Abdul Basit’s tenure as Pakistan’s High Commissioner to India began in March 2014, a few months before the NDA government assumed office. The last three years have seen many low points in bilateral ties — from cancellation of Foreign Secretary-level talks in August 2014 over Basit’s invitation to Hurriyat leaders to a near-freeze in dialogue over terror attacks emanating from Pakistani soil. However, Basit believes that agreement between the two sides on a framework for comprehensive dialogue in December 2015 is a silver lining. While reiterating Pakistan’s position that talks and preconditions cannot go together, he is optimistic they will resume in the near future. As he ends his stint, he talks about the need for a structured initiative on the ‘front channel’. He also calls for keeping the door open to all possibilities. Excerpts:
Q: Congratulations on the Champions Cup cricket win, but given the sort of rivalry, is it actually better for bilateral ties that the two countries don’t play each other until their other bilateral problems are resolved?
A: No, I don’t think so. I think we should play cricket and other sports too… If we put off all sporting ties until we solve our problems, that wouldn’t be wise. These events do help create a better environment and we need that.
Q: Even so, there has been a debate in India over whether we should even play in the Champions Trophy if it means playing Pakistan. At the hockey match on Sunday the Indian team wore black armbands to protest Pakistani action along the LoC and in Kashmir. Is it possible to separate sports from politics?
A: I think they should be kept separate, and Pakistan has been proposing and suggesting cricketing ties and others throughout. So our position is very clear.
Q: You are completing your tenure after three years in India. When you came, there was the promise of a new bilateral relationship, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had invited his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif to India, the Foreign Secretaries were due to meet. How do you assess relations today?
A: We were very hopeful because our PM took a very bold decision to travel to India in May 2014, but after that the process got stuck. Notwithstanding all the problems, the two countries were able to agree on a framework to restart talks in December 2015 and on the comprehensive bilateral dialogue, which was our biggest achievement in the last three years. Now, whenever the two sides agree to talk to each other, at least we wouldn’t be spending too much time finalising the modalities for talks. In diplomacy, you cannot simply lock the door and throw the key away. You have to keep the door open for possibilities. I am hopeful that Pakistan and India will talk to each other, but whether it happens now or two years down the road, I do not know.
Q: You were held responsible for shutting one door yourself, when you invited the Hurriyat leadership for meetings, in 2014, just before the Foreign Secretary was leaving for Pakistan. Do you think your timing was wrong?
A: No, Pakistan has been engaging with the Hurriyat, and we never thought it should be a problem, and still don’t.
Q: The government said you crossed a “red line”.
A: But since then too, we have been meeting the Hurriyat leadership and there has been no problem. Our meetings should be seen in a constructive way, as it helps us find a just and fair solution to the long-standing dispute over Jammu and Kashmir.
Q: How do you pick and choose who you speak to there? The Hurriyat is not the elected leadership of Jammu and Kashmir…
A: Pakistan’s position is that the Hurriyat represents the political aspirations of the people of Jammu and Kashmir, and that’s why these talks our necessary.
Q: What steps do you think are needed to resume dialogue with India today?
A: We in Pakistan strongly feel that talks and preconditions do not go together. India has a different position. Now terrorism is also a big issue for us, and in Pakistan, Commander [Kulbhushan] Jadhav’s conviction has proven our concerns. We aren’t shying away from issues like terrorism. But even when you look at the Mumbai or Pathankot attacks, if you want to conduct a proper trial, the two countries would need to cooperate with each other. And this cooperation cannot take place in a void or a vacuum. Without talking, how can you realistically expect these issues to come to a close? I feel that now that we have a framework under which to resume talks, it is just a matter of time…
Q: Are you quite confident that the framework agreed to when Sushma Swaraj travelled to Pakistan in December 2015 would be taken forward if and when talks resume, as so much has changed since then?
A: The issues remain the same. No matter how much you fiddle with this framework, you will end up coming to the same issues. Obviously we don’t expect overnight results, but our engagement must not be interrupted. Only then can we move beyond this environment of accusations.
Q: Ms. Swaraj said a few days ago that there were three conditions for talks: that issues must be resolved through dialogue, dialogue must be bilateral and terror and talks can’t go simultaneously. What is your objection to those?
A: As I said, talks and preconditions can’t go together. We have no qualms about solving our problems bilaterally, and we have been trying to do that…
Q: It seems as if Pakistan is constantly looking for a third party. A few days ago, the Russian government had to deny the Pakistani contention that President Vladimir Putin had offered to mediate…
A: Well, we have not seen much progress in the 40-plus years since the Shimla agreement (1972) on bilateral talks, on the core dispute. If there is no movement on the bilateral front, you cannot expect Pakistan not to even discuss that with the rest of the world… Jammu and Kashmir is central to Pakistan-India relations, and we feel that is the root cause of all our problems.
Q: Pakistan hasn’t had much success on the international front either…
A: Well the UN Security Council did in its resolution 1172 of June 1998 state that Pakistan [and India] should resolve their bilateral disputes, including Jammu and Kashmir. So the international community is aware of the problem. In a recent interview to The Hindu too, the Saudi Ambassador here showed an interest in facilitating dialogue between India and Pakistan.
Q: In October 2016, Pakistan’s Foreign Affairs Advisor Sartaj Aziz said that there was “no hope for a breakthrough” with India under Prime Minister Modi. Is your assessment that at least until Pakistan’s elections in 2018 or India’s in 2019, there will be no movement?
A: This is the impression we get, that there is no hope for a breakthrough at present. But that is not what we hope will happen.
We do not see any move on the part of New Delhi to reach out for a structured dialogue with us.
