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Way forward in India-Pakistan relations

Senior Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar speaks during the lecture by former Foreign Minister of Pakistan Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri (left) on "Evolution of India–Pakistan Relations in the First Decade of the Twenty-first Century", in New Delhi recently.  

Fifteen years ago, in a book called “Pakistan Papers,” largely comprising a long despatch I wrote in my last days as Consul-General of India in Karachi, which I was surprisingly permitted by the government to publish as representing my “personal views”, I had first suggested a process of “uninterrupted and uninterruptible dialogue” as the only way forward for our two countries. My suggestion had no takers then. It has no takers now. Yet, I see no alternative to structuring such a dialogue if we really are to effect a systemic transformation of the relationship.

I know that most in the Establishment of both countries would seriously disagree. They would argue that differences are so fundamental and intentions so hostile that to be tricked into talking without knowing where such talk would lead would amount to compromising vital security concerns, that it would jeopardise national interests and render diplomatic initiative hostage to a meandering dialogue from which there would be no escape. Better to keep the guard up, look reality squarely in the face, and leave romanticism to soft-hearted poets – and out-of-work Consuls General.

There is also the other argument, growing stronger in India by the day, and possibly among the younger generation in Pakistan, that we have lived in simmering hostility for the last six decades and can do so indefinitely, best to let matters simmer while we get on with other things instead of engaging in fruitless exchange.

I belong to that minority that thinks there are three compelling reasons why India should pro-actively engage with Pakistan. First, for the domestic reason that a tension-free relationship with Pakistan would help us consolidate our nationhood, the bonding adhesive of which is secularism. Second, for the regional reason that regional terrorism can be effectively tackled only in cooperation with Pakistan and not in confrontation with it. Third, for the international reason that India will not be able to play its due role in international affairs so long as it is dragged down by its quarrels with Pakistan.

Equally, I believe it is in Pakistan's interest to seek accommodation with India for three counterpart reasons. First, the Indian bogey has harmed rather than helped consolidate the nationhood of Pakistan. Second, Pakistan is unable to become a full-fledged democracy and a sustained fast-growing economy owing to the disproportionate role assigned to alleged Indian hostility in the national affairs of the country. And, third, on the international stage, Pakistan is one of the biggest countries in the world and instead of being the front-line in someone else's war perhaps deserves to come into its own as the frontline state in the pursuit of its own interests.

As for just turning our backs on each other, Siamese twins have no option but to move together even when they are attempting to pull away from each other.

So, what is the way forward from today's impasse? I do not think the impact on the Indian mind of 26/11 is fully comprehended in Pakistan, even as I do not think Indians are sufficiently aware of the extent to which Pakistanis are concerned about terrorism generated from their soil, whoever the target might be, India, the West or Pakistan itself. I suspect that the least positive movement in the direction of determinedly going after the perpetrators of 26/11 will generate a disproportionately positive reaction in India, enabling the stalled peace process to resume its forward movement.

Should the Pakistan government assist the Indian government in this manner to return to the negotiating table, then the first task would be to consolidate the gains of the 13-year old Composite Dialogue. Irrespective of whether progress on the back-channel is acknowledged or not, the official position of the two governments has grown so much closer to each other's than ever before that even by returning to the front table and taking up each component of the Composite Dialogue, including, above all, issues related to Jammu & Kashmir, we could dramatically alter the atmosphere in which to pursue the outstanding matters.

In such a changed atmosphere, it would be essential to immediately move to the next phase of what I hope and pray will be an “uninterrupted and uninterruptible” dialogue. Let me place before you, in outline, what I envisage as the essential elements to be structured into an “uninterrupted and uninterruptible” dialogue:

One, the venue must be such that neither India nor Pakistan can forestall the dialogue from taking place. Following the example of the supervision of the armistice in Korea at Panmunjom for more than half a century, such a venue might best be the Wagah-Attari border, where the table is laid across the border, so that the Pakistan delegation does not have to leave Pakistan to attend the dialogue and the Indians do not have to leave India to attend.

Two, as in the case of the talks at the Hotel Majestic in Paris which brought the U.S.-Vietnam war to an end, there must be a fixed periodicity at which the two sides shall necessarily meet. In the Hotel Majestic case, the two sides met every Thursday, whether or not they had anything to say to each other. Indeed, even through the worst of what were called the “Christmas bombings” — when more bombs were rained on Vietnam than by both sides in the Second World War — the Thursday meetings were not disrupted. In a similar manner, we need to inure the India-Pakistan dialogue from disruption of any kind in this manner.

Third, the dialogue must not be fractionated, as the Composite Dialogue has been, between different sets of interlocutors. As in the case of Hotel Majestic, where the U.S. side was led by Kissinger and the Vietnamese by Le Duc Tho (both won the Nobel prize), Ministerial-level statesmen should lead the two sides with their advisers perhaps changing, depending on the subject under discussion, but the two principal interlocutors remaining the same so that cross-segmental agreements can be reached enabling each side to gain on the swings what it feels it might have lost on the roundabouts. Thus, the holistic and integral nature of the dialogue will be preserved.

Fourth, instead of an agenda agreed in advance, which only leads to endless bickering over procedure, each side should be free to bring any two subjects of its choice on the table by giving due notice at the previous meeting and, perhaps, one mutually agreed subject could thereafter be addressed by both sides.

Fifth, half an hour should be set aside for each side to bring its topical concerns to the attention of the side. This will persuade the general public in both countries that the dialogue is not an exercise in appeasement.

Sixth, there should be no timeline for the conclusion of the Dialogue. This will enable both sides to come to considered, and therefore, durable conclusions without either feeling they have been rushed to a conclusion against their better judgment.

Seventh, and finally, as diplomacy requires confidentiality, there will, of course, have to be some opaqueness in the talks; at the same time, we cannot afford to swing the other way and bring in total transparency; so, what I would suggest is a translucent process where spokespersons of the two sides regularly brief the media but without getting into public spats with each other. Dignity and good will must be preserved to bridge the trust deficit.

I commend this seven-point programme for your consideration. I cannot guarantee that such a dialogue will lead to success, but I do guarantee that not talking will lead us nowhere.

( Mani Shankar Aiyar is a Member of Parliament. This is an edited excerpt from his Wilhelm von Pochhammer Memorial Lecture delivered in New Delhi, which was similar to an address given by him to the Karachi Council of Foreign Relations. The >full text is available at www.thehindu.com)

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