Track 2 and Back Channel Diplomacy in India-Pakistan Relations.
By G Parthasarathy
Traditional Diplomacy has, for centuries, involved talks in closed chambers between the rulers of countries, or their designated representatives, to resolve differences, forge alliances and put in place new architecture for cooperation and coexistence, after conflicts. But, in the contemporary world, civil society activists, academics, politicians, corporate business representatives and persons well versed in the conduct of international relations play an increasingly important role in influencing and moulding the foreign and security policies of nations. In the present day, therefore, contacts between designated Government representatives are very often complemented by inputs resulting from meetings between non-official representatives of countries. On many occasions, when Governments wish to avoid publicity, or seek to informally ascertain the positions of others, before entering into the realm of official and formal talks, they utilize informal channels, using trusted and reliable individuals and institutions for planning out their negotiating strategies. Equally, when civil society institutions feel adequately concerned about situations getting out of hand, they take the initiative for contacting counterparts abroad, to ascertain whether they can contribute to easing tensions, or promoting cooperation. Such moves are the basis for what is now popularly known as Track 2 Diplomacy.
Track 2 Diplomacy has an invaluable role to play when traditional instruments of negotiation, mediation and conflict management become ineffective and need to be supplemented. In some cases, the causes of the conflict are so deep rooted that official negotiators do not have negotiating room politically, to seek de-escalation or resolution. This is especially so, when a society may be too divided to permit bold initiatives for de-escalation, or the conflict itself may be intertwined with other global or regional conflicts. Traditional negotiation and mediation may be suited for resolving issues like power sharing, poverty and equitable distribution of resources and wealth. But on issues where the very identity of nations are involved, as in the case of Jammu and Kashmir, it is necessary to have mechanisms and groups which can seek to change the parameters of existing discourse, by influencing public opinion on the need to look at imaginative alternatives to what is regarded as conventional wisdom. But it is important, here, to emphasize the limitations of such efforts and initiatives, especially when important and influential sections of State machinery develop a vested interest in perpetuating, promoting and prolonging differences, tensions and conflict.
Track 2 meetings between India and Pakistan came to public attention when the international focus of attention on Jammu and Kashmir increased in the 1990s, and separatist sentiment in the Kashmir Valley became a focus of international attention. The first attempt at a Track 2 approach to problems in Jammu and Kashmir was undertaken by the U.S. based Kashmir Study Group, headed by an American national who originally lived in Srinagar, Farookh Kathwari. Prominent American and Pakistani diplomats were associated with this effort, with India being represented by former Foreign Secretary S.K. Singh and former Vice Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Nayyar. Given the then prevailing situation of widespread Pakistan sponsored militancy, the antipathy of the US State Department and indeed the Clinton Administration towards India and the absence of any formal dialogue process after Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto ended dialogue with India in 1994, this effort could make little headway, as its thrust was seen as being insensitive to Indian concerns and imperatives. It was quite evident that the time was not propitious for any meaningful and new political approach, as the Pakistan army, and even sections of political establishment evidently believed that India would wilt under the pressure of American antipathy and the escalating and seemingly endless militancy, which appeared to enjoy support widely in the Kashmir valley.
Following the Kargil conflict and the tensions that followed the attack on the Indian Parliament, on December 13, 2001, President Musharraf and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee agreed on January 6, 2004 that they would resume the “Composite Dialogue Process” between India and Pakistan, based on an explicit assurance from President Musharraf that he would not allow “territory under Pakistan’s control” to be used for terrorism against India. President Musharraf’s assurance came in the aftermath of terrorist strikes in New York and Washington on September 9, 2001, after he had been forced to ban groups like the Lashkar e Taiba and the Jaish e Mohammed by American actions, which led to the U.N. Security Council banning these groups as international terrorist organizations, under U.N. Security Council Resolution 1373. Moreover, President Musharraf’s actions against these groups was taken after the Jaish e Mohammed attempted to assassinate him, leading to the former Director General of the ISI Lieutenant General Javed Ashraf Qazi admitting to the Pakistan Senate in March 2004 that the Jaish was responsible not only for attempts to assassinate President Musharraf, but also for the attack on the Indian Parliament.
