Journalist | Writer | Analyst
23 July 2009
ISI chief to India: talk to us, we make policy too
Nirupama Subramanian and Siddharth Varadarajan
ISLAMABAD/NEW DELHI: Days before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Yusuf Raza Gilani met in Egypt, the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence floated a suggestion that India deal not just with Pakistan’s civilian government but also directly with its Army and intelligence agency.
Lt. Gen. Shuja Pasha made the out-of-the-box overture during a meeting earlier this month with the three Indian defence advisers representing the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force attached to the Indian High Commission in Islamabad, The Hindu has learnt.
The sit-in at Lt. Gen. Pasha’s office in Rawalpindi on July 3 took place entirely at his initiative, though it was ostensibly convened in response to a request made by the Indian High Commission “years before.” It is normal for defence advisors attached to various diplomatic missions in Islamabad to seek and be granted calls on the ISI director-general — a wing of the ISI is the co-ordinating agency for them — but Indians have rarely had an audience.
During their discussion, Lt. Gen. Pasha and the defence advisors did not refer to the Mumbai attacks or the investigations into it, either on the Indian or Pakistani side. Nevertheless, senior officials in Delhi saw the interaction as an attempt by the ISI to “reach out” to India in the run-up to the Sharm el-Sheikh meeting of the two Prime Ministers.
The Hindu has learnt that during the course of the extremely cordial meeting, Lt. Gen. Pasha came clean in stating that the ISI and the Pakistan Army were involved in framing Pakistan’s India policy, along with the Foreign Office. He made the oblique suggestion that India deal directly with these three institutions if it had a similar three-way mechanism.
In their effort to understand the genesis of this idea, Indian officials sought to establish whether the ISI chief — who has a reputation for speaking his mind freely — had merely made an off-the-cuff remark or was floating a trial balloon after consultations with all other “stakeholders” in the Pakistani establishment.
Ministry of External Affairs officials asked Pakistan’s High Commissioner to India Shahid Malik about the ISI chief’s suggestion, but the envoy was unaware that the meeting had even taken place. This led the MEA to conclude that the Pakistani foreign office may not be in the loop.
Asked about the July 3 meeting last week, Mr. Malik confirmed to The Hindu that it took place but said he was unaware of what was discussed. Major-General Athar Abbas, the Pakistani military spokesman, said he had no knowledge of the meeting. Officials at the Indian High Commission in Islamabad also refused comment.
Highly placed South Block officials told The Hindu that India is not averse to talking to the Pakistani military or the ISI even as it engages with the civilian government but there were two problems with the suggestion. First, any proposal to open new lines of communication must come from the Pakistani government. And second, the power structures in India and Pakistan cannot really compare with each other.
Although Prime Minister Singh and Prime Minister Gilani agreed the ISI chief could come to India in the immediate aftermath of last November’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai, Islamabad quickly backtracked. Since then, no formal proposal for interaction between the ISI and an Indian intelligence agency has been made. Indeed, Mr. Gilani told reporters at Sharm el-Sheikh that the question of an intelligence chiefs’ dialogue did not come up in his meeting with Dr. Singh, a fact confirmed by Indian officials.
But apart from form, it is the question of structure that poses an obstacle. “The Research & Analysis Wing operates within the law and is subordinate to the government,” a senior intelligence official told The Hindu. “There, the government is subordinate to the ISI, which is a law unto itself.”
South Block officials said the Indian High Commissioner and his officers could and should be in touch with the Pakistani army and intelligence chiefs. “But I wonder what would be the point of the Indian Army Chief talking to his Pakistani counterpart … their job definitions are so different.”