Interview with FS Nirupama Rao on recent Indo-Pak talks

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    Foreign secretary Nirupama Rao was part of the Indian negotiating team at the failed Indo-Pak talks last month. In this interview with Pranay Sharma, she explains what happened and how India plans to engage with Pakistan in future. Excerpts:

    Why did the foreign ministers’ meet in Islamabad end in such a disaster?

    Disaster is the wrong word. Every Indo-Pak meeting is an exploration, a quest, an initiation. No absolutes can be applied while describing such meetings. Given the 60 years of relations, it should be apparent that there are no shortcuts to success. Moreover, a press conference cannot be the gauge with which to judge what transpired at the meeting.

    Since Indo-Pak relations are fraught with such nasty surprises, why did you not stick to a joint statement instead of a joint press conference?

    There are no easy or simple prescriptions. A categorical conclusion that a joint statement would have been better does not simply follow. The convention of a joint press conference is widely practised today when high-level diplomatic meetings take place. The opening statements made by the two foreign ministers were balanced in their tone and substance. At some stage into the press conference, after four questions had been raised—two from the Indian and two from the Pakistani side—as previously agreed, foreign minister (Shah Mahmood) Qureshi decided to allow more questions. Perhaps the outcome would have been less tendentious if this turn of event had not taken place.

    When the press conference took this turn, why couldn’t you intervene and end S.M. Krishna’s agony?

    Our minister was never in agony. I stoutly refute that. He is a seasoned and experienced minister. He was calm and restrained throughout—a perfect example of grace under pressure. He held his positions with equanimity and confidence. There was no intervention required.

    The Pakistani side says you were constantly on the phone to get instructions from Delhi, implying you were not clear about your bottomline. Is that correct?

    We had a very clear brief for the Islamabad talks. We knew our bottomline—and we enunciated it with clarity and precision. Normal communications with our government were maintained—as is always the case in delicate negotiations such as these. To insinuate that this was evidence of not being prepared is unfortunate, to say the very least.

    Has India learnt any lessons from the press conference experience?

    Whatever the Pakistani motives may have been, showing restraint, maturity and sobriety, as our minister did, cannot be construed as a drawback. Our minister conveyed through his demeanour and responses the strength, confidence and conviction of what India stands for. I know that the succinctness and calm with which our minister enunciated our position has been well-recognised.

    What happens to Indo-Pak talks now?

    I believe the dust needs to settle. Our minister of external affairs has invited the foreign minister of Pakistan to India for a continuation of our dialogue. A genuine, carefully formulated and reasonable approach to these talks by India, which is the victim of terrorism unleashed from Pakistani soil and territory under its control, should not be under- estimated and under-valued by Pakistan.

    More than 20 months have passed since 26/11. Can you mention one significant step that Pakistan has taken against those behind the terror attack to instil confidence in India?

    The very fact that Pakistan acknowledged that the Mumbai attack was planned and executed from Pakistan by some of its nationals was a signal development. Of course, while some steps have been taken on the Mumbai case by Pakistan, including arrests of seven persons, and the declaration of 20 more as proclaimed offenders, much more needs to be done. The focused and determined investigation of the conspiracy, the bringing of the perpetrators to justice, are all tasks that remain to be completed. The trial has moved at a glacial pace. This is a matter of concern.

    When India talks about the ‘perpetrators’ of 26/11, does it include the ISI since the agency, according to information and evidence that are now with India, had been in total control of the operation?

    India has not hesitated to share concrete evidence on the real masterminds and handlers of the Mumbai terror attack with Pakistan. During the visit of our home minister to Pakistan in June, further evidence was shared in this connection. For Pakistan to state that terrorism has not been used as an instrument of policy against India, and that there is no involvement of state actors in such activity, is unacceptable. The evidence suggests otherwise. Today, Pakistan says it is a victim of terrorism. It is unfortunate that many innocent citizens have lost their lives in terrorist attacks in Pakistan. But the fact that Pakistan suffers from the scourge of terrorism does not diminish its responsibility to address India’s legitimate concerns about Pakistan-organised terrorism against our citizens and our territory. A selective approach in such matters is not acceptable.

    There’s a feeling that the external affairs ministry has kept the home ministry out of the loop on David Coleman Headley’s confession. Is that correct?

    I want to dispel the impression that there is insufficient coordination between the two ministries. We are in constant communication. In the case of Headley, the mea and mha worked together to coordinate our actions and ensure that the national interest was met. In a matter of such critical importance, it could not be otherwise. We were not out of the loop.

    How does India view the Wikileaks expose which shows how the isi had been behind every attack against Indians in Afghanistan?

    What the disclosures indicate has been in the realm of our knowledge even before the leaks. Our concerns in this regard have been articulated on a number of occasions. Pakistani officials have time and again spoken out against India’s presence in Afghanistan and made no secret about their deep hostility about the work we do in that country. Our officials and our citizens have been victims of terrorist attacks in Afghanistan. The Afghan authorities have said that those responsible for them were enemies of India-Afghan friendship. Seen against the background of Pakistani hostility towards India’s presence in Afghanistan, all this raises troubling questions about Pakistani complicity. The Wikileaks disclosures have brought this into even sharper focus.

    With so much information about the isi now in the public domain, how do you see talks with Pakistan going forward?

    The path to a lasting peace with Pakistan will not be easy. We have never nurtured any illusions about this. It is because of the inherently complex and seemingly intractable nature of our differences that we seek a way forward to address the difficulties. A serious, sustained and comprehensive dialogue remains the best option. But such a dialogue can thrive only in an atmosphere free of terrorism directed against us from Pakistan. Otherwise, the trust deficit and public alienation towards Pakistan will only deepen.
     
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