Time To Reach Out Across The Border

Islamabad’s decision to send High Commissioner Sohail Mahmood back to India just in time to host the Pakistan National Day reception in New Delhi, and New Delhi’s decision to send the Minister of State for Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare, Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, to attend the reception indicate that good sense may have prevailed on both sides. More pertinently, since the 19th of this month, India and Pakistan have not fired at each other across the border in Jammu and Kashmir barring one exception, a welcome calm after several weeks of incessant ceasefire violations.

And yet, unless the two governments are willing to discuss and resolve the triggers that may have led to a series of incidents of harassment of diplomatic personnel, we may see a repeat of such incidents. Harassment of High Commission personnel requires critical attention because maintenance of diplomatic courtesies is not just a matter of instrumentality and convenience, but also represents the civility of the host state and its people. Put differently, how we, and Pakistan, treat the representatives of each other reflects what we essentially are as nations. Waylaying a diplomat’s vehicle carrying young children is disgraceful.

Disruption of utilities

Reports indicate that there were two proximate causes behind the recent diplomatic stand off. The first one appears to be the disruption of utilities to the under-construction residential complex of the Indian High Commission in Islamabad, a property adjacent to the present High Commission building. Pakistani authorities also raided the complex and expelled Pakistani service providers. India termed this unjustifiable given that the complex, duly authorised by the Pakistani authorities, was being constructed to house its diplomatic personnel. Pakistan responded that while the Indian housing complex in Islamabad is at an advanced stage of construction, a request by Pakistan to allow construction of a housing complex within its High Commission premises in New Delhi has not yet been approved by the authorities, despite reminders.

Club membership

The second issue was of club memberships for diplomats. Pakistan has refused to admit Indian diplomats to the Islamabad Club in retaliation for corresponding Indian clubs charging what it considers exorbitant amounts for membership. India points out that the government cannot interfere with how private clubs manage their membership procedures. Pakistan, however, argues that there should be a Memorandum of Understanding for reciprocal club memberships for each other’s diplomats. While letting the other side carry out construction of their respective residential complexes can be worked out at the government-to-government level, the membership of private clubs is a more complicated issue.

Disagreements and spats stemming from these issues, in the generally tense atmosphere of ceasefire violations and the resultant political rhetoric, have led to highly undesirable acts of harassing diplomatic personnel who are protected under the 1961 Vienna Convention. It is also of concern that the two establishments allowed routine disagreements to become a major diplomatic stand off at a time when relations are so tense.

Aggressive surveillance of each other’s diplomatic personnel is nothing new in the India-Pakistan context. Back in 1990, during the initial years of the insurgency in Kashmir and the heightened fears of an India-Pakistan military escalation, it had become particularly difficult for diplomats to work in each other’s countries. The situation was far worse than it is today, and yet the two Foreign Secretaries were able to reach an agreement on the treatment of diplomatic personnel. They agreed to a code of conduct in November that year “to protect diplomatic personnel, guaranteeing them freedom from harassment”.

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