On 24 October 2016, under its Twentieth Anniversary Plenum Series, IPCS hosted H.E. Mr Abdul Basit, High Commissioner of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan to India, who spoke on “Our Bilateral Relations.”
The introductory remarks and transcript of Mr Basit's speech follow.
Ambassador (Retd) Salman Haidar
Patron, IPCS, & former Foreign Secretary, Government of India
It is never easy to be a High Commissioner in either Islamabad or New Delhi. It is a high risk occupation. We are very eager to listen to Mr Basit on how he sees the state of relations between India and Pakistan, and thank him for his presence.
"Our Bilateral Relations"
H.E. Mr Abdul Basit
High Commissioner of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan to India
Thank you very much, Sir. I thank the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies for this wonderful opportunity to discuss Pakistan-India relations. I look forward to a very constructive and useful discussion after the initial remarks. I am particularly grateful to Ambassador Salman Haidar for chairing the event.
I am glad that Karan Johar’s new film is out of mushkil now, and would add to the Diwali celebrations. I also wish you all a very happy Diwali.
As Pakistan’s High Commissioner in New Delhi, I draw some solace from the fact that the state of relations between India and Pakistan – despite the all the recent developments – are not yet back to square one. It is difficult to define ‘square one’ in the India-Pakistan context. The diplomatic avenue is still available and still open to resolve outstanding issues. But how diplomacy can be made full use of is a real challenge for both countries. There is no denying the fact that the two countries’ respective narratives about each other are poles apart. The foremost challenge for both countries is regarding ways to bridge the gap and put bilateral relations on an irreversible trajectory for our mutual benefit. Recently, as the BRICS Summit was underway Goa, a TV report suggested that Pakistan has finally been isolated. The reporter was also advising the Indian government that Pakistan should now be brought to its knees and that New Delhi should sever all ties with Islamabad till the time Pakistan behaves on the issue of terrorism.
Unfortunately, the official position in New Delhi is not very different. One often gets to hear that talks and terror cannot go together. Now it is an almost officially stated position that Pakistan should be isolated regionally and globally. There are two observations to be made here: first, that talks and terror cannot go together seems like a maximalist position because it leaves little room for diplomacy to fulfil its mandate or conduct itself meaningfully. Second, is it possible to isolate a country that is the biggest sufferer of terrorism? On the issue, Islamabad’s narrative is totally different. It does not see two countries having a normal relationship without first addressing the root cause of various problems.
The political representatives of both countries have time and again seen as to how the developments in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) have negatively affected relations. There have been times when relations between both countries have gone to a nadir, and yet, every time, the two countries have begun afresh.
What has been happening in J&K since 8 July 2016 and how it has affected our relations yet again needs no elaboration. It is doubtless that Pakistan is extending its diplomatic and moral support to the Kashmiris. But to claim that the hundreds and thousands of people who attended the funeral of Burhan Wani on 9 July 2016 were instigated by Pakistan - and the argument that they were there at the behest of Pakistan - does not hold water. The issue of J&K is neither territorial nor a terrorism issue. The great Chinese philosopher Confucius once said that if one uses wrong words, one can never derive the right conclusions. From Pakistan’s perspective, the problem arises when the J&K issue is viewed solely through the narrow lens of terrorism.
Pakistan has itself suffered massively from terrorism both in terms of life and treasury. Pakistan has lost close to 70,000 people in the past 15-16 years. According to World Bank reports, Pakistan has incurred losses to the tune of $120 billion to its economy in the past 20 years. There is no question about Pakistan tolerating terrorism in any form or manifestation. Pakistan would like to discuss issues related to terrorism because it has concerns vis-à-vis India when it comes to terrorism. Pakistan is not shying away from discussing terrorism with India.
