The most notable yet sour aspect of Indo-Pak relations is the roller coaster relationship between the two countries, marked by the not infrequent trading of mutual accusations about unfriendly acts and exchange of diplomatic demarches in both New Delhi and Islamabad, following the summoning of each other’s envoys by the foreign offices. The most unpalatable outcome in the public domain is the start of a media war in which the Indian media particularly goes into a frenzied overdrive in leveling all sorts of wild charges in a rather threatening and uncouth manner. In response to this our media, usually, to its displeasure and chagrin, tries to go into a fence mending mode. This is usually followed by a period of silence and an atmosphere of simmering tension prevails for a few weeks or so, only to be broken by sudden declarations of goodwill from some government quarters with a resolve to sort out the differences peacefully and amicably in an atmosphere of mutual trust!

But, ironically, this all appears rather too pathetic and indeed tragically unreal, when the emerging world of make believe aimed at fostering a culture of love, understanding and mutual tolerance between the two cantankerous neighbors suddenly crumbles as a consequence of some violent happening in Occupied Kashmir or elsewhere in India, which is immediately blamed on Pakistan. The almost textbook reaction is marked by intense sabre rattling especially by Indian Military commanders and bellicose government ministers and political hotheads spitting fire, to be met with equally ferociously by their counterparts across the border over here. This is then accompanied by unprovoked firing across the ceasefire line in Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) or across the working boundary by the Indians to be immediately responded by the Pakistani forces resulting in both civilian and military casualties on both sides. Thus, we are back to square one. And lo, the vicious cycle continues!

Now, apart from the negative ramifications of this oft renewed tension between both countries, in terms of deteriorating diplomatic and trade relations at the government level, the immediate impact is felt by the common man who is either engaged in cross-border travel or by those whose business depends on cross-border trade. Nobody can deny that the people in Indo-Pak subcontinent share socio-cultural affinity in many respects and on the whole there do exist mutual aspirations of peaceful coexistence and goodwill between the common people, which is obvious by the popularity of Indian film, music and drama over here and vice versa, as well as the very friendly response to Indian visitors to Pakistan. However, this is also a fact that the spirit of goodwill over here is marred by the jingoistic behavior of most of the Indian media which seldom presents a balanced approach by going overboard in demonizing Pakistan for the unfortunate happenings in India and in trying to defend the highhandedness of Indian Military and Paramilitary Forces against the people of Occupied J&K. Although the Indian support to insurgency in Baluchistan and terrorists elsewhere in Pakistan is now no hidden secret because of the public statements of the Indian PM and other leaders/government functionaries from time to time, the response of the Pakistani media is quite restrained when compared to their Indian counterparts. Yet, the normalization of relations, as mentioned earlier, is important to the general public in both countries and the requirement or desire for peaceful and cordial relations between both neighbors cannot be totally discounted or declared unimportant, notwithstanding the openly contentious relations at the government or policy level or the existence of extreme sentiments in certain sections of the population on both sides of the border based on ethno-religious grounds. Thus, there do exist undercurrents in both countries especially among the well-informed, educated and moderate segments of population for a genuine dialogue between the two countries to arrive at a modus vivendi for peaceful and mutual coexistence alongside the resolution of the most acrimonious of disputes between the two countries i.e. the Jammu and Kashmir problem.  And, this desire is met with at the government level by what are called, ‘backchannel contacts’.

Now, much furor has been created on the recent meeting in Murree between PM Nawaz Sharif and Indian Steel Magnate Sajjan Jindal a few days ago. This was initially kept secret but later on acknowledged by Mariam Nawaz in a tweet and labeled as a social get-together after being questioned by the media. In response, while Imran Khan decided to take the issue to the Parliament, the Leader of the Opposition Khurshid Shah has also criticized it. Meanwhile, quite surprisingly, the Foreign Office, in reply to a question, stated that it was unaware of any such meeting. On the other hand some old diplomats, and part of the media, have called it a part of backchannel diplomacy which is one way to break the logjam in the relations between India and Pakistan.

According to an editorial in Express Tribune dated 29 April 2017, backchannel diplomacy is defined as: 

‘being by nature secretive and extremely quiet, known to as few as possible and easily knocked off track by exposure and ill-informed analysis by commentators hunting for headlines rather than solutions, and being an ancient tool that works in the modern world’.

Keeping the above definition in mind it is obvious that such a secretive and sensitive tool may be employed to sort out matters, about which the public may not be in complete knowledge, and which may need to be kept out of public view. But obviously the main problem, which has and will continue to bedevil relations between India and Pakistan, i.e the Kashmir dispute, is too clear-cut to be sorted out by secret negotiations.

Moreover, you can only sort out a problem through secret negotiations where there are differences in details of a problem, not in the existence of the problem. You can discuss the problem of Sir Creek or Ran of Kutch or Siachin where the differences are on physical occupation by the armed forces based on the dispute regarding the ground details or topography, and not on the right to the complete entity or otherwise. And, if you differ on your right to possess or otherwise then you have to submit yourself to arbitration or appearing before a judicial forum. Or, if your claim is for a portion of a property or territory or any other thing only, then you go in for negotiation in the spirit of give and take. But, you cannot negotiate on something where a third party is the stakeholder, and/or your or the other party’s right to its possession depends upon the agreement or consent of a third party which is an actual and rightful occupant of the disputed land. As is the situation in the case of the Jammu and Kashmir problem, where the solution of the dispute i.e., its accession to Pakistan or India depends upon the right to self-determination of the Kashmiri people.

Now, while not only is the stated position of India on the J&K problem clearly a non-starter as far as negotiations are concerned, the position of Narendra Modi vis-à-vis his views on Pakistan is also very clear. He is an avowed enemy of not only Pakistan in particular but of Muslims in general. His declarations regarding the creation of Bangladesh and chest thumping on the role of Indian Army in the presence of international audience amidst the distribution of awards by the BD PM Sheikh Hasina in Dacca a couple of years ago, and his demonization of Pakistan, are common knowledge. So are his views on Baluchistan.

Thus, the so-called backdoor diplomacy by the likes of Sajjan Jindal bringing together Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif on the sidelines of 18th SAARC Summit in Kathmandu on Dec 1, 2015 where PM Sharif is reported to have told PM Modi about restrictions imposed on him by Pakistani security establishment (ref: The Unquiet Land by Burkha Dutt [pp 249-250]), Modi’s surprise stopover at Raiwind, Lahore on Dec 25, 2015 along with Jindal and the recent Murree meeting with Jindal just before the upcoming Shanghai Cooperation Organization(SCO) in Astana, Kazakhastan in June, cannot be expected to achieve anything except for maybe the facilitation of their business interests.

It is therefore unrealistic, and rather naïve, to draw any parallels between the backdoor diplomacy of Henry Kissinger with the Peoples Republic of China which led to establishment of diplomatic relations with USA and withdrawal of American recognition of Taiwan in 1972. Here, any amount of backpedalling and so-called backdoor contacts with India are never going to bear any fruit, like the dropping of Indian claim to or agreeing to a plebiscite in J&K.

The solution to the problems between India and Pakistan therefore lies in India’s unequivocal declaration of agreeing to solve J&K problem in line with the 1948 UN Security Council Declaration about holding a plebiscite in J&K, and both the countries’ leadership coming up front to solve all other problems in genuine negotiations, by disavowing any interference in each other’s internal affairs. Along with this, they must vow to live peacefully like friendly neighbours, for the economic and social progress of both countries, rather than remain mired in cloak and dagger politics based on mutual suspicion and dislike, as has been the case since independence in August 1947.