The improving climate for bilateral relations led to the Nobel Prize winning Pugwash International organizing an important Track 2 meeting in Kathmandu in December 2004. This meeting brought together, for the first time, politicians, journalists and civil society representatives from both sides of the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir, together with former diplomats, military officials and journalists from across India and Pakistan. While the representatives from Pakistan Occupied Kashmir included the President of the Muslim Conference Sardar Attique Khan, the Pakistan Government did not permit representatives from the Northern Areas of Gilgit-Baltistan to participate, quite evidently because of concerns that these representatives would speak out against the denial of any meaningful freedoms to them. In contrast, the representatives from Jammu and Kashmir who participated in the dialogue ranged from separatist leader Sajjad Lone to the leader of the Panthers Party Mr. Bhim Singh. From the Indian side with whom I participated, were Mr. Hamid Ansari, now the Vice President of India and Mr. Satinder Lambah who was subsequently appointed as the Indian representative in the extensive “back channel” negotiations, which focused predominantly on evolving a framework to resolve the Kashmir issue.
The Pugwash Report issued after the December 2004 meeting noted that although no consensus was reached in identifying the starting point for evolving conflict resolution mechanisms, all participants acknowledged that the human dimension of the conflict should take priority over geo-strategic considerations. Key approaches were developed by some participants, stressing the need for ‘change’ mainly in developing a people-centred approach and making the human dimension of the Kashmir problem part and parcel of the political dialogue at all levels. Some participants also felt that ‘time’ is a fundamental factor in establishing a durable peace between India and Pakistan, but most importantly for the whole of Kashmir, in its regional environment. What is needed, it was felt, is a prolonged period of non-violence, coupled with genuine social and economic reforms that could deflate a great number of problems and help establish a durable and sustainable peace. One cannot expect a society to shift instantly from profound trauma to peace, the report emphasized. At the outset, there seemed to be much agreement that the UN Resolutions proposing a plebiscite to express the political choices of Kashmiris, of acceding to either India or Pakistan, was now obsolete. The need for developing a multi-level approach was generally agreed to by the participants, stressing the need for an intra-Kashmiri dialogue and process of reconciliation within both sides of Jammu and Kashmir and across the Line of Control; and between people of Jammu and Kashmir and both capitals. To that end, while participants appreciated the efforts of both India and Pakistan to sustain a composite dialogue, it was nonetheless emphasized that the bilateral process should arrive at Kashmiri-specific CBMs. A general consensus developed at meeting that all forms of violence should end, irrespective of their form or origin. Civil society throughout the state should de-legitimize violence through massive demonstrations. Whereas the ceasefire between Pakistan and India on the LoC was already paying dividends, the cease-fire should be extended within J&K. Proselytizing should be banned; training camps and recruitment networks should be dismantled. All parties and individuals should refrain from statements and actions that incite or promote hatred and violence.
In terms of specific measures to be implemented across the Line of Control and within both Indian and Pakistan-administered Kashmir, the following measures were recommended:
- Bus services should be activated linking different parts of the state.
- Multiple land routes should be opened or constructed within J&K and across the LoC and infrastructure should be developed to link all parts of J&K to the rest of the region.
- Border markets and meeting points could be set up at possible crossing-points along the LoC, for example at Neelam Valley and at Uri-Chakhoti.
- Trade in goods and services should be developed across the LoC and at a regional level.
- Kashmir’s water resources should be the subject of closer studies and in depth discussions, as the State holds a great potential to benefit itself and the whole region.
- It would be desirable to identify and initiate joint developmental and environment projects in areas of mutual interest across the LoC
The dialogue between representatives from both sides of the LOC also led to participants welcoming the reduction of security forces in Jammu and Kashmir and hoped that a continuation of the process of normalization would lead to further reduction of forces. It was also stressed that basic political freedoms are necessary in Pakistan Administered Kashmir so that no military overt or covert operations can gratuitously hijack the dialogue and peace process by making use of these areas.The cease-fire should be extended and maintained within the State, and should be accompanied by the de-mining of border areas in order to facilitate people-to-people initiatives and the overall strengthening of CBMs. It was agreed that the role of various intelligence agencies operating in J&K was generally perceived as distorting people’s wishes, creating fear psychosis and working against people’s interests. Such conduct could only undermine the long-term viability of a solution to the J&K issue.