India and Pakistan should pursue a comprehensive quest to discuss outstanding issues instead of cherry picking selected ones. The problems between both countries did not begin with the Samjhauta Express attack or the Mumbai attack or the Pathankot attack. Pakistan and India have fought wars in 1948, 1965, 1971 and 1999. It is imperative to admit that the J&K issue continues to be the root cause of problems and mistrust between the two countries. It is good to know India has also recognised the centrality of the J&K dispute. The 1999 Lahore Declaration, which was issued after the then Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s visit to Pakistan, says, “an environment of peace and security is in the supreme national interest of both sides and that the resolution of all outstanding issues, including Jammu and Kashmir, is essential for this purpose." The Declaration further says the respective governments “shall intensify their efforts to resolve all issues, including the issue of Jammu and Kashmir.”
It is also encouraging to see that there are many voices in India that are not necessarily consistent with the official position. Indian historian Ramachandra Guha said in an article in the Hindustan Times that “It is for Kashmiri militants to account for their own awful acts, such as the expulsion of the Pandits and the imposition of a dress code on women. But Indians who are not Kashmiris must equally account for the repression committed in their name by successive governments of India in the Valley, a repression that has a long history, and which in recent months has arguably been more savage than ever before.”
Former Indian National Security Advisor (NSA) MK Narayanan said in an article in The Hindu, published on 10 October 2016, that "Hackneyed arguments to explain the current upsurge in Kashmir can prove counterproductive. The presence of over 200,000 people at Wani’s funeral needs a satisfactory explanation. To try to retrieve this situation, it is necessary to recognise that, in marked contrast to earlier phases of trouble in Kashmir, the present movement is almost entirely home grown." In an open letter to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Santosh Bhartiya, a known journalist wrote that “the land of Kashmir is with us, but the people of Kashmir are not with us.”
Shobhaa De wrote in The Economic Times, “Let's see if the present government has the guts to go ahead with a referendum to resolve the Kashmir crisis once and for all. Let's end the lingering pain in the region and allow Kashmiris live in peace, with the dignity and harmony they are entitled to.”
These well known journalists and analysts have made a point that the J&K dispute has made both countries mutually antagonistic to each other. The time has come to make a sincere effort towards resolving issues so that both countries can unite in peace and prosperity. It becomes very difficult for diplomacy to create space for itself when maximalist positions are taken.
In December 2016, when India's Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj visited Pakistan to attend the Heart of Asia conference, the two countries agreed to begin the comprehensive bilateral dialogue. It is good that the two countries already have a framework in place and whenever both sides agree to resume the engagement it can be done without spending time on talks about talks. It is time to move from symbolism to substance and from conflict management to conflict resolution because now it has been almost 70 years of both countries trying to manage the conflict. It is absolutely necessary for posterity’s sake to begin making efforts to resolve all outstanding issues.
It would serve the purpose towards a meaningful dialogue if both countries can somehow lower the rhetoric. There is consensus across the political spectrum in Pakistan on having a normal relationship with India on the basis of sovereign equality and mutual respect. Also, India is no more an election issue in Pakistan. If at all it is an election issue, it is in the positive context - that the political representatives in Pakistan would like to have a constructive relationship with India. Hence, the anti-India narrative is no more a vote-catcher for politicians in Pakistan.
Both countries should not do anything to create more issues. Thus, in the coming months, it would be important for both countries to strictly adhere to existing Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) and other mutual agreements. It is easy to destroy relations but it takes years and years to build good relations. So it is important to observe the CBMs that have been agreed upon by both countries in the course of the past 70 years. It is absolutely imperative for both countries to preserve whatever both sides have been able to accomplish in the past seven decades. One step forward in this regard would be if both sides agree to fomalise the 2003 ceasefire understanding, as was suggested by Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in his September 2016 speech in New York. This would help prevent the situation from further deteriorating in the coming weeks and months till the time political representatives of both countries are able to commence bilateral engagement.
It is only through sustained diplomacy that bilateral issues can be addressed, which will eventually help in forging an effective cooperative paradigm between India and Pakistan. Instead of erecting new walls, it is important to build bridges of trust and cooperation for the two countries’ mutual benefit. Sun Tzu once said, “Opportunities multiply as they are seized.” Let India and Pakistan try to seize whichever opportunity that comes their way and try building on that.
