Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s back-channel initiative has given rise to a flurry of speculations and anxiety in the country. The media on both sides of the border is running wild with assumptions of all sorts. With a narrow tunnel-vision overview of the India-Pakistan relation’s history and little comprehension of the intricacies of the regional as well as global dynamics, commentators of all sorts are spreading uncertainty if not confusion. While some are drawing doomsday scenarios with a likely sell-out on Kashmir, others see an India-Pakistan ‘peace’ around the corner.

What is being ignored in the process is that back-channel diplomacy is never an upright or honourable conflict-resolving mechanism and is only an unofficial means of communication between states or other political entities used as an alternative to the regular diplomatic channel of communication. The back-channel diplomacy is used when two or more adversaries wish to engage in secret dialogue often through informal intermediaries or through a third party with the purpose of brokering a ‘shady deal’ or understanding on sensitive issues escaping the media gaze and public attention. The modality may be well-motivated, but the ends at times are controversial, if not mala fide.

The back-channel has mostly been used by the US in communicating with its adversaries or brokering ‘peace’ between its allies and friends in pursuit of its own larger global agenda or interests. Two glaring examples in contemporary history are US-brokered peace processes that culminated into the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel in 1978 leading to the normalisation of relations between the two countries in January 1980 and the Oslo Accords in 1993 between PLO and Israel, providing for the creation of a Palestinian interim self-government called Palestinian National Authority (PNA) with the responsibility of administering the West Bank and Gaza Strip to be vacated by the Israeli forces.

If experience is any lesson, secret deals negotiated in back-channels are never lasting and rarely guarantee honourable solutions for the weaker side. Both the Camp David and Oslo Accords, if anything, further divided the Arab world and eventually resulted into the assassination of Egypt’s President Anwar el-Sadat in 1981 and PLO Chief Yasser Arafat in 2004 through suspected poisoning. The final settlement of the Palestinian issue as well as durable peace in the Middle East are nowhere in sight.

In our own case, the notorious US-brokered NRO deal as well as General Pervez Musharraf’s dubious out-of-the-box Kashmir deal again under US pressure were also the product of back-channel diplomacy carried out for motivated reasons and self-serving interests of the players involved.

The NRO’s immediate casualty was Benazir Bhutto, the key player in the deal. She was assassinated in December 2007 in Rawalpindi under most tragic circumstances. The other main casualty were the people of Pakistan, who after Benazir Bhutto’s tragic and never-to-be investigated murder were subjected to a long spell of loot and plunder by the NRO-based government. The people have still not recovered from that legacy of disaster and hardship.

Musharraf’s back-channel on Kashmir was also no less than a disaster. After his October 1999 military coup, in order to remain relevant to Washington’s post-9/11 agenda, he made a u-turn in his India policy and abandoned Pakistan’s principled stand on Kashmir. His out-of-the-box Kashmir solution was nothing, but legitimisation of the ‘status quo’ that in itself is the problem, not a solution.

Earlier in the aftermath of 9/11 tragedy, while the US was launching its anger-driven military campaign in Afghanistan, India tried to take advantage of the global anti-terror sentiment. After staging two successive attacks, first on the Kashmir State Assembly building on October 1, 2001, and the second on India’s Parliament building in New Delhi on December 13, 2001, in a blatant show of brinkmanship, it moved all its armed forces to Pakistan's borders as well as along the Line of Control in Kashmir. Pakistan was blamed for both the incidents without any investigations or a shred of evidence. South Asia was dragged into a confrontational mode. Intense pressure from major powers averted what could have been a catastrophic clash between the two nuclear-capable states.

Since then, the India-Pakistan peace process has remained hostage to India’s opportunistic mindset and the vagaries of the region’s geopolitics. As part of its sinister campaign, India has been implicating Pakistan in every act of terrorism on its soil and has kept the dialogue process hostage to its policy of redefining the India-Pakistan issues. It blamed Pakistan for successive attacks on a train in Mumbai in July 2006, Samjhota Express in February 2007, Indian Embassy in Kabul in July 2008, and finally the Mumbai attacks on November 26, 2008, which like the earlier ones are also now alleged to have been staged with ulterior motives.

Indeed, with Varma-Mani disclosures of the reality of two major incidents, the New Delhi Parliament attack in December 2001 and the Mumbai attacks in November 2008, the back-channel would, perhaps, be the best forum for both sides to rise above the blame game. The challenge for them now is to overcome their mistrust and return in good earnest to the composite dialogue that remains suspended since last year. It is primarily in this context that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s back-channel initiative should be seen.

But any expectations in India to be able to nudge Pakistan to pick up the threads from where they were left in General Musharraf’s ‘back-channel’ diplomacy would just be wishful thinking. No matter what the Indians expect or say, the PML-N is committed to a principled position on Kashmir and cannot afford any secret deal on this issue. Nawaz Sharif knows that there is but one fair, just, legal and moral solution to Kashmir which was provided by the United Nations, and which both India and Pakistan mutually accepted.

The wishes of the Kashmiri people will have to be ascertained impartially, in conditions of freedom from military coercion. This is the crux of the Kashmir issue. On other issues, Nawaz Sharif cannot ignore India’s illegality in Siachen and its ongoing water terrorism in Occupied Kashmir by building dams and reservoirs on Pakistani rivers in violation of the Indus Waters Treaty. Trade with India requires a level playing field.

The government must build a national consensus on our India policy, which would require transparency and domestic confidence-building through genuine “debate and consensus” in parliamentary chambers, not in shady back-channels. It will only strengthen its hands and reinforce Pakistan’s negotiating position in any dialogue with India.

 The writer is a former foreign secretary.