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A diplomatic setback

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezAugust 19, 2014

In an apparent blow to bilateral ties, India canceled peace talks with Pakistan after Islamabad met with Kashmiri separatists. Analyst Sarah Hees tells DW the period of euphoria following PM Modi's inauguration is over.

Indien Narendra Modi trifft Nawaz Sharif in Neu-Dheli 27.05.2014
Image: Reuters

The talks between the foreign secretaries of the two nuclear-armed South Asian countries had been set to take place on August 25 in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad but India announced it would not attend the talks after Pakistan's High Commissioner in India, Abdul Basit, held talks with Kashmiri separatist leaders on August 18. The talks had been regarded as an important milestone in the bumpy Indo-Pakistani peace process as they would have prepared the meeting of the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan scheduled during the UN General Assembly in September.

While India's foreign ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin spoke of an "interference" in domestic affairs, Pakistan deplored the cancelation of the talks, calling it a "setback" in efforts to promote good neighborly relations. India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars since independence in 1947 over Muslim-majority Kashmir, which they both claim in full but rule in part.

The move comes nearly three months after Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif attended the inauguration of Indian Premier Narendra Modi in New Delhi, a symbolic gesture that raised hopes of an improvement of ties between the neighbors. But relations took a hit last week when Modi blamed Pakistan for losing the strength to fight a conventional war, but continuing to engage in "the proxy war of terrorism."

Sarah Hees, Resident Representative of the German foundation Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in India, says in a DW interview that with tensions running high over cross-border violence and with Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif being under immense political pressure from anti-government protesters, it's possible that New Delhi might have been looking for an excuse to drop out of the peace talks at this point.

DW: Why would the Pakistanis plan to consult Kashmiri separatists ahead of the peace talks?

Sarah Hees: The Pakistani Foreign Office stressed that meetings with leaders from Kashmir were regarded as common practice with a long tradition ahead of Indo-Pakistani high-level talks. The Pakistani High Commission stated that the decision of the Indian government to cancel the talks had come as a surprise while Indian media outlets leaked that Foreign Secretary Sujata Singh had called High Commissioner Abdul Basit, former Ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan to Germany, just before his meeting with Kashmiri separatist leaders to raise strong objections of the talks. In the past, the Indian government had generally displayed disapproval but had taken no action when Pakistani diplomats met Kashmiri leaders.

Sarah Hees # (Photo: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Indien)
Hees: 'There were high hopes for the improvement of bilateral relations between India and Pakistan'Image: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung

What does this move tell us about the current state of Indo-Pakistani ties?

There had been a lot of euphoria and good-will in both countries when Prime Minister Modi invited Prime Minister Sharif to his swearing in-ceremony. A lot of people had high hopes for the peace process in the region. This period of euphoria is definitely over now and reality has kicked in.

In India, Basit's meeting with the Kashmiri separatist leader is seen as undermining the constructive diplomatic engagement initiated by PM Modi by inviting his counterpart Sharif. According to New Delhi, the meeting with Kashmiri leaders raised questions about Pakistan's sincerity at a time when India is trying to improve bilateral ties, for example, by resuming a regular dialogue process.

While relations had been viewed as going rather well since Sharif's visit to New Delhi, there had been recent complaints by India about ceasefire violations from the Pakistani side along the so-called line of control (LoC), separating the Indian from the Pakistani Kashmir, thus acting as a de-facto international border. Tension over this issued had again increased steadily over the past few days.

Quite a few observers point out that this time around India is being more inflexible than Pakistan regarding the confidence-building process. Do you agree with the view?

The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government seems to be under increasing pressure from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to show a harder stance towards Pakistan than the United Progressive Alliance government. The BJP is perceived to stand for a Hindu-nationalist ideology and the RSS, a right-wing organization closely affiliated with the party, has helped Modi win these last elections with a sweeping majority. Modi is under pressure to show that he will take a different stance towards Pakistan than the UPA government.

It is possible that with tensions running high again over cross-border violence, and with Sharif being under immense political pressure from anti-government protesters, there was not much to gain from talks at this point. It seems like the Indian government might have been looking for an excuse to drop out of the peace talks at this point.

Were you expecting this quick deterioration of bilateral ties, especially given the friendly gesture at Modi's inauguration ceremony?

There were high hopes for the improvement of bilateral relations between India and Pakistan with the fresh start of a new government. Before Prime Minister Modi came to power, the relations between the two neighbors were at an all-time low as all bilateral processes had been interrupted.

Also, former BJP-led governments had worked surprisingly constructively with Pakistan. So while the general mood was quite positive, the relations between India and Pakistan are very fragile. Any imprudent move on either side can let relations slip back into tension immediately. Any hash word, any careless remark is watched carefully on each side. Populist or nationalist rhetoric tend to be used more frequently before any high visit. So while the deterioration of bilateral ties can happen very quickly, and at any given point, it is unfortunate that this happened at such a sensitive stage.

How big of a blow is this to PM Nawaz Sharif's government given the current anti-government protests in Islamabad?

PM Nawaz Sharif and his government have been busy in dealing with the protest movements for more than a week now. The two protest groups from Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Tahir-ul-Qadri's Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) have blocked Islamabad and claim to leave only when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif resigns. Ex-cricketer Imran Khan is accusing Sharif of having rigged the parliamentary elections in May 2013, and announced that his party would resign from the national and all other provincial assemblies – except for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where PTI is in government.

Cleric Tahirul Qadir presented a broader agenda of demands, including a reform of the political system, education and health policies. The federal government is in constant consultations with the army to keep the situation under control, but remains under heavy pressure from about 50,000 protesters threatening to enter the "Red Zone" – the area where the National Assembly and most of the government institutions are.

The general public attention in Pakistan lies on the protests and the government's response, whereas India's cancelation of peace talks made only minor headlines in Pakistani media. Nevertheless, it might further strengthen the conservative voices in times of already tense civil-military relations in Pakistan.

Do you think the Indo-Pakistani peace process has a future now?

The cancelation of the Foreign Secretary-level talks has also put a shadow over the Modi-Sharif talks scheduled during the UN General Assembly in New York in September. The canceled meeting was supposed to smooth outstanding issues between the two countries and to prepare the agenda for the talks. Without these preparatory steps it remains uncertain if these high-level talks will actually happen now.

Border Security Force soldiers patrol the India-Pakistan border at Kanachak, about 15 kilometers (9 miles) west of Jammu, India (Photo: Channi Anand, File/AP/dapd)
In India, Basit's meeting with Kashmiri separatist leaders is seen as undermining the constructive diplomatic engagement, says HeesImage: dapd

The Indo-Pakistani peace process has always been a promising but difficult one, but of course it still has a future. The peace process of these nuclear-armed neighbors is essential not only for the conflict-prone South Asian Region but for all of us. Also, this is not the first nor will it be the last setback in the Indian-Pakistani relations.

However, this cumbersome process simply has no alternative. Further trust-building and realistic Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) between the Indian and Pakistani governments are therefore absolutely indispensable.

While government talks are stalling, initiatives have to be continued to keep building trust between civil society and political elites of both countries and to provide a platform for issues that cannot be discussed between governments due to political tensions. Such initiatives like the India-Pakistan Peace Dialogues or the regional "Afghanistan post-2014" dialogues organized by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung for 20 years have proved to be excellent formats to provide policy recommendations and formulate CBMs supported by leaders on both sides.

Sarah Hees is Resident Representative of the German foundation Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in India. With contribution by Philipp Kauppert, Resident Representative of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Pakistan.