fiction.