The Pugwash meeting in Kathmandu took place when a cease fire was in place along the Line of Control and the some of the Jihadi groups (other than the Lashkar e Taiba) were threatening Pakistan’s rulers in the aftermath of the American led Operation Enduring Freedom” in Afghanistan, which ousted the Taliban Regime, using facilities provided on Pakistani territory. President Musharraf appeared to have calculated that while he would not entirely defang the Jihadi groups, he would be well advised to seek progress in reducing tensions on Pakistan’s eastern borders, by seeking more innovative ways to address differences on Jammu and Kashmir. In the meantime, the Kashmir Study Group in Washington came out with a new proposal in February 2005 which proposed a solution to the issue of J&K on the basis of self-governance and demilitarization. A number of Track 2 initiatives by institutions like the Jamia Millia Islamia University and the Observer Research Foundation led to substantively increased civil society interaction and visits across the LOC by prominent leaders from Pakistan Occupied Kashmir like veteran Muslim Conference leader Sardar Qayyum Khan, and even leaders from Groups like the Gilgit-Baltistan Democratic Alliance in the Northern Areas.
These developments came alongside the establishment of a “back channel” comprising initially National Security Advised J.N. Dixit on the one side and President Musharraf’s aide Tariq Aziz on the other. Following Mr. Dixit’s demise in 2005 his position was taken over by Special Envoy Satinder Lambah who held around 15 rounds of negotiations with his counterpart between 2005 and 2007.These negotiations evidently flowed from proposals articulated by President Musharraf and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. President Musharraf proposed that:
(1) J&K should be divided into seven regions.
(2) There should be a process of “demilitarization” in identified regions. He subsequently asked for the withdrawal of Indian forces from three urban centres-Srinagar, Kupwara and Baramulla.
(3) There should be “self-governance” in Jammu and Kashmir. He did not indicate whether this would be equally applicable to Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and the Northern Areas of J&K, under Pakistan’s control.
(4) India and Pakistan should agree to “Joint Management” of the State. He did not specify whether “Joint Management” would equally apply to POK and the Northern Areas.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in turn, outlined his vision on how to move forward in resolving the issue of Jammu and Kashmir on March 24, 2006. Dr. Singh made the following points:
(1) Borders cannot be redrawn but we can move towards making them irrelevant-towards making them “just lines on a map”.
(2) People on both sides of the Line of Control (LOC) should be able to move freely and trade with each other.
(3) A situation can be envisaged where the two parts of Jammu and Kashmir can, with active encouragement from the Governments of India and Pakistan, work out cooperative and consultative mechanisms, so as to maximize the gains of cooperation in solving problems of social and economic development of the region.
While the discussions on Jammu and Kashmir were conducted on a “back channel” with a substantial measure of secrecy, there have been indications from reports in the media and in comments by Pakistan’ former Foreign Minister Mr. Khurshid Kasuri that there had been significant progress in finding common ground on proposals made by the two sides. Speaking to a gathering during his visit to India in 2006, Mr. Kasuri called on opposition leaders in India to support the efforts, which were underway to resolve that issue of Jammu and Kashmir, while asserting that differences had been significantly narrowed. While the exact contours of the framework which were then discussed are not known publicly, reports in the media indicate that there was agreement on harmonizing the nature of self-governance and devolution of powers on both sides of the Line of Control. Responding to General Musharraf’s proposal for “demilitarization,” India had indicated its readiness to reduce and redeploy forces in Jammu and Kashmir on a reciprocal basis, once it is reassured that there is an irrevocable end to infiltration across the Line of Control. There also appears to have been understanding on the need for mechanisms and institutions to promote cooperation in areas like trade, travel, tourism, education, health, environment and water resources. Details of what reportedly transpired in “back channel” negotiations were also published by an article in the New Yorker Magazine by Steve Coll. Much will depend on the political climate in the two countries and the prospects for political consensus within India and Pakistan, for this process to resume from where it was halted in 2007, because of the domestic political uncertainty and transition in Pakistan.
