With representatives from India and Pakistan scheduled sit down to finalise a deal on the Kartapur Corridor to allow Indian Sikh pilgrims to travel to Pakistan, former Indian ambassador to US and desk in charge of Pakistan in the Ministry of External Affairs Arun Singh says the corridor could be provide an opening for possible engagement between the two countries.
Edited excerpts from an interview.
By revoking article 370 India, India has changed the entire narrative on Kashmir. What happens now in terms the global discourse on Kashmir? How do you see this playing out in the long term?
On 22 February, 1994, the Indian Parliament adopted a resolution on Jammu and Kashmir which asserted that “the State of Jammu and Kashmir has been, is and shall be an integral part of India". This has been India’s consistent position since then. India’s 5 August action on Article 370 was within its sovereign prerogative. There is widespread international recognition that India will not accept any third part role or mediation on India– Pakistan issues. India’s experience in the two decades of international mediation efforts after the conflict in 1947 was that third parties were not guided by principles, facts and realities, but their own interests. But other countries do get active when there is a sense of crisis, potential or actual conflict. Pakistan is now trying again to internationalize the issue, create a sense of crisis and impending conflict to get the UN or major international countries involved. They need this also for their own domestic politics, since Prime minister Imran Khan and Army Chief Qamar Bajwa (who was just given a three extension in tenure) would otherwise be criticized for having generated no opposition to India removing the fig leaf from Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir.
So long as the situation on the ground gradually normalizes, Pakistan’s activism will fizzle out, as it did in the mid 1990s. At that stage, once the Indian government has assessed that it has received satisfaction on the issue of terrorism, a new process could start. And once that happens, international activism will also wane.
India has tried to isolate Pakistan diplomatically since 2016 – through BIMSTEC etc. How successful has India been in this?
India’s firm stance, at the moment, on not resuming formal dialogue with Pakistan while it continues to support terrorism highlights international awareness of Pakistan’s nexus with terror groups and the inherent dangers. However, other countries, in their own approach to Pakistan are guided by considerations of their own interests. China has found a useful ally in Pakistan, in challenging India geo-strategically, and for its access to the Arabian Sea and Gwadar port through the China- Pakistan Economic Corridor. The US needs Pakistan as it pursues an agreement with the Taliban which would help President Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential elections. As a result Pakistan is receiving infusion of funds from UAE, Saudi Arabia, IMF, ADB, among others. At the same time, pressure has been kept on Islamabad through its continued grey listing in the FATF (Financial Action Task Force), since it has not been seen as taking adequate action against terror financing.
What do you say about Pakistan’s efforts to internationalise the Kashmir issue in the context of the Article 370 move? How successful have they been?
Pakistan’s efforts so far have not really been successful. With China’s help they did manage to have the issue discussed, but in a closed, informal meeting of the UN Security Council. Pakistan’s frustration is evident in the increasingly bellicose rhetoric from Prime Minister Imran Khan, repeatedly alluding to nuclear weapons and forcing people in Pakistan to adopt symbolic gestures like standing outside for half an hour every Friday. However, there is negative reporting in the international media on account of restrictions in J&K. The US and UK are reported to have raised the issue with the Indian government. International perceptions and reactions would need to be appropriately addressed.
In the middle of all this, talks on opening the Kartarpur Corridor are happening. Do you see the Kartarpur Corridor as a possible opening for dialogue to happen, if and when they happen?
Pakistan’s current effort is to try and change the narrative on Kashmir. So far the focus has been on Pakistan’s involvement with terror groups. It wants to generate a new narrative with focus on alleged human rights violations, and dent India’s image of a secular democratic country. If Pakistan continues with its engagement on the Kartarpur Corridor, and not seek to use it for anti- India activity, this will certainly provide one avenue for positive interaction. Whether a formal dialogue process can resume will depend on how the Indian government assesses satisfaction on the issue of terrorism, and Pakistan assesses its compulsions for activism related to Kashmir.
Moving to Afghanistan, do you think India is paying a price for being a fence sitter in Afghanistan? How serious a factor is India in Afghanistan today?
There have been phases when India was not a core group participant in international efforts on Afghanistan. This was also the case pre 9/11 attacks, when focus, as now, was on getting Pakistan’s cooperation. Our relevance in Afghanistan derives instead from the support we find in the Afghan people and leadership. The more than $2 billion assistance that India has provided since 2002 has been instrumental in consolidating this support. This was the most effective strategy for India when it can access Afghanistan only through a third country such as Iran. Whatever be the outcome of the US-Taliban talks, India will always find support and relevance in Afghanistan.
There are people who say the Taliban of today is different from the Taliban of 1996 that was much more in need of the support of Pakistan. Would you agree with this assessment?
It is too early to make any such definitive assessment. So far, the Taliban has remained heavily dependent on Pakistan, which has provided it a safe haven, funding, training, equipment etc. Opening of an office in Qatar has certainly given it some additional political space. If the Taliban now wants to avoid international isolation, they would need to show more responsiveness to concerns of other countries, particularly on terrorism, and constitutional rights within Afghanistan. This would certainly lessen their dependence on Pakistan.