• As far as Pakistan is concerned, there is zero tolerance for terrorism. It is always helpful to encourage bilateral cooperation in this context. Without knowing the situation on the ground, when the Uri attack happened, some people in India had begun blaming Pakistan, which shut all doors of cooperation between both countries. Getting into a blame-game or raising fingers at Pakistan will not help India. Pakistan offered an international investigation into the Uri attack in order to establish irrefutable facts as to what really happened. Unfortunately, India did not find that suggestion amenable. Both countries should avoid drawing premature conclusions and should cooperate on the issue of terrorism.
• The 26/11 Mumbai attack trial is underway and the two countries are cooperating with each other on that. Last year, the Foreign Secretary of Pakistan wrote to his Indian counterpart seeking more evidence in order to expedite the trial in Pakistan. In September 2016, Pakistan received Indian response on the same. Hopefully, things will start moving forward in the right direction. At the end of the day, what is required is to retain the spirit of cooperation in these matters rather than pointing fingers at each other because that denies both countries the benefit of cooperating in serious matters.
• Pakistan has put elements indulging in cross-border terrorism behind bars in the past. But then they were set free by the courts. Pakistan has some evidence against those who were behind the Mumbai attack and some of them were put behind bars too. Pakistan is ready to take action against those elements in the future if provided with solid evidence of their involvement in attacks. Both countries need sincere efforts to resolve outstanding issues only through a meaningful process.
• Pakistan’s stance on the surgical strike is that cross-border firing took place on 29 September 2016. The Prime Minister’s Office in Pakistan issued a denial regarding the Dawn report that suggested that there was a rift between the Sharif government and the Army.
• India attended the Heart of Asia conference in Islamabad, and Pakistan was present at the senior officials’ meeting of the Heart of Asia conference that was held in New Delhi in April 2016. The two countries are part of such multi-layered initiatives.
Afghanistan is a very important country for Pakistan because the latter’s own economic growth and stability is directly linked to peace and stability in Afghanistan. It is trying in the best possible ways to contribute to these efforts and initiatives. At this stage, India and Pakistan should maintain cooperation at the multi-level forums, focusing on building peace and reconstruction in Afghanistan, and then see how things pan out from there.
• Pakistan does not take relations with China, Russia, and the US as a zero-sum game. As a matter of fact, the US continues to be Pakistan's largest trading partner. A large Pakistani diaspora is working in the US. Similarly, Pakistan shares time-tested and strategic relations with China. It would be better to have multiple relations that impact both countries’ relations positively. It is imperative to have these relations in place that will eventually help bridge gaps between India and Pakistan.
• The feeling in Pakistan is that while India and Pakistan have been able to put in place a framework for future engagement, it is high time that both countries moved from symbolism to substance. It is in the mutual interest of both countries to keep working towards achieving the common objective. The two countries should continue working in the spirit of building bridges and having more cooperation in all areas of life, and to see as to how this relationship is mutually beneficial. India and Pakistan have still not been able to exploit the enormous opportunities that have been unleashed due to globalisation. At the end of the day, it is the people of the region who suffer the most. Issues such as poverty, unemployment and diseases, among others, still exist, which need to be addressed in order to usher in a better time for not just India and Pakistan but the whole region.
• Pakistan has never tried to snap cultural relations with India. Indian artists have never felt any problem while performing in Pakistan, and for over a decade, Indian channels have been telecast unhindered in Pakistan. Unfortunately, Pakistani channels were never available in India. Pakistan is more confident about releasing Indian movies and watching Indian TV shows. Frankly, Pakistani artists have been facing problems in India - from Ghulam Ali to Rahat Fateh Ali Khan in the past and more recently, when Atif Aslam’s concert got cancelled. As far as not broadcasting Indian channels is concerned, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority does not directly come under the purview of the Government of Pakistan. In the current situation, the Pakistani government is under extreme pressure from the people. However, this is a short-lived phase and does not perpetuate beyond a certain point.
Rapporteured by Sarral Sharma, Researcher, IPCS