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ISLAMABAD:
Retired diplomats and generals have sounded a note of caution about Pakistan, India backchannel talks and emphasized ascertaining Indian intentions before investing in the process further, besides remaining steadfast on the Kashmir dispute.

Speaking at the Islamabad Policy Institute (IPI) webinar on Monday, former Defense Secretary Lt. Gen. (R) Asif Yasin Malik, Former Permanent Representative to the United Nations and Ambassador to the UK and US Dr. Maleeha Lodhi, and Former Envoy to India and Germany Ambassador Abdul Basit feared that Indian move to engage in backchannel could be a tactical one for trapping Pakistan in talks.

The backchannel talks have reportedly been continuing since December 2020 and have so far yielded a resumption of ceasefire at the Line of Control. A high official in a recent interaction with journalists confirmed the backchannel talks between senior intelligence officials of the two countries.

The former officials said although the very fact that the two nuclear-armed neighbours have been secretly talking for normalisation of ties sounds reassuring, but the ground realities, context and strategic dilemmas, fuels suspicion about the engagement.

The discussants noted that optimism in Islamabad contrasted New Delhi’s stoic silence. This, it was observed, leads people to question the ground of euphoria in Pakistani officialdom and the seriousness of the Modi government’s commitment to discuss all outstanding issues, including Kashmir.

Gen Malik observed that Pakistan and India have very different perceptions about peace and normalization of ties. For Pakistan, he said, peace meant honourable existence with independent policy pursuance space and rights. Whereas for India, he said, it meant a regional hegemonic posture with the right to bully everyone in the neighbourhood while behaving like a superpower.

The former defence secretary warned that compromise on Kashmir could not be the price for peace with India. Referring to statements from various quarters about the economic dividends of peace with India, he asked if the backchannel process would end India’s fifth-generation warfare against Pakistan; its negative role in Afghanistan; its opposition to Pakistan at the world fora like FATF.

“Instead of the process yielding selected dimensions of peace, wholesome comprehensive peace is required,” he underscored.

Dr. Maleeha Lodhi said that she does not share the optimism being expressed in Pakistan about Modi government’s readiness to talk about all issues.

“It remains to be ascertained what that actually means when they say India is prepared to talk about all issues. Well, India was always prepared to talk about all issues. It is how it wants to talk about Kashmir,” she maintained.

She further said, “We all seek peace with honour, but not at the expense of compromising our fundamental position on Kashmir because then that kind of normalization will neither be lasting nor would it be politically acceptable to the people of Pakistan.”

Dr. Lodhi asked both sides to appoint and name their backchannel negotiators. That, she maintained, would show seriousness otherwise it will look tactical.

Amb. Abdul Basit said the Indian move to reach out to Pakistan was tactical. Therefore, the Pakistani negotiators taking part in the talks, he suggested, needed to be more circumspect in every step that they take.

The former high commissioner to India, while stressing that Kashmir needed to be kept front and centre in the backchannel talks, warned that resumption of a front channel between the two countries without reversal of the Aug 5 actions would be seen as granting legitimacy to that illegal move.

“If we get invested in a situation where we agree to another round of formal talks, structural talks, that will take us nowhere. The emphasis at this stage should be on ascertaining as to what would be the road map on Jammu and Kashmir,” Basit said.

India, he said, needs to take steps up front to show its seriousness about dealing with the dispute. He said the release of Hurriyat leadership and permission for them to travel abroad can be one indication that India is ready to resolve the problem.

Echoing Dr. Lodhi, the former envoy to India said that viable peace cannot be achieved without a resolution of the Kashmir issue. He, moreover, emphasized the need to involve Kashmiris in the process saying without their participation no process could succeed.

IPI Executive Director Prof. Sajjad Bokhari said that before any commitments are made in the backchannel with India, key segments of society in Pakistan and Kashmir should be taken into confidence.

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