By calling off a scheduled meeting between India's and Pakistan's foreign secretaries, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government has placed an onus of good diplomatic behaviour on Pakistan. New Delhi's new red line is - if Islamabad wishes to talk to New Delhi, it must not talk to the Hurriyat Conference.
The ministry of external affairs (MEA) has confirmed to Business Standard that the ban on talking to the Hurriyat includes the spectrum of Kashmiri separatist parties. This includes non-Hurriyat leaders like Yasin Malik of the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front; and newer leaders like Masarat Alam, who emerged from three years of violent street protests in Kashmir from 2008-2010.
This impasse was triggered on Monday, when Pakistan's high commissioner to India, Abdul Basit, insisted on meeting Hurriyat leader Shabir Shah, the first of three consultations with Kashmiri separatists scheduled for this week. The MEA responded swiftly by cancelling the foreign secretaries' meeting scheduled in Islamabad on August 25. An MEA press statement said: "(T)he invitation to so-called leaders of the Hurriyat by Pakistan's High Commissioner does indeed raise questions about Pakistan's sincerity, and shows that its negative approaches and attempts to interfere in India's internal affairs continue unabated."
New Delhi has never before formally objected to Pakistani leaders and diplomats meeting with Kashmiri separatist leaders. Numerous such meetings have taken place during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) decade in government. In 2001, when the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government invited President Pervez Musharraf for the Agra Summit, he met Kashmiri separatists at a reception hosted by the Pakistan High Commission.
New Delhi has itself facilitated meetings between the Hurriyat and Pakistani leaders, recognising the Hurriyat's utility in anchoring any India-Pakistan settlement on Kashmir. In the mid-2000s, when back-channel negotiations between India and Pakistan were close to sealing a deal on Kashmir, New Delhi encouraged Hurriyat leaders to travel several times to Pakistan. The Hurriyat leaders met Pakistan's then foreign minister, Khursheed Kasuri, and foreign secretary, Riaz Khokhar, in 2004; President Musharraf the next year; and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz in 2007, with New Delhi's silent approval.
There is irony in Pakistani leaders meeting Kashmiri separatists before discussions with India, since any Indo-Pak settlement on Kashmir would be at the cost of the Hurriyat's demands. India's former high commissioner to Pakistan, Satyabrata Pal, says: "The Pakistani High Commissioner meeting the Hurriyat before talks is like the cook consulting the chickens before a banquet."
Indian diplomats in Islamabad, too, have met separatist leaders from Baluchistan. Mani Shankar Aiyar, who was posted in Islamabad during Zia-ul-Haq's rule, recounts that he met numerous Baluchi separatist leaders, including Ghaus Bux Bizenjo, Ahmed Nawaz Bugti and Akbar Bugti (who was killed in 2006 by the Pakistani military in an operation in Baluchistan).
The current impasse underlines the need for clarity about India's Red Lines, since it is unclear what Pakistani actions would invite a cessation of dialogue. Going by recent precedence, it would appear that the death of Indian soldiers in firing on the Line of Control is acceptable but a Red Line get infringed when a soldier's body is mutilated. Similarly, terror attacks in Srinagar will not prevent talks from going ahead but an attack in Delhi or Mumbai would trigger reprisals, even war. Indian diplomats accept that New Delhi's reactions have been inconsistent and that Red Lines must be demarcated with greater clarity.
While the need for firmness with Pakistan is undisputed, every unfriendly act cannot be allowed to interrupt dialogue. If peace talks are called off for every minor reason, New Delhi may find it can negotiate only with close allies. As the adage goes, one negotiates peace with ones enemies, not with ones friends.
Effectively, New Delhi has decided that Pakistan cannot talk to Hurriyat leaders because they are Indian citizens; and that would be tantamount to interfering in India's internal affairs. Yet, New Delhi itself has failed to initiate a dialogue with its own disaffected people, the Kashmiri separatists.
New Delhi's latest Red Line becomes viable only if it implements an open, new holistic approach to internal dialogue. It must boldly declare that the Kashmiri people are Indians and New Delhi, not Islamabad, will deal with their grievances. With the latest interruption of dialogue, New Delhi has only half a strategy - flexing its muscles at Islamabad but not reaching out to Kashmir.