On the road to peace

NOW THAT India and Pakistan have finalised the road map for the composite dialogue, the process for bringing about peace and normality enters a challenging phase. All those who were involved in the "talks for talks" deserve credit but can they afford to rest on their oars? Crucial tasks are ahead of them. There is a strong case, on the one hand, for conscious efforts to contain negative trends and, on the other, to strengthen positive factors. What it means in concrete terms has been made clear by the happenings in the last eight weeks — since the release of the joint statement on the discussions of the two top leaders, the Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and Pakistan's President, Pervez Musharraf, in Islamabad on the sidelines of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit.

The list of positive developments during this period, covering political, economic and personal areas, is impressive, howsoever viewed. At least five could be identified. 1) The unprecedented fillip to contacts among various segments of civil society, apart from officials. 2) India's cautious stand on the A.Q. Khan episode. 3) The care taken by New Delhi not to appear obstructionist in the Commonwealth Ministerial Action group during discussions on the re-entry of Pakistan into the grouping. 4) The encouraging noises by the two sides on trade-related and economic issues. 5) The conspicuous absence of the Pakistan issue in partisan controversies and electoral wrangles in India.

As against that, there are three or four negative trends. 1) Loose talk of coordination between the intelligence agencies of the two Governments. 2) A slowdown in the internal dialogue in Jammu and Kashmir — between the Centre and Hurriyat leaders, and the tactless handling of the State situation by the security forces. 3) Over-interpretation of the significance of the engagement between the divided Punjabis.

On the whole, it is not an unmanageable situation but could worsen, if precautions are not taken. The recent attempt on the life of the Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, is a warning signal. The two Governments would do well to set up special cells in their respective foreign offices to monitor the trends in the run-up to the commencement of the dialogue in May — after the elections in India — and to take timely correctives.

Let us examine these developments in detail — the negative ones, to start with. The other day, a local daily came out with a story on how the information given by the Research and Analysis Wing to Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) helped forestall another attempt on the life of Gen. Musharraf.

As was reported in these columns soon after the Islamabad summit, Mr. Vajpayee, in his phone call on the last day of his stay in Islamabad, did tell the General to take care of his security (Apni hifazat ka khiyal rakhiyega), but to treat it as a prelude to cooperation between the two intelligence agencies is to stretch the point. Such reports, emanating from India, would only enhance the vulnerability of the General to the jihadi, fundamentalist outfits, which are certain to step up their campaign against him for "collaborating with Indians." The two Governments did well to promptly deny the "baseless" report. Pakistan's Interior Minister, Faisal Saleh Hayat, forcefully rejected the talk of collaboration, saying that "our security agencies are capable enough to identify" such threats and of taking prevention measures. Though the record has been set straight, some residual damage is unavoidable.

There is no formal or structured linkage between New Delhi's talks with Kashmiri leaders and the dialogue with Pakistan but, in practice, the two are mutually reinforcing exercises. As such, a setback to the internal talks process could cast its shadow on the new beginning between New Delhi and Islamabad. Mishandling by the security forces of their anti-terrorist operations in Bandipora in Kashmir has done considerable damages, serving to give credence to allegations of human rights violations by India. This is a highly sensitive subject in Pakistan, which had been demanding remedial steps.

Positive gestures by India could earn it disproportionately high dividends. But the importance of this simple point was not realised. The meeting of the Hurriyat leaders with the Deputy Prime Minister, L.K. Advani, sometime ago, promised to reduce the distance between the separatists and New Delhi. Formal discussions, it was clear, could not have continued because of Mr. Advani's preoccupation with the Lok Sabha election. But N.N. Vohra, former Home and Defence Secretary, who was appointed Central interlocutor for contacts with various sections in the State, could have been used to keep up the momentum. This was precisely the type of situations he had to handle. Mr. Vohra's appointment was a sensible move but there was ambiguity about his mandate. What was given by the political masters with one hand was taken away by the other. Or was it a case of intrigues within officialdom? A perfect example of how not to do the right job.

The recent engagement between the Punjabis from the two sides of the border generated tremendous enthusiasm. The way the large groups of Punjabis from India, led by the Chief Minister, Amarinder Singh, were received by their counterparts from the other side had to be seen to be believed. Was it a case of atonement for the sins of the past or a desire to protect and promote the shared cultural heritage? Perhaps both.

But any assumption that it represented a craving by the Punjabis to get together or to unite, first at their level, and, later, on the bigger scale will be both facile and dangerous. That is the problem with some sections in India — they treat any sign of a thaw in bilateral relationship as a precursor to unification. True such a sentiment was not articulated this time but could it be said that it was not nursed?

A rapprochement between the divided Punjabis is to be seen within the existing political framework — between the citizens of two sovereign countries with a shared legacy, signified, among other things, by the Punjabi language. Any other projection would give a handle to extremists in Pakistan who will be quick to dub the surge of warm, friendly sentiments as the work of "crafty" Hindus or the design of "Akhand Bharatis." That could also be a major setback to moves for engagement and amity between New Delhi and Islamabad. The oversimplified and misleading references to the "German parallel" are to be avoided.

Fortunately, the negative trends are few and far between and are swamped by the positive. There is a sudden spurt in the exchange of visits by people representing various segments — students, lawyers, women activists, traders, journalists, and, of course, politicians. Each such exchange leaves tremendous goodwill in its wake. The climax came with New Delhi's decision in favour of the Indian cricket team tour of Pakistan. At the political level, India has been cautious in its reaction to some of the highly sensitive problems on the other side of the border. The conspicuous restraint by India on the A.Q. Khan affair, both by the Government and the media, has not gone unnoticed in Islamabad.

Think of how New Delhi would have gone to town with demands for declaration of Pakistan as a rogue state by the international community had bilateral relations been as strained as, say, some nine months ago and the significance of the gesture will be clear. The prospects of Pakistan's re-entry into the Commonwealth have brightened as was evident from last week's statement by the Nigerian President (Nigeria is the head of the Ministerial Action Group).

That the stand of India, a member of the group, was not negative could not but have been noted in Pakistan. Then there were soothing voices from the two sides on trade and economic relations. For the first time, there is willingness by New Delhi to examine the possibility of a gas pipeline — from Iran to India via Pakistan.

On its part, Pakistan discussed the idea of importing diesel from India. Pakistan's stand on according India the status of the Most Favoured Nation is less rigid now but whether the decision is taken at the bilateral level or as part of the SAARC process for easing trade restrictions is not clear. Slowly but surely the positive factors are gathering strength. They need to be given a continuous push.