National Security Adviser A K Doval and Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) chief Lt. Gen Faiz Hameed held at least one secret meeting in the United Arab Emirates late last year in the lead-up to the February 25 joint statement from the militaries of the two neighbours agreeing to strict adherence to the 2003 ceasefire understanding.
This is one of the details to emerge from a four-hour-long interaction Pakistan’s Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa had on April 23 with about 20 top journalists at an official iftar.
Held last Friday, the interaction was an “off-the-record” briefing on various issues, including the Covid pandemic, but some details have begun trickling out.
The Indian Express has confirmed — from multiple sources aware of that interaction — that queried by the journalists about the backchannel process with India, the Pakistan Army chief said there had been a meeting between Lt Gen Hameed and Doval.
He also mentioned meetings between the “intelligence chiefs” of the two countries. Due to the pandemic, he said, these meetings were held in “nearby countries”. The ISI chief, who is said to be close to Bajwa, was not present at the interaction, but several others in the Army hierarchy were, including the head of military intelligence.
Bajwa said contact between intelligence agencies of two unfriendly nations was not exceptional or extraordinary and India and Pakistan were no different in this respect. He sought to portray the latest meetings as part of a process of such contacts from the time of the PML(N) government in late 2017 under Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi.
That year, Doval and his counterpart in Pakistan, Lt Gen Naseer Khan Janjua, met more than once in a third country. Explaining that this process was interrupted for various reasons, he said it got legs again in December 2020.
That month, he said, India had sent a feeler for talks between the two security establishments and that is how the meetings took place. He played down the role of the UAE as a “third party” that had brought the two sides together. Bajwa told the journalists that the two sides had agreed that rather than “Kashmir first” , or “terrorism first”, all issues would be addressed at the same time, including trade. However, there have been no further contacts between the two sides since the ceasefire began on February 24-25, Bajwa said.
Asked about the Pakistan government’s U-turn on trade in cotton and sugar with India, with Prime Minister Imran Khan declaring that this could happen only after status quo ante was restored in Kashmir, Bajwa suggested that the political leadership may have had its own compulsions but — sooner than later — all would see there was no way forward towards peace other than trade with neighbours. In this context, Bajwa pointed to the EU and NAFTA.
He also told the journalists that the reading down of Article 370 is not an issue of concern for Pakistan as it had never recognised this provision of the Indian Constitution as one of any value for the resolution of the the Kashmir issue. Bajwa said that more important from Pakistan’s point of view, was restoration of statehood, and that there should be no demographic change in Kashmir. He suggested India had given assurances on both counts.
Bajwa said the he had been warned — even by his children — that he might not emerge “unscathed” from the Afghanistan and the Indian processes, but this was something he was determined to do.
According to one account of the proceedings, he was asked if institutionally, the Army was on board this new strategic vision. Bajwa retires next year and questions have been raised about what would happen to these efforts at normalising relations with India if he is succeeded by a hawkish general. His reply was along the lines that outsiders did not understand how much the Pakistan Army had changed as an institution in its strategic thinking.