Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision this week to cancel the foreign secretary-level talks with Pakistan has drawn much political flak at home and generated some international concern that the NDA government might be departing from its proclaimed commitment to improve relations with the neighbours.
Although many motivations have been attributed to the decision, the principal rationale is not difficult to discern — to change the terms of the dialogue with Pakistan on the question of Jammu and Kashmir. Delhi’s main argument is that Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit’s meetings with Kashmiri separatist leaders amounted to an unacceptable interference in India’s internal affairs.
Pakistan’s spokesperson, as well as the NDA government’s critics in India, point to the fact that Delhi had chosen to live with the engagement between Islamabad and Kashmiri separatists for many years. They argue that Delhi’s decision to cancel the talks is an unfortunate and unexpected departure from two-decade-old Indian policy.
That there is a discontinuity in India’s approach is exactly right. The Modi government appears to have come to the political judgement that it will no longer accept the involvement of the All Party Hurriyat Conference, a collection of Kashmiri separatist groups, in the India-Pakistan dialogue. Delhi wants to put the Kashmir question back in a strictly bilateral, inter-governmental framework with Islamabad.
The continuing turbulence in Kashmir, the frequent military crises with Pakistan and the consequent international pressures to engage Islamabad saw India reluctantly yield some space for the Hurriyat in the peace process nearly two decades ago. Since then, Delhi has often directly engaged the Hurriyat, opened back channel talks with Pakistan on resolving the Kashmir question, allowed contact between the Hurriyat and Islamabad and facilitated the travel of separatists to Pakistan.
Throughout this period, both Pakistan and the separatists pressed for a trilateral dialogue. Delhi rejected a table for three but agreed willy-nilly for three separate bilateral tracks. The Modi government is now saying there is no place for the Hurriyat in the peace process with Pakistan. Delhi’s new approach is a bold gamble, to say the least.
Delhi’s rethinking on Kashmir came into view with the recent decision to end some of the freebies to the United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP), based in Delhi and J&K since 1949. Although Delhi thinks the UNMOGIP has outlived its utility, it is some distance away from simply asking the UNMOGIP to leave. Clearly, Delhi is keen on