Q: The visits to Pakistan in 2015 came from the Indian External Affairs Minister and from the Indian Prime Minister, so are it correct to say that there is no move from New Delhi?
A: I’m speaking of a structured dialogue at present. Yes, those initiatives have been taken, but there is no move to resume the dialogue process as such.
Q: Do you agree that the discourse, especially since the Pathankot attack, has changed ties irrevocably in 2016? For example, India crossed the LoC and spoke openly of surgical strikes, the PM spoke of Balochistan in his Independence Day speech, the government said it was prepared to review the Indus Water Treaty. India decided to go to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) over the Jadhav case. These actions are radically different from those of the past.
A: But issues remain the same. These are offshoots of the same problems we have been grappling with. You mentioned that India brought up Balochistan; we raised (India’s support to) Balochistan in 2009 at Sharm el-Sheikh.
In our view, the surgical strikes never took place, and it was Delhi’s decision to take the Jadhav issue to an international court, let’s see what happens. All these new issues that you mention only complicate the path to addressing the root causes: terrorism, Kashmir, Siachin, Sir Creek and others.
Q: Let’s speak of terrorism then. The Pakistan Interior Ministry has now said in court that Hafiz Saeed is a threat to peace and security within Pakistan, and has been involved in terrorism. Given that your federal officials are now saying what India has held for years, why is it still so difficult to take real action, not some house arrest type of detention, against him?
A: No individual in Pakistan is above the law. It is not the first time he has been put under house arrest, the law will move against him. At the end of the day it is for the courts to decide.
Q: The UNSC, the U.S. and many other countries seem to agree that the man is a terrorist. Now your government has also agreed to that. The question is, whether it is Hafiz Saeed, or Masood Azhar, why is it so difficult for Pakistan to take serious action?
A: If we do have evidence maintainable in a court of law, and if India cooperates by giving us hard evidence, that could help too.
Q: A new book has detailed their links with Osama Bin Laden too, how the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed helped facilitate his stay in Pakistan during 2001-2011. How much will be enough evidence?
A: The government is trying its best. All these groups you mentioned, the LeT, the JeM, all have been banned in Pakistan.
Q: But they still exist, and these leaders roam freely for most part, addressing rallies with new names, like the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, Falah-e-Insaniyat, and the new one Tehreek Azadi Jammu Kashmir (TAJK)…
A: These are not banned organisations at present.
Q: Is Pakistan planning to ban them?
A: I would not know, but, they are being observed, and if they are found taking part in any illegal activity, rest assured it will be taken seriously and they will be proscribed.
Q: Is this particular case against Hafiz Saeed, which many think is linked to showing action to the international Financial Action Task Force that is holding its annual plenary this week, is a serious attempt?
A: Of course it is serious. We are trying our best to ensure that the detention order [against Hafiz Saeed] is not reversed. There is no love lost in Pakistan for anyone involved in such acts of violence.
Q: The SAARC process is currently being held up by India’s concerns on terror. Is Pakistan hopeful of being able to host the summit this year, and if necessary would you consider moving the venue to another country?
A: I haven’t seen any move to hold the SAARC summit yet. This hasn’t happened for the first time, and SAARC has been held up before. We wouldn’t like the process to suffer, as all the countries in South Asia have invested a lot in it. There is no proposal under consideration to move the venue, and Pakistan will host the 19th SAARC summit, whenever that happens.
Q: In the Kulbhushan Jadhav case, is there any rethink or hope for a review in Pakistan, given the lapses pointed out by India on consular access and on the mercy petitions?
A: There is a process that is ongoing, and if Jadhav’s appeal were rejected [by the court], that would be the time for the Army chief or the President to reconsider the sentence against him. He has been tried, he has been convicted, and he has the right to appeal. If that is rejected, then he has the right to submit an application for clemency to the Army chief, and if he denies it, then to the President. So there is room for a rethink there.
Q: Given that the ICJ has given dates for the process on India’s case up to December 2017 at least, has Pakistan committed that it will not carry out the sentence until then, even if the process takes two-three years?
A: Yes that is clear, that goes without saying. We would like this process to be over quickly, but until [it is], we are committed.
Q: Is there a back channel in place on this issue or on the larger relationship?
A: No there is no back channel between our two countries. We must first think of a formal structured dialogue and then we can think of a back channel.
Q: Is there a need for one, since it would seem much of the progress seen between India and Pakistan in the years 2000-2008 were a result of a “quiet dialogue” or back channel in place?
A: Even at that time, the back channel was in parallel to a “front-channel” process, so that was a different phase in our relationship.
Q: Is the four-step formula for Kashmir — which includes making borders irrelevant by allowing cross-Kashmir movement — still acceptable to Pakistan?
A: As far as Islamabad is concerned, no solution is acceptable unless it is acceptable to the people of Jammu and Kashmir. Any other solution will fall apart very quickly.
Q: In these three years, what was the highest point of your tenure and the lowest?
A: Well the highest was our decision to resume the dialogue and agree on a framework for the comprehensive bilateral dialogue in December 2015. As far as the lowest point, I don’t yet know. Even after the Pathankot attack, we were able to maintain relations for a few months.
Q: Given that, is the problem not with positions, but events? Every time there is a meeting of the leadership or a dialogue, it is disrupted by a terror attack orchestrated from Pakistani soil on India, which makes relations worse than they were before the meeting. What’s the way out of that?
A: I agree. Most of our diplomatic processes are consumed by these perennial gridlocks. We need to spend more time and energy resolving the key issues. This is an important relationship, it is important that India and Pakistan work together to address South Asia’s challenges.