NEW DELHI – Nuclear rivals India and Pakistan have returned in earnest to the negotiation table after a break that witnessed a parliamentary election and path-breaking political changes in India.
On May 28, they wrapped up the first round of talks to be held in six years between their foreign secretaries. They said these were “held in a cordial and constructive atmosphere, and with the objective of taking the process (of dialogue) forward.”
Most importantly, for the first time ever, India and Pakistan have begun to discuss Kashmir, the thorny dispute which lies at the core of their creation as separate nations 57 years ago, and which has repeatedly driven them to war or to engineering or supporting covert operations against each other.
This raises the hope that the half-century-long relentless hot-cold war between them could at last end, and South Asia where the danger of a nuclear attack is higher than anywhere else in the world might return to normality.
The talks follow a gradual thawing of India-Pakistan relations over the past year, along with greater people-to-people exchanges.
There have been no fewer than 100 cross-border visits by civil society groups and political delegations over the past six months. The pro-peace climate in both societies was an important factor in a landmark agreement reached on Jan. 6 between Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and President Gen. Pervez Musharraf to start a dialogue on all issues, including Kashmir.
The resumption of the dialogue within a month of the swearing- in of the Congress-led Manmohan Singh government should dispel fears that Singh would not be as keen on the peace process as was former prime minister Vajpayee, who initiated it in April last year by offering “the hand of friendship” to Pakistan.
New Delhi and Islamabad are approaching the peace process cautiously and gradually, in measured steps.
Earlier this week, they explored a number of areas, including peace and security, nuclear and conventional military confidence-building measures (CBMs), regular communication between many tiers of military officers, full restoration of the staff strength of their embassies, speedy release of civilian detainees and better communication links and people-to-people contacts.
But they reached concrete agreement only on a few issues.
The most important is the restoration of the original strength of their respective diplomatic missions to their level before December 2001 when militants who, New Delhi believes, were working at Islamabad’s behest attacked India’s parliament.
They also agreed to re-open consulates in Mumbai and Karachi which have remained closed for a decade following deterioration in mutual relations.
This will greatly facilitate issuance of visas between the two neighbors.
Millions of people have families and relatives who were separated by the 1947 Partition.
Currently, all Pakistanis wanting to visit India must approach the Indian embassy in Islamabad, which is over 1,000 kilometers away from the southern provinces. Similarly, the New Delhi embassy of Pakistan alone grants visas to Indians. This system excludes large numbers of poor people.
India and Pakistan also agreed on the early release of all their civilian prisoners, especially fishermen who inadvertently stray into each other’s territorial waters and are detained for long periods.
This is a long-overdue step to prevent harassment of innocent civilians. The two sides reiterated the agreement of Jun. 20 on nuclear CBMs, including warning each other in advance of missile test-flights.
Yet, they reached no agreement even on relatively modest proposals pertaining to Kashmir, such as launching a bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad, the capitals of the two parts of Kashmir under Indian and Pakistani control.
There were expectations that they would agree to start such a bus service, first proposed by India last October.
Indian diplomats reportedly made some other proposals too, including another bus link, between Sialkot in the Pakistani Punjab and Suchetgarh in the Jammu region of Indian Kashmir across the settled and undisputed International Border-in contrast to the disputed Line of Control in the Kashmir Valley.
These are CBMs, or steps towards closer communication links between the peoples of the two countries, especially of Kashmir. Negotiating them would not compromise either state’s substantive position on Kashmir and on the means of resolving the dispute.
But Pakistan decided to treat these proposals with abundant caution, promising to discuss them in the future along with peace and security, and six other issues (mainly territorial or water-use disputes, but also including terrorism and drug trafficking, economic and commercial cooperation, and promotion of friendly exchanges.)
This conforms to their agreement to hold a “composite dialogue” simultaneously in line with a “two-plus-six” formula, which privileges two issues: “Jammu and Kashmir” and “peace and security including CBMs”. This is itself a compromise between Pakistan’s insistence that Kashmir is the core or “central” issue in bilateral relations, and the Indian position that security and terrorism are equally important.
Talks on the “six issues” would be held between the third week of July and the first half of August. This is a fairly short time-span. But it is not unrealistic to expect some progress, for instance, on the Siachen Glacier dispute, where India and Pakistan fight the world’s highest altitude conflict, over boundary demarcation.
Particularly hopeful are signs of growing economic cooperation and trade between the two countries. At the moment, there is more smuggling between them than official trade. Their economies are in some ways mutually complementary.
There is tremendous scope for cooperation in numerous fields: energy (including renewable energy), a range of industries, agriculture, and services, including information technology, banking, tourism and entertainment.
This potential for mutually beneficial cooperation and for a big peace dividend is unlikely to be realized unless there is some real progress towards resolving Kashmir.
Therefore, it is welcome news that India and Pakistan have begun talks on Kashmir and agreed on the goal of finding “a peaceful negotiated final settlement” to it.
It will not be easy to resolve a fraught dispute like Kashmir, which both states link it to the very core of their nationhood.
But they have both signaled their willingness to move away from stated positions.
One conceivable solution which might be acceptable to both is the creation of a “soft” border in Kashmir, with full freedom of movement of people across it. This must be facilitated and guaranteed by both states even as two parts of Jammu and Kashmir get exceptional autonomy within their respective national frameworks.
That is for discussion in the near future. What is of crucial importance today is that India and Pakistan have embarked on the course of negotiations just when the international community strongly favors peace between them. One can only wish the two governments well.
(Inter Press Service)
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