There have been a series of measures to promote travel, trade and dialogue across the LOC after the Pugwash Meeting of 2004. For the first time after five decades, people in Jammu and Kashmir are being given facilities to travel across the LOC to meet friends and relatives. In the Kashmir valley, a bus service has been instituted between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad and in the Jammu Region, between Poonch and Rawalkot. Five crossing points have, in addition, been opened to enable people to meet friends and relatives across the LOC. Trade across the LOC has been permitted for the first time, with goods carried by trucks on the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road. There are also proposals under discussion to establish bus links between Jammu and Sialkot in the Jammu Region and between Kargil and Skardu linking the valley of Kashmir with the Northern Areas, under Pakistan’s control. While the goods presently traded are restricted to locally produced products, this trade can be vastly expanded as India and Pakistan move towards their stated goal of establishing a South Asian Economic Union. There are, however, still misgivings and grievances that despite the new openings for trade and travel, the procedures for such cross LOC links have been made so cumbersome and restrictive that there are numerous complaints from people, who find permission to travel either delayed, or effectively denied. Many of these confidence building measures figured in recommendations made during the Pugwash meeting in Kathmandu and several other Track 2 meetings held between 2004 and 2007.
During subsequent meeting organized by the Pugwash International in Islamabad in March 2006 in which participants from India included not only separatist leaders but also representatives from mainstream Parties like Mr. Omar Abdullah, there was widespread agreement on the need for carrying the ongoing peace process in which people from both sides of the Loc participated. This Conference focused attention on: “Prospects for self-governance in Jammu and Kashmir and Present Status of Cooperation and Communications across the LoC”. There was an interesting question and answer session when participants met President Musharraf. There was recognition that considerable ground needed to be covered on more clearly outlining the parameters of what precisely would emerge from the principles like self-governance, demilitarization and an irrevocable end to terrorism. Interestingly, President Musharraf referred to his proposals for demilitarisation and self-governance. He told participants that “an ultimate solution on these lines would make the Loc irrelevant,” thereby signalling his move away from Pakistan’s traditional position of demanding a plebiscite in accordance with UN Resolutions and endorsing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s belief that while borders could not be changed, they could be made “irrelevant”.
Political turmoil in Pakistan following the dismissal of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhury, the attack on the Lal Masjid in Islamabad and growing terrorist attacks within Pakistan, resulted in the suspension of “back channel” meetings in 2007. India Pakistan relations thereafter, went into a tailspin, following the 26/11 terrorist attack on Mumbai. Under pressure from the military establishment the newly elected Government led by Prime Minster Gilani has disowned the agreements reached in back channel negotiations between the two Governments in 2005-2007, though former Foreign Secretary Riaz Mohammed Khan has been appointed as a successor to Tariq Aziz. The climate for relations has been further vitiated by terrorist attacks, reliably reported to have been undertaken with backing and support of the ISI on the Indian Embassy in Kabul and on other Indian interests in Afghanistan. Meetings between the Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers of India and Pakistan have ended in controversy with India insisting on meaningful action being taken by Pakistan to bring the perpetrators of 26/11 to Justice and more and more evidence emerging that the Pakistan military establishment continues to be recalcitrant on this score. There is now growing evidence confirming that Pakistan’s present Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani is forcing the weak civilian Government to adopt a hard line and recalcitrant posture towards India and keeping options open for terrorist strikes on Indian soil and on Indian interests in Afghanistan.
Despite these serious differences between the two Governments, there has been a continuing series of Track 2 engagements between India and Pakistan. There is little doubt that participants from both sides keep their respective Governments informed of thinking in different circles in the neighbouring country. Moreover, there has now been an increasing focus of attention in such meetings on whether political and diplomatic space exists to move away from adversarial positions on developments in Afghanistan. Interestingly, countries like the US, UK and Canada which have forces deployed in Afghanistan appear to be growingly interested in seeing if some common ground can be found for India and Pakistan to agree to a measure of cooperation, by understanding and addressing each other’s basic security concerns on developments in Afghanistan. Interestingly, at a recent Tack 2 meeting organized by the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi and the Jinnah Institute in Karachi, the participants who included former Pakistan Information Minister and PPP leader Sherry Rehman agreed that the aspirations of the Afghan people for stability should be fulfilled as soon as possible within an “Afghan owned multi-ethnic and broad based framework.” While it is evident that given the Pakistan army establishment’s obsession with aiding and abetting the Taliban, it will take considerable effort to get the army to quit interfering in Afghanistan’s internal affairs, the exchanges on Track 2 do provide an opening to let the international community and sections of public opinion in Pakistan know where India stands on developments in Afghanistan. At the present moment, the Pakistani media and even some of their diplomats, not to speak of former army officials like Generals Aslam Beg and Hamid Gul, put out baseless and fanciful statements and reports about India allegedly having over a dozen Consulates in Afghanistan and alleging that there are thousands of Indian military personnel being deployed there.
