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Updated: May 23, 2010 23:59 IST

Rebooting India-Pakistan relations

Happymon Jacob
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Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with his Pakistani counterpart Yusuf Raza Gilani at a meeting. File Photo
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with his Pakistani counterpart Yusuf Raza Gilani at a meeting. File Photo

It is important for both India and Pakistan to continue the positive movement in bilateral relations. They should rebuild mutual trust and resume dialogue.

The ongoing normalisation of India-Pakistan relations is a serious and mature step towards ensuring greater peace and stability in the South Asian region. While the specifics of the dialogue ahead are not yet known, the efforts at reengagement and the statements from official quarters in India and Pakistan are being made in an atmosphere of mutual trust and cordiality. This conducive atmosphere has been created by a host of factors.

The Mumbai Special Court's verdict sentencing 26/11 terrorist Ajmal Amir Kasab to death did not generate adverse reactions from Pakistan; it failed even to upset the Pakistani media. Indeed, more Indians have spoken up against hanging Kasab than Pakistanis. Pakistan's Foreign Office spokesman Abdul Basit merely said: “Pakistan has strongly condemned the horrific attack. It's important that the culprits are brought to justice.” Similarly, India did not blame Pakistan when a staff member of the Indian High Commission in Islamabad was caught allegedly spying for Pakistan; that too despite the obvious involvement of the Pakistani intelligence agencies in honey-trapping Madhuri Gupta. In fact, soon afterwards came the decision to talk to Pakistan.

This sort of diplomatic maturity is rare in the subcontinent. Moreover, unlike after the July 2009 meeting between Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Yusuf Raza Gilani in Sharm-el Sheikh, the media on both sides of the border reacted positively to the decision to talk. There was also no post-discussion triumphalist posturing by either side. Perhaps most important, Indian security establishment hardliners have understood that a no-talk policy towards Pakistan will do more harm than good and make strategic gains impossible to achieve. Indeed, by refusing to enter into a broad-based dialogue with Pakistan for such a long time, India risked isolating itself from the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan at the insistence of Pakistan. If India cannot prove itself to be a regional team player, it is likely that the U.S. will not ask it to play ball.

Dialogue pays

Even as it is busy crafting a new strategy of engagement with Islamabad, New Delhi needs to remain cognisant of some important facts, discard certain myths and think outside the box as to what should constitute a renewed Indo-Pakistan dialogue. First, it needs to abandon the myth that nothing was achieved during the 2004-08 peace process. Even a cursory look at the host of significant Confidence Building Measures — ranging from the Agreement on Advance Notification of Ballistic Missile Tests (signed in 2005) to the establishment of a communication link between Pakistan's Maritime Security Agency and the Indian Coast Guard, to legalising the screening of Indian films in Pakistan in 2008 — shows that tangible, positive progress was made. This is as well as, and aside from, the much-hyped ‘near-deal' on Kashmir achieved through back-channel discussions: it was not inked only owing to the unexpected turmoil in Pakistan's domestic politics (beginning with the 2006 judiciary-executive row). The former Pakistani Foreign Minister, Khursheed Mehmood Kasuri, recently said the Kashmir deal was to be characterised by “loose autonomy that stopped short of the azadi (freedom) and self-governance aspirations... to be introduced on both sides of the disputed frontier,” which was understood to be “between complete independence and autonomy.”

The very fact that the two governments, albeit through the back-channel, had closely and seriously examined potential solutions to Kashmir demonstrates that there are now sane minds within the two establishments who can think outside the box.

Secondly, it needs to be realised that though Pervez Musharraf did add drive to the Kashmir dialogue, his exit from the Pakistani presidency does not in any way mean that the process of conflict resolution there will not survive. Reconciliation in Jammu and Kashmir has gained a dynamic of its own that is likely to continue despite the political uncertainty of the last two years. There are a number of proposals from within Kashmir (both from the mainstream and non-mainstream leaders) suggesting ways to go forward. Most of them propose solutions that are broadly akin to what the two countries have previously discussed.

In other words, the many initiatives on Kashmir, including the multiple tracks of dialogue that began during the peace process, will continue to impact future negotiations between the two countries. The time is right for New Delhi to strengthen the groundswell and the various socio-political processes of conflict resolution within J&K. Moreover, India should not hesitate to talk Kashmir with Pakistan, and the latter is unlikely to go back on whatever has been achieved by the two countries on Kashmir.

Include Afghanistan

Thirdly, it is now clearly understood that New Delhi's interests in Afghanistan will be served better in cooperation with a friendly Pakistan. If India and Pakistan remain at loggerheads, the latter will continue with its efforts to exclude India from Afghanistan, possibly rendering New Delhi a mere spectator of the turmoil in its neighbourhood. More so, India's valuable reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan will be further frustrated. The U.S. has recognised that India's work in Afghanistan is indispensable: Ambassador to India Timothy Roemer recently stated that “the long term war in Afghanistan will be won on [the] sub-national level with development and diplomacy. What India is doing on development and diplomacy is critically important for the long-term winning of the battle”. For India and Pakistan to continue bickering over Afghanistan would be irresponsible and short-sighted. Afghanistan must be included in the list of items the two countries need to address in upcoming discussions.

Talk to the Army

Fourthly, New Delhi should engage the Pakistan Army. It is widely considered to play an important role in influencing Pakistan's India policy. By restricting itself to discussion with the civilian establishment, India may not achieve its desired aims. Pakistani participants of recent Track-2 meetings, including retired defence personnel, have made it clear that India should explore the possibility of engaging the Pakistani military, directly or indirectly. The U.S. has already done so, with Pakistan's Chief of the Army Staff Ashfaq Pervez Kayani and ISI Director-General Shuja Pasha participating in the U.S.-Pakistan strategic dialogue held in March. While it is true that the recently passed 18th Amendment to the Pakistani Constitution strengthens the civilian government, there is no guarantee that the Army will recede to the background.

Water issues

Finally, talking to Pakistan about water-related issues is vital. This is not because there is any basis to Pakistan's argument that India is depriving it of water but because water is likely to become a flashpoint. Many anti-India organisations, such as the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, have taken up the water issue to attack India and garner domestic popular support. As Sherry Rehman, Pakistan People's Party leader and former Cabinet Minister, has asserted, “water deficits in Pakistan have become the new force multiplier of nationalist dogma”.

To make matters worse, various political parties from J&K are dissatisfied with current water-sharing arrangements: they claim that the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) puts them at a disadvantage. J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah recently remarked: “I have always said that the agreement of water-sharing between India and Pakistan is absolutely wrong.” However, the IWT, inked in 1960, remains the only agreement that has been faithfully implemented and upheld by both India and Pakistan.

It is important to continue this trend as the two countries seek to rebuild trust, resume dialogue and reboot relations.

(Happymon Jacob is Assistant Professor in Diplomatic Studies at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.)

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