Indo-Pak Peace Hinges on Civil Society Contacts

NEW DELHI – It is becoming increasingly evident, after the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan failed to make significant progress in just concluded peace talks, that inroads to normalizing ties between both countries could only be made by improving people-to-people contacts.

Lately that seems to be chalking up a better record of success than the diplomatic front.

While India’s Foreign Minister Natwar Singh and his visiting Pakistani counterpart Khursheed Mehmood Kasuri were effusive at their joint press conferences on Monday, it was, however, clear that they had once again hit a roadblock on the Kashmir issue.

"It is obvious that there has to be better people-to-people contact aimed at building better understanding before so sensitive an issue as Kashmir can be tackled," Nandini Oberoi, a member of the Women’s Initiative for Peace in South Asia (WIPSA) told IPS in an interview.

Oberoi, who teaches at a vocational school, said she felt that the solution could lie in more open borders to facilitate such contacts, especially in view of the fact that Indians traveling to Pakistan were greeted warmly by their neighbors and vice versa.

"There is a lot of good will between the people of the two countries and this could be built upon," she said.

"Both states [India and Pakistan] are lagging behind the peace movements," said Sherry Rehman, a visiting member of Pakistan’s National Assembly and well-known Karachi-based women’s rights activist.

Rehman who has been coming to India regularly over the last two years said she could perceive during the period a difference in attitude among the people and felt that "entrenched positions have shifted."

Significantly for peace movements in both countries, this year’s Ramon Magsaysay Award for International Peace and Understanding will be shared by Laxminarayan Ramdas, a former chief of India’s navy, and leading Pakistan peace activist and journalist Ibn Abdur Rehman.

The two have served as joint chairpersons of the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD) that was launched in 1995, and the Magsaysay citation said they were being honored for "reaching out across the hostile border to nurture a citizen-based consensus for peace between Pakistan and India."

The Magsaysay Award is awarded to individuals and organizations in Asia. Conceived by John D. Rockefeller III, the award was created to commemorate former Philippines’ president Ramon Magsaysay and to perpetuate his example of integrity in government and pragmatic idealism within a democracy.

Commented the Indian Express newspaper in an editorial on Tuesday: "There is an upsurge of hope for peace among the people in both countries. They are looking for normal relations between India and Pakistan and a better life created by the enhancement of political, economical and social opportunities."

The official composite dialogue process (CDP) is a diplomatic device for approaching the difficult subject of Kashmir – a piece of alpine territory which has been disputed by the two countries ever since they were created by the 1947 partition, out of a larger British India, ahead of independence.

Wars between the neighbors in 1965 and 1971 failed to settle the Kashmir dispute. Alarmingly both countries armed themselves with nuclear weapons in 1998 and came to the brink of fighting yet another all-out war in 2002 before finally settling down to the drawn-out composite dialogue process.

Apart from the two formal declared wars, the two countries routinely report cases of firing and shelling across their long common border and the Line of Control (LoC) that now separates the Indian and Pakistan controlled parts of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. The worst of these was the bloody conflict at Kargil in 1999.

"If the dialogue continues and I feel it should move on, then I am sure that, Inshallah [God willing], some way will be found to resolve it . . . both sides have to show flexibility and compromise," Foreign Minister Kasuri told pressmen after the tough two-day session.

Kasuri said Pakistan had not placed on the table any "formal proposal" for a settlement of the Kashmir issue but said efforts were indeed underway to improve people-to-people contacts across the Line of Control (LoC), which separates the Indian and Pakistan controlled parts of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Foreign ministry officials here count that among the plus points of the present is an agreement to discuss a "disengagement and redeployment" of troops in Siachen, a high-altitude glacier on the northernmost point of the LoC and strategically overlooking China’s Karakorum highway that leads into Tibet.

The two sides also declared readiness to hold talks on a proposed bus link between Srinagar – the summer capital of Indian Kashmir (the winter one is in the warmer city of Jammu) – and Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir or Azad (free) Kashmir as part of measures to build confidence.

The best news to emerge from the talks are plans to move ahead with a long-pending proposal to build a gas pipeline between Iran and India running through Pakistani territory.

For the rest, analysts said it was significant that the two sides had come this far so soon after being on the brink of war two years ago.

"As this was the first meeting after the resumption of the composite dialogue between the two sides, its more important achievement was to get the two sides to get to know each other better," said the Hindustan Times in an editorial on Tuesday.

"There may not be any breakthrough yet, but as long as they are continuing to talk things are fine . . . any talk is better than no talk at all," Oberoi said.

Read more by Ranjit Devraj