An interesting feature of the Track 2 meetings has been that in unofficial settings, where participants get to know each other on an informal and relaxed basis, one gets a more informal and realistic insight into thinking in different sections of society and different strands of political and public opinion. In the recent Track 2 meeting in Bangkok on August 28-30, organized by the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in India and the Jinnah Institute in Karachi, there was a very frank discussion on Jammu and Kashmir. The meeting came at a time when the Pakistan Government had not only disowned what had transpired in “Back Channel” meetings, but also expressed reluctance to resume “Back Chanel” talks. Despite this, the Pakistani participants agreed that “New Delhi and Islamabad should consider activating the back channel on Jammu and Kashmir to complement bilateral talks’. Moreover, while the Pakistan Government has taken the position that Confidence Building Measures are no substitute for a “result oriented” dialogue on Jammu and Kashmir, the Pakistani participants agreed that India and Pakistan should “implement in letter and spirit, the series of existing Confidence Building Measures, particularly those relating to easing travel and trade across the Line of Control. The security establishments in both India and Pakistan have been averse to seeing these CBMs implemented in letter and spirit.
It must be mentioned that Track 2 dialogue between India and Pakistan evokes interest not just in India and Pakistan, but also internationally. I have attended Track dialogues with Pakistani participants organized by influential foreign thin tanks in cities ranging from Bangkok, Colombo, Dubai and Moscow to Berlin, Brussels, London and Washington. The meetings in Brussels, for example, were very useful in moulding opinion in the European Parliament on developments in Jammu and Kashmir and the contours of a possible settlement to the vexed issue. On May 24, 2007 the European Parliament passed a Resolution which noted that Gilgit and Baltistan, suffers from extreme poverty and neglect, with enormous deficiencies in basic literacy and in access to healthcare, a lack of democratic structures and major deficiencies in the rule of law and justice. The Resolution also noted that there is considerable evidence that over many years Pakistan has provided Kashmiri militants with training, weapons, funding and sanctuary and has failed to hold militants for atrocities they have committed on the Indian-administered side. The Resolution welcomed the Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh’s “ideas related to making boundaries permanently irrelevant, a system of self-governance, and institutional arrangements for joint or cooperative management”. It strongly encouraged both India and Pakistan to further explore these concepts in joint discussions and with Kashmiris on both sides of the LoC and in Gilgit and Baltistan. This Resolution was welcomed in India and was seen as a setback to Pakistan’s frenzied diplomatic efforts in Europe to get India condemned for alleged human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir, while demanding a solution based on defunct UN Resolutions.
This paper primarily gives an idea of what transpired in Track 2 meetings the author was associated with. It is, however, heartening that as the number of academic institutions and private and Government funded Think Tanks taking an increasing interest in issues of foreign policy and national security in India has grown, a large number of forums have now emerged in India and abroad promoting Track 2 exchanges on issues related to India-Pakistan relations. Some of the forums for Track 2 meetings include the Observer Research Foundation, the Jamia Milia Islamia University, the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi, the Delhi Policy Group, the Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation in Gurgaon and the Centre for Rural and Integrated Development in Chandigarh. Moreover, even Track 2 meetings covering wider issues of foreign and national security policies almost invariably include a session where reference is made to India-Pakistan relations. Our active participation in such meetings has helped to promote better understanding on issues pertaining to our relations with Pakistan. But, in an ultimate analysis, decisions on such issues are predominantly influenced by domestic political, geopolitical and national security considerations. The Track 2 process can primarily seek avenues to share concerns, correct misperceptions, bridge differences, influence public opinion and keep channels of communication open.