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Experts air concern over backchannel engagement with India

Experts air concern over backchannel engagement with India

ISLAMABAD: Apprehensions about the backchannel engagement with India are growing because of what is being seen as an ‘absence of strategic clarity’ on Pakistani side.

Concerns are also being fuelled by scant details of what is being discussed in the talks, concerns about Indian intentions behind its outreach, and pessimism about the process helping resolve the Kashmir dispute.

These concerns are now being voiced at Islamabad’s busy think tank circuit.

Experts, while speaking at a webinar on ‘Back-Channel Talks and India-Pakistan Relations’, at Islamabad Policy Institute (IPI) emphasised ascertaining Indian intentions before investing in the process further, the think tank said in a statement on Monday.

See ‘absence of strategic clarity’ on Pakistani side

The presentations by three speakers at the webinar — former defence secretary retired Lt Gen Asif Yasin Malik, former permanent representative to the United Nations and ambassador to the UK and the US Dr Maleeha Lodhi, and former envoy to India and Ambassador to Germany Abdul Basit — revolved around India’s possible motive behind opening the backchannel, nature of discussions on Kashmir, and the utility of a front channel resulting from these behind-the-scenes talks between intelligence chiefs of the two countries that have reportedly been continuing since last December.

The backchannel has so resulted in resumption of ceasefire along the Line of Control, the convening of India-Pakistan Permanent Indus Commission’s meeting after a long gap, exchange of messages between Indian and Pakistani prime ministers and Army Chief Gen Qamar Bajwa’s peace gesture to India at Islamabad Security Dialogue.

The discussants noted that optimism in Islamabad contrasted New Delhi’s stoic silence. This, it was observed, leads people to question the ground of euphoria in Pakistani officialdom and seriousness of Modi government’s commitment to discuss all outstanding issues, including Kashmir.

Mr Malik observed that Pakistan and India differed in their perceptions about peace and normalisation of ties. He warned that compromise on Kashmir could not be the price for peace with India. Referring to statements from various quarters about the economic dividends of peace with India, he asked if the backchannel process would end India’s fifth generation warfare against Pakistan, its negative role in Afghanistan and its opposition to Pakistan at the world fora like FATF.

“Instead of the process yielding selected dimensions of peace, wholesome comprehensive peace is required,” he underscored.

Dr Maleeha Lodhi said that she did not share the optimism being expressed in Pakistan about the Modi government’s readiness to talk about all issues.

“It remains to be ascertained what that actually means when they say India is prepared to talk about all issues. Well India was always prepared to talk about all issues. It is how it wants to talk about Kashmir,” she maintained.

She further said: “We all seek peace with honour, but not at the expense of compromising our fundamental position on Kashmir because then that kind of normalisation will neither be lasting nor would it be politically acceptable to the people of Pakistan.”

Dr Lodhi asked both sides to appoint and name their backchannel negotiators. That, she maintained, would show seriousness, otherwise it will look tactical.

Ambassador Abdul Basit said Indian move to reach out to Pakistan was tactical. Therefore, the Pakistani negotiators taking part in the talks, he suggested, needed to be more circumspect in every step that they take. “If we get invested into a situation where we agree to another round of formal talks, structural talks, that will take us nowhere. The emphasis at this stage should be on ascertaining as to what would be the roadmap on Jammu and Kashmir,” Mr Basit said.

India, he said, needed to take steps up front to show its seriousness about dealing with the dispute. He said release of Hurriyat leadership and permission for them to travel abroad could be one indication that India was ready to resolve the issue. He said viable peace could not be achieved without resolution of the Kashmir issue. He, moreover, emphasised the need for involving Kashmiris in the process, saying that without their participation no process could succeed.

IPI executive director Prof Sajjad Bokhari said that before any commitments were made in the backchannel with India, key segments of society in Pakistan and Kashmir should be taken into confidence.

Published in Dawn, May 4th, 2021

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