From 1995 to 2003, Ambassador Shirin Tahir-Kheli organized a small group of senior Indian, Pakistani, and U.S. experts with experience in security and diplomacy to discuss specific policy recommendations aimed at the normalization of relations between India and Pakistan. Below is a summary of that effort, along with links to each of ten reports of the proceedings. Ambassador Tahir-Kheli wishes to acknowledge the immense support and intellectual contribution to the BALUSA Group by colleague and friend, Dr. Harvey Sicherman, the late President of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
Following concerted work as Director for South Asia at the National Security Council and as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations for Special Political Affairs on measures aimed at Indo-Pakistani normalization, Shirin Tahir-Kheli called on her network of Indian and Pakistani officials to see if an informal, yet focused, effort for normalization in the subcontinent was possible.
Knowing the complications of undertaking such an effort, Tahir-Kheli reached out to prime ministers in both countries to seek their support for the effort, knowing that even the issuance of visas for travel for respective participants would become problematic without support from the highest levels of each government.
Upon receiving such support, Tahir-Kheli consulted with a number of key officials and former officials in India and in Pakistan to see who would be the best participants for the group, which was named BALUSA. The term stood for peace in an ancient subcontinental language.
From the outset, it was clear that the work would be more productive if it focused on specific areas of potential cooperation where both parties would receive benefits. Energy, Environment, Trade, Security, and Water issues were selected as some of the initial areas of discussion. Five members from India, five from Pakistan, and two from the U.S. became the first BALUSA members.
Toufiq A. Siddiqi, a well known specialist on energy, environment, and climate change policies in Asia, was the other American participant, in addition to Shirin Tahir-Kheli. Both were born in India, and grew up in Pakistan, and have extensive professional and personal links in South Asia.
Several visits to India and Pakistan and meetings with potential members helped to finalize the list of participants. Each was committed to the need for better relations as a priority for his or her respective country. Furthermore, they were each willing to give of their time and effort to help promote the case for better ties within the leadership circle in their own country. Given the close ties each maintained, support for the effort was substantial.
It was agreed that given the small size of the group, discussions would be more meaningful if members were either serving or just retired senior officials with ongoing links in their respective establishments. Hence, BALUSA was a first in many ways including the participation of a recently retired head of the Indian Air Force, Air Marshal S.K. Kaul and General Mahmud Ali Durrani, then still serving in the Pakistan Army as head of the Pakistan Ordnance Factories Board. A close friend of then-Chief of the Army General Jehangir Karamat, Durrani participated with informal blessings from his service. The full list of the members is given before each summary of the various meetings.
On the diplomatic side, Ambassador P.K. Kaul and Governor Girish Saxena from India and Foreign Secretary Shahryar Khan from Pakistan were initial members of BALUSA. Former Finance Minister of Pakistan Syed Babar Ali, a founding member of BALUSA, also hosted several meetings of the group.
Political bipartisanship was a goal of BALUSA. Achieving this goal would allow for the talks to continue even during changes of government, and it would help in building support for the initiative with a larger group in respective parliaments Thus, one member each from two of the main political parties were participants. Namely, Mani Shankar Aiyar from the Congress Party and Jaswant Singh from the Bhartia Janata Party were the Indian members. From Pakistan, were Shah Mahmood Qureshi of the Pakistan People’s Party (now a senior member of the Tehreek-e-Insaf party) and Shahid Khaqan Abbasi (now the Prime Minister of Pakistan) from the Muslim League.
Each meeting focused on a single aspect of the relationship. While discussions in the informal and formal parts of the meetings were in-depth and frank, meetings were closed to outsiders. Recognizing the crucial role of media in changing negative perceptions of normalization, key senior media editors were part of the group, including Bharat Bhushan, Shekhar Gupta, and Malini Parthasarathy.
BALUSA members gave extensive briefings to their respective high-level establishments. The goal was not to offer plausible deniability to leaders of the work jointly undertaken by the group. Reports of the meetings were distributed to opinion makers in India and Pakistan.
BALUSA succeeded in creating lasting links for the common good between important constituencies in India and Pakistan. Several important and acknowledged gains are noted below:
Created a positive effort for a productive peace between India and Pakistan
Opened lines of communications on key issues between leaders of each country
Facilitated joint work on reduction of tensions and suspicions in important areas, including shared benefits of a joint natural gas pipeline and water issues
Added credibility to non-official track II work, whereby individuals outside official government channels work for a shared goal
Provided a cushion for engagement even in turbulent times such as the nuclear weapons tests by India and Pakistan respectively or the Kargil War, where messages between the two countries were exchanged via the BALUSA Group
Helped via secret channels between India and Pakistan when leaders were searching for permanent, sustained good relations
Hosted by notable countries all supportive of a stable South Asia
Kept U.S. government in the loop through debriefings after the group’s meetings
Created a constituency for peaceful relations even as issues such as Kashmir divided India and Pakistan
Lessons for the Future
The work of BALUSA is detailed in the reports of each meeting (see PDF). There was an additional intangible gain from the effort in the links forged between the members which continue to this day.
A great deal of confidence building occurred. The effort could initially only be managed outside the subcontinent as the senior level members were reluctant to travel across the border. As the comfort level of the participants and their respective leaders grew, BALUSA meetings moved into India and Pakistan.
While people-to-people efforts between India and Pakistan are commendable and helpful for a better future, it is the leaders of each country who make the key decisions in the relationship. BALUSA focused on leaders.
During the BALUSA years, despite critical differences, leaders of India and Pakistan wanted an improved relationship. Even as Kashmir became an internal Indian issue in the late 1980s and long before outside provocation became an issue, there was an informal understanding to work together, sometimes through secret channels representing each respective prime minister or leader.
Today, the Indian leadership is adamantly anti-normalization with Pakistan. New Delhi sees itself now as playing in the major leagues. Yet, enmity with Pakistan still serves as a constraint for Indian progress as it keeps the region unstable and stymies investment.
Pakistan under a new prime minister remains desirous of peace with India. However, there is a general wariness in the country, including in the military, to deal with what is perceived as condescension by the current Indian prime minister toward Pakistan.
At times, the timing of conflicting Indian and Pakistani policies hampers progress toward a durable peace. One can hope that their story does not permanently become one of “never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”
To view photos from the BALUSA Group meetings, click here. See below for a list of downloadable PDFs of the meetings that took place from 1995 to 2003: