India-Pakistan Dialogue Moves Between Stagnation, Hope

NEW DELHI – After the first extended round of India-Pakistan talks on the eight issues they have identified as bilateral disputes or concerns, it is clear that their dialogue has entered a phase of stagnation.

Earlier expectations that at least some issues would be resolved in a series of discussions – the latest being earlier this month – before the two countries’ foreign ministers next meet on Sept. 5-6 have given way to more sober assessments.

The change of guard in Islamabad, with Shaukat Aziz taking over as prime minister from Choudhary Shujat Hussain, is unlikely to make much difference to the bilateral talks’ prospects.

The recent India-Pakistan discussions between senior or middle-level bureaucrats produced no concrete gains, let alone a breakthrough. There was no progress on tough problems like Kashmir and cross-border terrorism.

Even relatively less contentious issues like prevention of drug smuggling and the Siachen glacier – where India and Pakistan fight the world’s highest-altitude war at heights exceeding 5,000 meters (3.1 mi.) – defied mutual agreement.

Meanwhile, suspicions have grown on both sides over each other’s sincerity about resolving issues like Kashmir without using coercive methods. Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf has cast doubts on India’s attitude on the Kashmir question.

He told a Pakistani daily, "On one side I am hopeful, while on the other, Indians are giving negative signals. I am confused. Then I have my doubts they are playing tricks. I thing they are molding their public opinion gradually." But he added: "There is a new government in India, and one should give it a chance."

India claims that Pakistan has quietly resumed encouraging infiltration by militants across the Kashmir border and has also manipulated and split the pro-separatist All Parties’ Hurriyat Conference political group in Kashmir, with which New Delhi has held a dialogue.

According to official Indian claims, there were 30 incidents of infiltration between January and June this year. Although this number is much lower than the figures for the same period in 2002 (164) and 2003 (138), the government says the rate of infiltration rose significantly between the first quarter of 2004 and April-June.

Prolonged stagnation at the level of dialogue and growing suspicions of each other’s moves and intentions could undermine the already difficult process of reconciliation between the two hostile neighbors.

Yet, there is hope that the two states will take the dialogue further despite their sharp differences, especially on Jammu and Kashmir.

The hope lies in a possible breakthrough in cooperation on trade and transit, and a potential agreement on nuclear risk-reduction measures.

On the first issue, the brightest possibility lies in trade and transit in energy – in the form of an overland petroleum crude pipeline from Iran to India via Pakistan, and a diesel pipeline from India to Pakistan, which is short of that product.

India’s Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar has strongly recommended a $3.5 billion dollar India-Pakistan pipeline project to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Singh himself, in his Independence Day address of Aug. 15, underscored his determination to pursue the peace process with Pakistan vigorously.

An overland pipeline will be about 10 times cheaper than an underwater pipeline. Pakistan has offered security guarantees for it. Indian resistance to these has weakened over the years. A breakthrough can be made here.

There are other encouraging signs too. India has in recent weeks made more than 75 new proposals to build a cooperative relationship with Pakistan. These range from visa relaxation for journalists, businessmen, scholars, students and the aged, to facilitation of group tourism, study tours, student and conference visas and performances by artists.

India has proposed mobile telephone connectivity across the border and transit for goods across each other’s territories to third countries, as well as to Indian and Pakistani destinations. This holds immense potential for both countries. India will gain inexpensive access to the markets of Central Asia and the Persian Gulf. And Pakistan could reach its exports to the rest of South Asia and to Southeast Asia.

For any of these proposals to materialize into an effective bilateral agreement, Indian and Pakistani leaders will have to seize the initiative at the highest level and personally invest in the dialogue.

Musharraf has taken a keen personal interest in reshaping relations with India ever since he seized power in October 1999. Over the past year, former Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali provided him some back-up. His successor Shaukat Aziz, a former Citibank executive, lacks political experience and familiarity with India. He is expected to play a largely passive role.

In July, Musharraf expressed his impatience with lack of rapid progress on Kashmir. He demanded a close deadline. He has since clarified that he is not inflexible about the time frame, but it cannot be indefinitely long.

On the Indian side, there is some attention deficit, as Pakistani diplomats view things. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has not personally taken a keen interest in the dialogue or owned it with the same commitment as his predecessor Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Singh must correct this.

The best way for him to do so would be to aggressively push for confidence-building measures (CBMs), especially on trade and transit, and announce some unilateral steps – for instance, on facilitating visas for businessmen, journalists, students and pilgrims.

Currently, both India and Pakistan grant short-term visas to each other’s citizens, limited to specific cities. All visitors, unless specifically exempted, must report their presence to the local police. There is no reason why India (or Pakistan) cannot issue six-month or one-year duration visas without the bothersome requirement of police reporting, valid for the entire country – as they do to other foreigners.

In recent months, India and Pakistan have permitted exchange visits by students, film personalities, musicians, as well as special visas for people in need of medical treatment. This could be easily formalized.

They could also legalize the marriage and naturalization of citizens across the border. Recently, a Kerala Hindu woman married a Pakistani. Although she has been allowed to live in Pakistan, and even had a baby there, she has not been granted Pakistani citizenship. Her entry permit was extended three times. Now her visa is due to expire on Sept. 19.

On a completely different plane, India and Pakistan could reduce the nuclear danger they both face by agreeing to ban missile test-flights for a period of time.

Similarly, Washington is keen that India and Pakistan set up Nuclear Risk-Reduction Centers, a mechanism similar to that first established between the United States and the former Soviet Union.

It is at the level of bilateral short-term confidence-building, especially economic, that progress could be fastest.

Business delegations from the two countries have been seriously exploring possibilities of trade and investment. A Pakistani delegation recently tried to sign long-term contracts for the supply of bulk drugs from India, where prices are three to 10 times lower than in Pakistan.

However, two catalysts are absolutely indispensable: public opinion and high-level official initiatives. The first is present in the form of a citizen-to-citizen dialogue and civil society sentiment for peace. The second catalyst is missing. It must be put in place soon.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political analyst and peace activist, a columnist with twenty-five Indian newspapers and co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament. He shared the International Peace Bureau's Sean MacBride International Peace Prize for 2000 with Vanaik.