The Rediff Special/ Kushanava Choudhury

After The Lahore Summit: The Real Story After The Lahore Summit: The Real Story

Days after the Lahore summit, in a modest hotel room in Delhi, unbeknownst to anyone but their respective prime ministers, Niaz Naik and R K Mishra conducted the most meaningful dialogue on the Kashmir problem in Indo-Pakistani history.

Niaz Naik finally breaks his silence on the Kashmir Initiative.

Exclusive to rediff.com

The manager at the modest Delhi hotel must have thought Niaz A Naik a very odd tourist. On March 27, 1999, the veteran Pakistani diplomat arrived in the city where he had once been Pakistan's high commissioner and took a room in an ordinary tourist hotel. He never left the hotel. He took all his meals in his room. He had only one repeated visitor: R K Mishra.

Once, he went to the lobby and bought a map. On April 1, he was gone. In those four days, in that hotel room, unbeknownst to anyone but their respective prime ministers, Naik and Mishra conducted the most meaningful bilateral dialogue on the Kashmir problem in Indo-Pakistani history.

Nawaz Sharif Ten months later, a subdued, wintry chill had enveloped Islamabad when Naik told me this story. In the intervening period that witnessed a war, a coup and a hijacking, a political eon had passed. Naik, who had been Nawaz Sharif's point man on covert diplomatic efforts with India – the architect of the back channel – had become the new regime's persona non grata. A BBC journalist confided that in recent times, Naik had become depressed, reclusive, an old man past his time in the limelight.

For a man apparently flung into the dustbin of history, Naik seemed surprisingly dapper when we met in the library of the Foreign Services Academy that January afternoon. A few inches over five feet tall, bespectacled, dressed in a buttoned dark suit, handkerchief in breast pocket – like many Pakistanis of his generation and class, he carried himself with the aristocratic elegance of an aging Anglophile. This, I thought, is what Nirad C Chaudhuri must have looked like.

"Are you from Bangladesh?" he asked me, immediately after I had introduced myself as a student at an American university, researching the role of democracy in the Kargil conflict. It seemed out of the blue. No, I admitted, I am originally from Calcutta. "Ah!" he smiled, nearly triumphant, "You have an air of Bengal about you." I was astonished.

Of the countless bureaucrats, journalists, taxiwallahs and others I had met in my prior two weeks in Pakistan, none had guessed, unless I told them so, that I was Bengali. Though his voice was calm, polite, even sedate, his gleaming eyes gave away his pacing mind – constantly probing, seeking, finding.

A Punjabi refugee during Partition, Naik had devoted much of his career probing for inroads toward better relations with India. "In spite of all the tensions," he said, "there has always been another channel of co-operation." In Zia ul Haq's government, as foreign secretary, and then high commissioner in India, Naik had been a key player in striking agreements with the Gandhis (Indira, and then Rajiv) on trade, visas, defence, etc. Despite all the tensions simmering below the surface, "there was wonderful understanding between Zia and Indira Gandhi. The chemistry worked," he said.

In the decade after Zia's mysterious death, the revolving door of unstable democratic governments had stopped all progress on the bilateral front. Naik meanwhile had become active in non-governmental or Track II efforts, most specifically the Neemrana Initiative featuring eminent persons from both sides of the border. Then, in 1997, Nawaz Sharif was overwhelmingly elected prime minister on a platform that included a proposal to improve relations with India.

A businessman famed for his Reaganesque intellect, superficially Sharif had little in common with the cultivated Naik. Yet, both men shared an interest in improving ties with India. "Sharif was basically not a politician but a businessman," according to Naik, "He could see the benefits of Indo-Pakistani co-operation in the economic and social sectors. He was really, genuinely interested in making progress."

One thing led to another, and suddenly, in February 1998, a dhoti-clad Atal Bihari Vajpayee was reciting peacenik verses at a gathering in Lahore. Critics clucked at the feel-good Lahore summit between the two prime ministers for producing little of substance. Yet behind closed doors, without the knowledge of their advisors or Foreign Offices, Vajpayee and Sharif were ironing out a daring initiative to tackle the thorniest issue of all: Kashmir.

The two leaders agreed on three points: first, the status quo was inadequate and the Kashmir issue must be resolved; second, both sides must try to solve the problem by the end of the century (ie by 2000); and third, given the publicity glare of the press, especially considering the emotive nature of the Kashmir dispute, any preliminary negotiation must operate discreetly through quiet 'back-channel' diplomacy.

Based on the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo model of negotiations, the two prime ministers agreed to select one personal emissary each to meet on a one-on-one basis to solely negotiate on Kashmir.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee In early March, Vajpayee telephoned Sharif with his choice: R K Mishra, editorial board chairman of the Mumbai-based Observer group of newspapers. When Sharif's first appointee – his principal secretary – passed away, the PM called upon a former diplomat outside his trusted circle: Niaz A Naik.

Naik was well known as a veteran diplomat and a leading player in various Track II initiatives. In mid-March, Mishra arrived in Islamabad for an initial meeting with Sharif and Naik. Naik and Mishra agreed to meet in New Delhi for their first discussion on Kashmir.

On March 27, 1999, Naik traveled to Delhi as a private citizen and checked into a tourist hotel. There, he and Mishra met daily for several consecutive days in Naik's hotel room. The two emissaries agreed on four initial elements: first, both would move beyond the rigid publicly stated government positions on Kashmir. Mishra would not refer to Kashmir as an integral part of India; Naik would not mouth Pakistan's demand for a plebiscite based on the 1948 UN resolution.

Second, any solution had to be balanced and take into account the interests of India, Pakistan as well as that of the Kashmiri people.

