India-Pakistan Track-II (back channel diplomacy) conferences and round-table discussions have been taking place for many years. The Neemrana Group is perhaps the oldest and the best known. The participants in these discussions mainly comprise retired Generals, Admirals and Marshals and a few diplomats and academics. Recently, members of the other branches of civil society – civil servants, media persons and human rights activists, among others – have also been invited.
Given the levels of hostility between the official establishments on both the sides, Track-II gatherings are usually held in other countries. Kathmandu used to be the perennial favourite for these dialogues, but has fallen out of favour since the Maoist insurgency began. Now the discussions take place at exotic overseas locales like Bangkok, Colombo, Dubai and Singapore and, occasionally, in European towns like Como and the Bellagio Centre, both located on the bank of the very pretty Lake Como near Milan in Italy. Salubrious surroundings – and good wine – undoubtedly contribute immensely to the success of these verbal sparring bouts!
The sponsors, who are frowned upon by both the governments, include well-meaning overseas foundations like the Frederick Foundation and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation of Germany, several overseas universities that manage to raise funds from their respective governments, well-known think tanks in India and abroad and, sometimes, organisations with an advocacy agenda like the infamous Ghulam Nabi Fai’s various ISI-supported centres in Europe and the United States.
The primary aim of most of these Track-II dialogues is to enhance strategic stability in South Asia by reducing the risk of conventional conflict and, if it breaks out, preventing its escalation to nuclear exchanges. The agenda invariably revolves around confidence building measures (CBMs) in the military field, nuclear CBMs and risk reduction measures and measures to improve trade and people-to-people relations through increased contact, cultural exchanges and sports tournaments. Specific issues like the demilitarisation of the Siachen Conflict Zone and the settlement of the international boundary in Sir Creek have been taken up several times.
The Indian participants assume that their Pakistani counterparts were briefed in GHQ Rawalpindi and by the ISI before their departure and that they will be debriefed on return. The Pakistani participants know that military people do not count for much in India and wonder why they are talking to them at all. However, they are wary of those of us who have a presence in the media. I have noticed that in the last couple of years, members of the civil society from Pakistan like academics and media people have become increasingly strident in their criticism of both the government of Pakistan and the handling of the security situation by the army. And, the Pakistani Generals are now far more conciliatory in their approach to conflict resolution.
The first session, if not the entire first day, is usually spent in telling the other side how obnoxious its policies are and how destabilising its actions are, particularly covert intelligence operations. While the Pakistani participants harp on the fact that they provide only ‘political, diplomatic and moral support’ to so-called Kashmiri freedom fighters, the Indians insist on placing on the record their condemnation of the ISI’s continuing sponsorship of terrorism in India. Though the seasoned veterans of Track-II diplomacy are fairly reserved in their outpourings, the first timers are invariably garrulous and use the occasion to let off pent up steam against their former military adversaries, whom they are meeting for the first time.
The first evening’s dinner serves to calm frayed nerves and, as they talk about dozens of commonalities including cricket, Hindi movies and music, the participants discover that their counterparts from across the international boundary do not have horns – though some of them do have long hair or beards! On the second evening, a dinner on a river cruise or a visit to a famous landmark is thrown in for good measure and adds to the bonhomie.
The second day is spent more fruitfully in getting to grips with the precarious security situation in the Indian Sub-continent, especially the fighting along the Af-Pak border and the impact of creeping Talibanisation in Pakistan. The participants usually agree on the need to institute comprehensive military and nuclear CBMs and promise to take up all the serious issues plaguing the India-Pakistan relationship with their governments and write about them in the media. They concede that conflict is not desirable and that wisdom lies in preventing it rather than in fanning the flames of hatred.
The dialogue thus ends on a happy note and the sponsors are pleased with their efforts. They are relieved that they can report back positively about the usefulness of the dialogue – and hope to raise more funds for the next round.