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2019-07-29

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Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Pakistan President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto sign the Simla Agreement in July 1972.>The Hindu Archive>  

The Simla Agreement may be somewhat overrated. It could even be dead though we keep referring to it as a guiding light and take shelter behind it. Signed on July 2, 1972, by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Pakistan President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the Agreement has been observed mainly in its breach. It commits the two countries to “put an end to the conflict and confrontation that have hitherto marred their relations and work for the promotion of a friendly and harmonious relationship and the establishment of durable peace in the sub-continent”. Pending “the final settlement of any of the problems between the two countries”, it stipulates that “neither side shall unilaterally alter the situation and both shall prevent the organization, assistance or encouragement of any acts detrimental to the maintenance of peaceful and harmonious relations”. This is followed by a list of admirable, if ineffectual, exhortations. If these had been implemented effectively by New Delhi and Islamabad, Hafiz Saeed and Masood Azhar could well have been tourists in India rather than terrorists. Given the various breaches, the Simla Agreement could do with a makeover.

It took more than 10 years after Simla to group the subjects that India and Pakistan would sporadically talk about, and even then the two countries have been going around in circles. It is reasonable to assume that nowadays Pakistan talks more about India and Kashmir to the U.S. than to India. Terrorism was one of the subjects that the two nations emphasised they would bilaterally discuss, but the 2011 Mumbai blasts shattered that premise. Since then India has been talking about Pakistani terrorism not so much with Pakistan as with any country willing to listen. This is probably why U.S President Donald Trump revealed at the Oval Office on July 22 that he and Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan would be “talking about India”. “I think maybe if we can help intercede and do whatever we have to do,” he said. “But I think it’s something that can be brought back together.”

President Trump may have been overstating it, but when the Simla Agreement was violated in Kargil, it was an American President who helped push the Pakistani troops back into Pakistan. As the Kargil War began to get bigger, a worried President Bill Clinton, who called the region “the most dangerous place in the world”, reached out to both Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, urging Mr. Sharif to pull back from the Line of Control (LoC) and Vajpayee not to widen the war front.

On July 2, 1999, the 27th anniversary of the Simla Agreement, when the Indian Army launched a three-pronged attack in Kargil, Mr. Sharif called up Mr. Clinton. He wanted the Americans to intervene. To make it happen, he was even ready to fly to Washington with his family in case he became a Prime Minister in exile. Two American diplomats in the Clinton administration, Bruce Riedel and Strobe Talbott, detail the developments in fascinating detail. They write that the Americans told Mr. Sharif not to come unless he was willing to agree to an unconditional withdrawal. Mr. Sharif told the Americans that he was coming anyway. President Clinton, who had been briefing Vajpayee every little step of the way, called him. Vajpayee was by then a sceptic of peace. He had made a high-risk bus trip to Lahore and the Pakistanis had rewarded him by violating the Simla Agreement in Kargil to seek to alter the LoC. Vajpayee did not tell Mr. Clinton that this was a bilateral affair and he should stay out of it. Instead, he warned the President that Mr. Sharif would take him on a merry ride, and he was afraid that Mr. Clinton would get co-opted. Mr. Riedel, who was present at all the meetings, writes in “American Diplomacy and the 1999 Kargil Summit at Blair House”: “Sharif handed the President a document which he said was a non-paper provided to him early in the crisis by Vajpayee in which the two would agree to restore the sanctity of the LoC (a formula for Pakistani withdrawal) and resume the Lahore process. Sharif said at first India had agreed to this non-paper but then changed its mind”.

Mr. Sharif wanted a withdrawal in return for a time-specific resolution of the Kashmir issue. President Clinton exploded saying he wouldn’t be blackmailed. The meeting broke to take stock of the matter. During the break, President Clinton called a worried Vajpayee to brief him again. “What do you want me to say,” Vajpayee asked when informed of what had gone on. President Clinton responded that he was holding firm. When they met again, Mr. Clinton told Mr. Sharif that if Pakistan didn’t withdraw, he would issue a statement naming Pakistan as a sponsor of terrorism as it had already readied nuclear missiles. Mr. Sharif said he feared for his life, but he reluctantly agreed to pull back troops. President Clinton called Vajpayee to give him the news. “That guy’s from Missouri big-time,” he said later. “He wants to see those boys get off that mountain before he’s going to believe any of this” (Engaging India, Strobe Talbott). The U.S. helped boot out the Pakistanis from Kargil for India.

Was what President Clinton did mediation? Or was it intervention? Or meddling? Or was this all a shining example of bilateralism envisaged in the Simla Agreement? President Trump gave India a preview on February 28, before Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was freed by Pakistan, of what was coming when he said: “We have some reasonably decent news. I think hopefully that’s going to be coming to an end. It’s been going on for a long time, decades and decades. There’s a lot of dislike, unfortunately. So we’ve been in the middle trying to help them both out, see if we can get some organization and some peace, and I think probably that’s going to be happening.” Was that mediation or the Simla Agreement at work? Nobody pointed out to President Trump that only the Ministry of External Affairs or the Pakistani Foreign Office or the Director General of the Inter-Services Public Relations were allowed to make such announcements.

We have to recognise that the world has changed since the Simla Agreement was signed. After the 1971 war, India returned land taken in battle on the western border, to create lasting peace. The LoC is now more firmly established than ever before. There is no talk any more of United Nations resolutions. Most of the subjects in the ‘composite dialogue format’ like Siachen, Sir Creek and Wullar Barrage have been discussed threadbare. Some of them have been ready for political signatures for years. If the way forward is bilateral, then surely it is time to prove it?

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