Third, the solution had to be "just, equitable, feasible and implementable." Finally, as per Mishra's suggestion, it was decided that any solution had to be final, not partial. The mistake of the 1972 Simla Accord, which deferred a final settlement, would not be repeated.

The fourth clause ruled out all proposals that would place contentious regions under temporary UN trusteeship or joint Indo-Pakistani control for 5 to 10 years without a final plan.

Governed by these four elements, over the next few days, the duo discussed all possible solutions to the Kashmir dispute.

First, Mishra suggested the proposal common in Indian circles: to convert the Line of Control – which had been established by the 1972 Simla Accord that ended the third Indo-Pakistani war – into a permanent border. Naik predictably rejected the proposal. "It's the status quo. Then why did we fight two wars?" Naik asked.

Second, Mishra suggested increased autonomy within Kashmir through fairer elections. "It won't work. Elections are not a substitute for the Kashmiri demand for a plebiscite," Naik countered.

In turn, Naik offered the Owen Dixon Plan, drawn up by UN mediator Owen Dixon in 1950, which recommended the redrawing of regions of the state as majority-Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim. "Why not use the same criteria of Partition to divide Kashmir?" Naik suggested. Mishra said India could not afford to introduce the communal factor, especially with the Hindu-nationalist BJP in power. "It will result in a blood bath," he said.

Finally, both discussed the option championed by the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, the original, secular organisation which had launched the Kashmiri secessionist movement in the late 1980s: an independent Kashmir. Both rejected the idea.

From there, Naik and Mishra rapidly went through the Indian journalist Kuldip Nayar's proposal, the Finnish-Sweden model over a disputed island, the recent power-sharing agreement in Northern Ireland, and other plans, without success. Discussions had reached a dead-end. Mishra reported to Vajpayee that all existing possibilities had been exhausted. "You are working on the right lines," Vajpayee told Mishra, "Ask Mr Naik to come up with a new initiative."

Pressed to innovate, Naik proposed that the duo explore easily identifiable geographical boundaries as possibilities for establishing a new border. He suggested the Chenab River, which flows through southwestern Kashmir, as one potential new border. Mishra said he didn't know the river’s location. Naik went down to the hotel lobby and bought a map.

With a rudimentary tourist map of India, the two negotiators discussed the potential fate of Kashmir. Neither could afford to request their respective Foreign Offices for detailed maps of the state without rousing suspicions.

Mishra still had many more questions about Naik's proposal, especially regarding the percentages of Hindus and Muslims in the area. On April 1, the day Naik returned to Islamabad, Mishra asked his counterpart to send detailed, blown-up maps of the Chenab. He neither rejected nor accepted Naik's proposal.

Days later, bunkers were spotted on the Indian side of the LoC. Soon, the Indian external affairs office discovered the surreptitious communications between Naik and Mishra. All through, only Naik, Mishra, Vajpayee and Sharif had known of the existence of these talks. The back-channel initiative on Kashmir – the first such exercise in recent history – had run dry. The two never discussed Kashmir again.

In the coming months, as the world's two newest nuclear powers inched towards an all out war, Naik materialised in Delhi on several occasions, carrying messages from Sharif to Vajpayee. Naik traveled to Delhi for the last time on June 26, 1999. India had readied tanks along the border in Rajasthan and looked to be hunkering down for a protracted conflict.

"Things were really getting out of hand," Naik said. Sharif had dispatched Naik with four points: first, restore sanctity of the LoC, second, cease all aerial bombing, third, reaffirm a commitment to the Lahore process, and fourth, take concrete steps to resolve all issues, including Kashmir, as agreed in Lahore. After a half hour meeting with Naik, Vajpayee agreed to all four points.

The next day, Sharif was set to fly to China in a last-ditch effort to shore up support for Pakistan's flagging campaign. Naik had a plan: The Pakistani PM would fly over Indian airspace, and send a diplomatic greeting from the aircraft to the Indian PM. Vajpayee would reciprocate and invite Sharif to make a technical halt in Delhi on his flight back from China. The two would meet in Delhi, and jointly declare an agreement to end the conflict.

The two sides had agreed to exchange drafts by fax of the politically loaded salutations beforehand. That evening, Naik faxed a copy of what would have been Sharif's airborne greeting to Vajpayee. But, Vajpayee's invitation never came. Instead, the Indians sent back a fax of a 'statement of war.' The next day, Sharif's flight never went over Indian airspace. The plan collapsed.

A little over a week later, Sharif traveled to Washington DC to sign a joint agreement with US President Bill Clinton. According to Naik, aside from one paragraph in which Clinton promised to take a personal interest in the sub-continental dispute, the Washington agreement mirrored the four points Vajpayee had accepted a week before.

Apparently, Vajpayee had admitted to Clinton by phone that the hawkish sentiment in India was too strong to enable a bilateral solution, Naik said. "With so much mistrust at that time, the US was the only country to be able to bring the two sides together," he said.

It was during those clandestine trips during Kargil that Naik was spotted by the Indian press. Months later, as news of the back-channel talks trickled out, Naik would become a marked man, making headlines whenever he was spotted this side of Wagah.

Since Kargil, he has been in India at least twice – in April and then in September – though supposedly only on non-governmental missions. However, his initially icy relationship with General Musharraf (whom he had blamed largely for hatching Kargil) has thawed, and its is not unlikely that he will be enlisted again. But, Naik or not, given the 'face-saving' considerations for both sides on concessions over Kashmir, any future negotiations with probably be done outside the public eye.

"I am quite sure, if in the future, any such dialogue resumes," Naik said, "the threads I left in April will be picked up again."

Design: Dominic Xavier

The Rediff Specials

Do tell us what you think of this exclusive