India and Pakistan must ready themselves to take bold initiatives so that their relationship can rest on stable and permanent foundations.
Asif Ali Zardari's visit to India on April 8 — including a luncheon meeting with Manmohan Singh — may be an essentially private trip, yet the detour brings hope of a new phase in India-Pakistan relations. The expectation is that President Zardari will renew his invitation to the Indian Prime Minister to visit Pakistan, and that the latter will accept, setting the stage for the bold initiatives that are now needed to take matters forward.
South Asia is home to one fourth of the human race and has the largest middle class anywhere in the world. But the region also accounts for the majority of the world's poor, is hamstrung by sectarian and caste beliefs and spends a disproportionate share of its resources to meet non-productive ends. Most significantly, South Asia has not been able to forge a cooperative framework to match the European Union or the Association of South East Asian Nations. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, now more than 25 years old, remains dormant.
Situation not dismal
Relations within the region, particularly between India and Pakistan, have always been troubled, with three open conflicts and repeated near-war situations resulting in frequent breaks in bilateral engagement. Both countries are also conscious of the fact that they are now nuclear powers. And yet the situation is not as dismal as it might appear from the outside. Saner elements in both countries have consistently worked for better relations. There have been serious discussions on a No-War Pact and a Treaty of Peace and Friendship. A Joint Commission was set up in 1983 and a framework for composite dialogue devised. The first big break came in 1999 with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee boarding a bus to Lahore where he publicly acknowledged the reality of Pakistan and assured the nation-state that it had nothing to fear from India. Mr. Vajpayee's initiative showed that an imaginative leadership can push the envelope on India-Pakistan relations.
What followed Lahore is too well known to bear repetition. Suffice it to say that reconciliatory efforts resumed in 2001 with Pervez Musharraf agreeing to meet Mr. Vajpayee in Agra. Predictably the talks ended in failure. Peace efforts restarted in January 2004: Mr. Vajpayee signalled his willingness to hold a composite dialogue on all issues, including on Kashmir and Gen. Musharraf promised not to allow terrorism and cross-border incursions from Pakistani territory. The process suffered a jolt four years later following the November 2008 terrorist strike on Mumbai. India broke off the composite dialogue.
Two years were lost because public feeling in India was greatly aroused by Mumbai. The basic reality, however, remained. It was not in the interest of either country to depart from the path of negotiations. Eventually, a limited resumption was agreed by the two Prime Ministers in 2010. At the moment, these talks are proceeding well, though there have been no major breakthroughs.
The two most inflammable issues that could jeopardise the peace process are Kashmir and terrorism. There are hopeful signs that mutually acceptable solutions to both can be found. On Kashmir, the back channel made considerable progress. Unfortunately, the new elected government in Pakistan has, more or less, disowned this process. To move forward courageously on Kashmir and build on the progress already achieved must now be the main objective of both countries.
Settlement on Kashmir
The crucial point in reaching a settlement on Kashmir must remain its acceptance by the Kashmiri people. The settlement must aim to put an end to the violence and the abuse of human rights so that the people can live normally and in peace. The need for cooperation on terrorism cannot be overstated. Regrettably, a number of terrorist incidents in India have been found to have originated in Pakistan which has negatively influenced public opinion in India. Where the culprits can be identified, it is incumbent on Pakistan to satisfy India that it is making genuine efforts to bring them to book. India must do likewise. This a fight that has be fought jointly.
If dialogue is the key to resolving problems, how do we keep dialogue alive and how do we avoid its derailment, especially in the context of the changed circumstances? India's economic progress and political stability, together with its size, have lifted it to the status of a world power. But this will work to its disadvantage unless India earns the confidence of its smaller neighbours and reassures them that it does not seek to be a regional hegemon. Peace within the region is an essential requirement for India to continue on its upward path. It must make renewed efforts to convince its neighbours that it poses no threat to them. It still has to fully convince them that it is ready to honour their independence and separate personality.
Pakistan, on the other hand, is dogged by an unhappy past marked by repeated military interventions that prevented democracy from taking root. Misgovernance and the fear of an aggressive and more powerful neighbour have driven it towards becoming a security State, further ensuring the dominance of its armed forces. The country is going through what many consider the most testing phase in its history and so it needs to be at peace with India to solve its domestic problems.
Given this, it is in the interests of both India and Pakistan to forge a permanent relationship of peace and amity. The time has come for imaginative policies, a change in fundamental attitudes towards each other. The present promising state of their relations seems a propitious moment to adopt a common approach on promoting their permanent interests.
So who takes the first step? It is obvious that Pakistan's need for peace is greater, but the weakness of its civilian government and its internal problems make it unlikely that it can take any bold initiative. India can live with the present state of affairs, yet it stands to benefit greatly from a transformed relationship. It needs to take the initiative and to lay at rest the fears of the military in Pakistan.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has made clear his desire for peace and friendship with Pakistan. He has worked hard to improve relations and has revived the stalled dialogue more than once. But we are still some way from the major leap that could permanently transform relations.
What is needed now is direct engagement at the very top. Dr. Manmohan Singh must pay a return visit to Pakistan. It would be an occasion to announce agreement on some specific issues like Siachen and Sir Creek. More importantly, he could launch some major new initiatives, like reviving the offer of a No-War Pact and a Treaty of Peace and Friendship. Such formal agreements, duly supported by the international community, would effectively allay the fears of the Pakistan military.
To further allay apprehensions, discussions could be initiated on relocation of forces along the border and on regular meetings between chiefs of the armed forces and of intelligence agencies. The need for better understanding between the two militaries cannot be over-emphasised, because the security syndrome in Pakistan is the major obstacle in the way of progress.
Trade, terrorism, Afghanistan
On the major outstanding issue of Kashmir, a clear decision to resume both back channel and official negotiations is needed. Simultaneously, the Line of Control should be made truly porous for free movement of vehicles and trade. A settlement on Kashmir would be of great value in addressing the vital issue of water on which there has recently been a renewed focus.
The other major issue is terrorism. There remains the very real danger that, if another major terrorist attack in India takes place and its origins are traced to Pakistan, the peace process would again be endangered. The two countries have to address this issue as a top priority and agree that firm action will be taken against the culprits wherever they are found. There are encouraging signs that both sides recognise the need to cooperate.
The Afghan problem has the potential of critically affecting India-Pakistan relations, either in a positive or a negative way, and must be on the agenda. Similarly, the nuclear issue must be meaningfully addressed and the existing areas of agreement expanded. In the critical field of economic development, the decision by Pakistan to grant Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status to India has been a major advance. It must be implemented in its true spirit. Economic cooperation is the strongest guarantee of peace.
Dr. Manmohan Singh's visit could be a decisive moment for substantive and meaningful progress. The visit needs to take place soon and intensive preparation will be required. Much can be achieved, provided both sides realise the time has come to put their relationship on stable and permanent foundations.
Official efforts will need to be supplemented by people-to- people contacts. The key to any lasting relationship is that the people on both sides should want it. People are South Asia's greatest resource and they are also the surest long-term guarantee of the region's stability and progress.
(Humayun Khan is a former Foreign Secretary of Pakistan; Salman Haidar is a former Foreign Secretary of India.)