Despite strains, silent progress in India, Pak talks

Despite strains, silent progress in India, Pak talks

Shubhajit Roy,

Pakistan has maintained high-level diplomatic contacts with the Indian establishment, even as New Delhi has maintained the rhetoric that terror and talks cannot go together. A proposal for early release of prisoners aged more than 70 years and women is being discussed as one of the confidence building measures between New Delhi and Islamabad, sources have said.

Sources said that in the past four-and-half months, the new Pakistan High Commissioner Sohail Mahmood has met External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, Home Minister Rajnath Singh, Commerce minister Suresh Prabhu, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Foreign secretary S Jaishankar. While these are official meetings, sources said that there have been several under-the-radar meetings with top officials in the Indian establishment.

The meeting between Doval and Pakistan’s NSA Lt-Gen (retd) Nasser Khan Janjua on December 26 in Thailand was in line with the understanding reached between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and then Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif in November 2015 on the sidelines of the Climate Change summit in Paris that “contacts need to be maintained”, sources said. This understanding was reiterated during the Modi-Sharif meeting in Lahore on December 25, 2015.

While the high-decibel rhetoric has been on, the two sides have been quietly and steadily making progress on “low-hanging fruits”. Pakistan High Commission issued more than 12,000 visas to Bohras in September, followed by 2,600 Sikhs and another 90-plus pilgrims for a Hindu temple — all in the last four months of the year. The Indian side side too issued visas to Pakistan’s nationals, although less in number, but many on humanitarian grounds. The two sides have been in touch over several medical visa cases, as Swaraj has made several personal interventions — although issue of recommendation from Pakistan’s foreign minister still remains.

Through 2018, Islamabad wants to bring back the relationship “back on track” — although it is mindful of the challenges.

Though Pakistan’s elections are going to take place in June-July this year, diplomats have been given the mandate to “normalise” the relationship. “India is a country of serial elections. No other diplomatic relationship is hostage to elections, why should ties with Pakistan be hostage to polls,” the Pakistan government source said.

With a new Foreign secretary in Delhi — Vijay Keshav Gokhale will take charge in January-end —Islamabad’s Foreign secretary Tehmina Janjua could reach out to her Indian counterpart. Gokhale is known in Islamabad through its envoy in Beijing Masood Khalid, who served with him in Malaysia, where both of them were envoys.

However, much depends on how the two sides manage public opinion after the meeting between former Indian Navy officer Kulbhushan Jadhav and his family members. Pakistan’s government sources maintain it was a gesture with “good intentions” from Islamabad, but the episode where the two women were asked to change their attire and remove mangalsutra, bindi and bangles has complicated the matter. Sources said Islamabad is keen to move beyond the episode, as it has caused a “setback” to the spadework being done over the last few months. “Dialogue is not a concession…but it is an imperative,” a Pakistan government source said.