Reflections on the Sharm El Shaikh Joint Communique

July 27, 2009

Why Indians and Pakistanis are deconstructing the Sharm El Shaikh joint communiqe ad nauseum.


Two weeks after the Sharm El Shaikh communique, controversy continues.  Joint communiques and declarations usually abound in platitudes and are not taken very seriously, something India’s junior foreign minister, Shashi Tharoor, tried unsuccessfully to convey.

On either side, two elements of this communique are still being mulled over:
1. “Both leaders agreed that the two countries will share real time, credible and actionable information on any future terrorist threats.
Prime Minister Gilani mentioned that Pakistan has some information on threats in Balochistan and other areas.”
2. “Action on terrorism should not be linked to the Composite Dialogue process and these should not be bracketed.”

Indian reactions to the inclusion of Balochistan range from outrage to nonchalance. Many Indian commentators reflect public outrage at the insinuation that India is involved in Balochistan. Others worry that allowing a reference to Balochistan may be read as an admission of guilt. Finally, there is apprehension that such an inclusion may be interpreted as equating 26/11 with Balochistan’s problems.

The government has tried to respond to these concerns with nonchalance. The Minister of State for External Affairs pointed out that this is only a communique and not a treaty. The Minister for Home Affairs shrugged it off as an admission that Pakistan has a problem in Balochistan, while India, he said, has nothing to hide.

Pakistanis are pleased with the inclusion of Balochistan as there seems to be widespread belief that India has played a role in encouraging dissidents in that province. Since 26/11, Pakistani commentators on Indian television have regularly referred to this as fact. What has caused unhappiness in Pakistan is the exclusion of Kashmir from the communique, leading some to wonder if this was the quid pro quo between the Prime Ministers. (But see this report that Baloch leaders have welcomed this inclusion as India forcing Pakistan to acknowledge the issue: what else is in store for Pakistan?)

The phrasing on the second problematic provision can be interpreted in many ways. To reprise: “Action on terrorism should not be linked to the Composite Dialogue process and these should not be bracketed.”

What does this actually mean? Does it mean that regardless of whether and how effectively Pakistan acts against terror groups on its soil, India and Pakistan will engage in a process of talks? This does not please Indians at all, eager as they are to see evidence that Pakistan is serious about taking to task the perpetrators of several terror attacks in India. This is also a shift in India’s post-26/11 position.

The second possible reading is that Pakistan need not act unless there are talks. In other words, delinking means that India agrees to talk, as Pakistan agrees to act. If India will not talk, Pakistan will not act.

There is also a murky definitional issue of what is included in “Action on terrorism.” Does it include action against Al-Qaeda? Against the Taliban? Against groups operating in Kashmir? Against other groups seeking targets outside Kashmir in India? Who does this include?

None of these readings are immediately acceptable to the Indian public, and it is this disquiet that is showing in the news and social media.

Pakistanis wonder if this statement actually means that Pakistan cannot make action against terrorism contingent on the restoration of dialogue. That sounds like bullying to them.

On all sides, the suggestion that this communique is somehow a ‘gift’ for the visiting US Secretary of State perhaps rankles the most.

Everyone wants to know: What was the government (of India, of Pakistan, as the case may be) thinking?

Ironically, the controversies over this communique illustrate the need for sustained dialogue and confidence-building measures in all circumstances. One of the hardest things to do in a relationship this fraught with tension is to keep the channels of communication open. Both India and Pakistan have arguably done this. What is being communicated may not be pleasant, acceptable or trusted by the other side, but the fact is that there is still communication. In these last six months, notwithstanding the diplomatic impasse of dossiers delivered, dissected and disregarded, there have still been Indian commentators on Pakistani TV and vice versa; there have still been civil society cross-border programs and people engaged in fairly political work have traveled back and forth to meet their colleagues at seminars and workshops; and all other everyday forms of travel and communication continue. This is a good sign.

It is also a sign that the Composite Dialogue must resume. And that it must not exclude channels to talk about terror, Kashmir, Balochistan and all the other issues that continue to haunt the India-Pakistan relationship, even while it does not insist that all discussions progress in the same way, at the same pace and in a linear way. And visitors from beyond the region and their world-views are irrelevant reasons when self-interest dictates dialogue. So when this controversy has been replaced by another, only an ever-stronger process of mutual engagement remains.

Some interesting commentaries:

Siddharth Varadarajan, No ‘sell-out’ at Sharm-el-Sheikh; Pakistan forced to admit terror link, The Hindu, July 18, 2009.
Dawn Editorial, Clarity needed,, July 19, 2009.
Ashok Malik, Western disturbance, Hindustan Times, July 19, 2009.
Arati R Jerath & Javed M Ansari, Manmohan did his own thing in talks with Pakistan, Daily News and Analysis, July 23, 2009.
Salman Haidar, Sharm El-Sheikh, The Nation, July 23, 2009.
Ejaz Haider, insight: Drop the talks façade, Daily Times, July 25, 2009.
MJ Akbar, Indo-Pak Peace: Play to win, Mr. Prime Minister, Times of India, July 26, 2009

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